Richard Lovell Edgeworth

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Edgeworth, Richard Lovell, was born at Bath in 1744; his father was the head of a family which had been settled in Ireland since 1583, and had given its name to Edgeworthstown, in Longford. When but seven years of age he exhibited extraordinary precocity in scientific knowledge. He was educated by the Rev. Patrick Hughes, who had taught Goldsmith, and when about seventeen entered Trinity College. Most of his time there was spent in mechanical studies and experiments. In 1763 he married a Miss Elers (a runaway match, and not a happy one).

For discoveries in telegraphy and mechanics, the Society of Arts presented him with both silver and gold medals. For some time, about 1771, leaving his wife behind in England, he resided upon the Continent, chiefly at Lyons, where he took an active part in works then in progress for diverting the courses of the Rhone and Saone. The death of his wife recalled him to England. During her lifetime he had become attached to Honoria Sneyd, whom he married in the year 1773. They settled at Edgeworthstown. This union was in every way happy, but was of short duration. Upon Honoria's death, he married her sister Elizabeth in 1780 — marriage with a deceased wife's sister being then legal. His most intimate friends were Thomas Day, the eccentric author of Sandford and Merton, and Dr. Erasmus Darwin, the botanist. Mr. Edgeworth was one of the original members of the Royal Irish Academy, and one of its most active supporters. He threw himself with ardour into the Volunteer movement, and was particularly earnest on the question of Reform. Although somewhat disapproving of the principles upon which the Rotunda Convention was called, he gave to its deliberations the weight of his authority and influence, believing that parliamentary reform was necessary for the salvation of Ireland.

In 1798 he entered Parliament, and during the Insurrection bore his protest against the severity of the measures taken by the Government for its suppression. At the time of the French landing at Killala, he scandalized most of his friends by admitting Catholics into the ranks of the Volunteer corps for the defence of the country. He personally approved of the project of Union, but voted against it because he saw that the feeling of the country was opposed to it, and because of the means by which the passage of the measure was urged. After the Union, he retired from politics, and devoted himself mainly to the question of National Education. A year after the death of his third wife in 1797, he married a Miss Beaufort. During the peace of Amiens he visited France with his family, where his labours at Lyons, and a work written by him in French on the construction of mills, led to his reception as a member into the Société d'Encouragement pour Industrie Nationale. During his residence in Paris, he was suddenly ordered to leave within twenty-four hours, the Government supposing him to be brother of the Abbe Edgeworth. He retired to Passy, and thence sent a memorial to the First Consul, informing him of his independent position, clear of all political parties, and of being no nearer relation than cousin to the Abbe. Napoleon is said to have disavowed the action of the officials, saying that, far from its being a crime, it was an honour to belong to the family of that faithful and courageous ecclesiastic.

Returning to Ireland, he betook himself again to his scientific pursuits. In 1804 he established for Government a system of telegraphic communication between Dublin and Galway, by which, in clear weather, a signal could be transmitted both ways in eight minutes. In 1806 he formed one of a commission appointed to enquire into the system of National Education. In 1809 he reported favourably on the possibility of draining the bogs. Subsequently he experimented upon the aid given to horses by the use of spring vehicles.

He died at Edgeworthstown, the 13th June 1817, aged about 73, and was buried there. [His widow, Frances Anne, survived till 10th February 1865, and died at Edgeworthstown.] His mind was clear and vigorous, he had much logical precision, and was impartial in his judgments. In private life he was sincere and amiable. His conversation was inexhaustible — profound or light, according to the subject, and always arousing attention and satisfying curiosity. In his scientific explorations, he sought truth rather than distinction, and more than once his inventions were appropriated and published by others as their own, without any protest on his part. Of his twenty-one children, twelve survived him. His writings were principally in conjunction with his daughter Maria, and were often published under her name.


34. Biographie Générale. 46 vols. Paris, 1855-'66. An interleaved copy, copiously noted by the late Dr. Thomas Fisher, Assistant Librarian of Trinity College, Dublin.

53. Burke, Sir Bernard: Landed Gentry. 2 vols. London, 1871.

120. Edgeworth, Richard Lovell: Memoirs, begun by himself and concluded by Maria Edgeworth. 2 vols. London, 1820.

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