He was born at Norwich in 1756, and was the son of a respectable tradesman. His ‘pruriency of parts,’ as he expresses it, led to his receiving a liberal education. After an unsuccessful experiment at a day school in his native city he was placed under the care of the Rev. Matthew Raine, and subsequently under "a dragon of learning", no other than Dr. Samuel Parr, whom he describes as "severe, wayward, and irregular". His departure from Parr's school at Stanmore was hastened by quarrels with his schoolfellows, and at Benet College, Cambridge, where his education was completed, he got into considerable trouble by writing ill-advised epigrams. His university career, nevertheless, was in the main so creditable that his old instructor Parr, upon becoming head master of Norwich grammar school, offered him the assistant mastership. Beloe held this situation for three years, but, from the manner in which he usually speaks of Parr, apparently without much satisfaction to his principal or himself.
During his residence at Norwich he married, and after resigning his appointment came to London, where he soon obtained abundance of employment from the publishers. One of his commissions was to translate Parr's preface to Bellendenus into English, and the skill displayed in dealing with this choice but crabbed piece of latinity recommended him to the acquaintance of Porson, of whom he has preserved many interesting particulars in his Sexagenarian. He successively brought out translations of Coluthus, Alciphron, in which he was assisted by the Rev. T. Monro, Herodotus, and Aulus Gellius, the preface to which was written by Parr; and co-operated in Tooke's ‘Biographical Dictionary,’ published (1795) three volumes of miscellanies, and in 1793 established, in conjunction with Archdeacon Nares, the British Critic, the first forty-two volumes of which were partly edited by him. He also, according to his biographer in the Gentleman's Magazine, "gave his assistance in editing various books of considerable popularity and importance, which it is less expedient to specify", doubtless because the reputed authors' obligations to him were too extensive.
In 1796 he was presented to the rectory of Allhallows, London Wall, and in 1803 became keeper of printed books at the British Museum. He did not long retain this appointment. In those days the prints and drawings, equally with the printed books, were under the care of the keeper of the latter department, and Beloe's misplaced confidence opened the way to extensive thefts by a person named Dighton, who is said to have insinuated himself into the good graces of the easy-going and somewhat bon vivant custodian by sending him delicacies for his table. The detection of Dighton's depredations in 1806 inevitably led to Beloe's dismissal, and he never recovered the blow. He was not deterred, however, from prosecuting his Anecdotes of Literature and Scarce Books, which he had been induced to undertake by his appointment at the Museum. Two volumes, chiefly derived from his researches in the national library, appeared in 1806; and by the assistance of Earl Spencer, the Bishop of Ely, and other patrons, he was enabled to publish four more, the last appearing in 1812. He died on 11 April 1817, his latter days having been embittered by ill-health and other circumstances not precisely stated.
His last work, The Sexagenarian, or Recollections of a Literary Life, had just passed the press at the time of his decease, and was published immediately afterwards under the editorship of the Rev. Thomas Rennell. It excited much unfavourable comment. Dr. Butler, head master of Shrewsbury School, criticised it severely in the Monthly Review, and Dr. Parr, in the catalogue of his library, felt "compelled to record the name of Beloe as an ingrate and a slanderer". The modern reader may feel rather disposed to complain that there is not ill-nature enough to preserve some portions from insipidity, and that it is hardly worth consulting, except in one of the numerous copies where blanks left for names have been filled up in manuscript. With this assistance, however, it is in the main very entertaining reading, and preserves many traits and anecdotes with sufficient flavour of human nature to interest, even when the particular individuals mentioned have ceased to excite public curiosity.
Beloe's character is represented by his friends in an amiable light, and this estimate seems on the whole supported by his writings. There are traces of peevishness and asperity in the Sexagenarian; but, considering his broken health and fortunes, these might well have been more numerous. If he forsook the liberal principles which he originally professed, the excesses of the French revolution are at hand to excuse him. He was a fair scholar and a man of extensive miscellaneous reading, but entirely devoid of mental vigour and originality of talent. He, therefore, excels chiefly as a translator and annotator. Something in his mental constitution qualified him admirably for reproducing the limpid simplicity and amiable garrulity of Herodotus; his version, infinitely below the modern standard in point of accuracy, is much above modern performance in point of readability. Aulus Gellius was another author entirely congenial to him, and his translation, the only one in English (according to the DNB published in 1888), is a distinct addition to our literature. The value of both translations, especially that of Herodotus, is enhanced by a discursive but most entertaining commentary. The Sexagenarian has been characterised already; the ‘Anecdotes of Literature are an amusing but uncritical compilation, chiefly of extracts from, and bibliographical particulars concerning, old English books.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Garnett, Richard (1885). "Beloe, William". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography 4. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 201–201. Endnotes:
- The Sexagenarian
- Preface to Anecdotes of Literature
- Gent. Mag. 1817
- Annual Register 1817
- Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, vol. ix.
- Bibliotheca Parriana, p. 393