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Essex Field Club
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Noteworthy naturalist

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William Derham (1657-1735) Cleric, amateur Scientist and Essex Naturalist

William Derham (1657-1735) cleric and naturalist was born at Stoulton, Worcestershire on 26 th November 1657. His portraits show him, dressed in clerical garb, to be of rather plain and severe appearance. According to his son, also a William, Derham was fairly tall, strong, friendly and healthy, living until the age of 77. Derham lived at Wargrave, Berkshire; Upminster, Essex and Windsor. William Derham died at High House, Upminster on 5th April 1735 and was buried at the centre of the chancel in St. Laurence’s church in an unmarked grave. In 2011 a memorial plaque to him was placed inside the church on the north wall.

Apparently Derham’s father, Thomas, was not well off and William was enrolled at Oxford as a "poor boy". Derham married twice, firstly to Isabella Darrell of Kingsclere in January 1684. They do not appear to have had any surviving children. His second wife was Anna Scott of Woolston Hall, Chigwell. They married on 2 nd June 1699. They had five children; Anna (1700-1710), Elizabeth (1701-1780), William (1702-1757), Thomas (1704-1738) and Jane (1709-1735). Derham’s eldest son became president of St. John’s College, Oxford.

William was educated at Blockley Grammar school, Gloucestershire, Trinity College, Oxford and graduated BA in 1679. He received his MA in 1683. As a scholar he was fluent in Greek and Latin. Derham became chaplain to the dowager Lady Catherine Grey of Werke and was ordained deacon in 1681 becoming a priest in 1682. He was appointed vicar of Wargrave soon afterwards. William Derham became rector of Upminster in 1689. It has been suggested that he bought the living. In 1714 Derham became chaplain to the Prince of Wales, the future George II and was made a canon of Winsor in 1716. He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity by Oxford University in 1730. William Derham found that his less than onerous clerical duties allowed him the freedom to pursue his scientific, medical and natural history interests. His interest in horology resulted in the publication of his book The Artificial Clockmaker in 1699. Derham was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1703 and knew Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley. He had articles published in the Society’s transactions. He wrote upon meteorology - sunspots, mercury barometers, the great storm of 1709, the weather at Upminster; astronomy - telescopes, lunar and solar eclipses, the meridian; physics - velocity of sound, pendulums; medicine - small pox, obstetrics; natural history - the migration of birds, sexes of wasps and death-watch beetles. His books included The Artificial Clockmaker (1699), Physico-Theology , or a demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1713) which was based on his Boyle lectures of 1711 and 1712, Astro-Theology: or, A demonstration of the being and attributes of God, from a Survey of the Heavens (1715), Christo-Theology: Or, a Demonstration of the Divine Authority of the Christian Religion (1730) and a posthumous life of John Ray. He also edited works by Robert Hooke and John Ray. Fox (2003 p. 14) states that Derham was involved in the book trade as author, editor and publisher. He had a large museum of insects and birds at High House, Upminster. Derham took a deep interest in geology. For example he observed the density of the various strata in a 178 feet deep well dug at Upminster in 1712. He also found a mineral spring in the north east corner of Tyler common. Derham was also aware that ground water in the Rodings came from beneath a deep stratum of chalk. He worked on the deneholes of south west Essex, accurately recording their depth. Following a breach of the Thames riverbank at Dagenham in 1707 he accurately observed and described an exposed submerged forest. Derham was a clergyman polymath who took a great interest in science and natural history. He lectured and published books and articles on a wide range of topics, many based upon observations in his adopted county of Essex.

Sources: A.D. Atkinson. 1952. William Derham Annals of Science Vol. 8 pp. 368-392.

T. Barrett-Lennard. 1914. Nineteen Letters (A.D. 1704-1710-1) from the Rev Wm. Derham, D.D., Rector of Upminster, to Dacre Barrett, of Belhus, Essex. Essex Naturalist Vol. 17 pp. 163-186 + 2 plates.

A.W. Fox. 2003. William Derham, Rector of Upminster: an eighteenth century scientist with business acumen. Essex Journal Vol. 38 No. 1 pp. 12-16.

M. Smoolenaars. 2004. William Derham (1657-1735) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Archives: Essex Record Office; Oxford University; British Library

Wealth at death: over £3,000

Account provided by Mr William George
page last edited on Fri Nov 23rd 2012 by site user 68