William Combe (25 March 1742 – 19 June 1823) was a British miscellaneous writer. His early life was that of an adventurer, his later was passed chiefly within the "rules" of the King's Bench Prison. He is chiefly remembered as the author of The Three Tours of Dr. Syntax, a comic poem. His cleverest piece of work was a series of imaginary letters, supposed to have been written by the second, or "wicked" Lord Lyttelton. Of a similar kind were his letters between Swift and "Stella". He also wrote the letterpress for various illustrated books, and was a general hack.
His father was a rich Bristol merchant, who died in early in 1756. He was educated at Eton, where he was contemporary with Charles James Fox, the 2nd Baron Lyttelton and William Beckford. Later on he lived in London with his godfather William Alexander, a London alderman, who died in 1762. Alexander bequeathed him (in 1766) some £2000—a little fortune that soon disappeared in a course of splendid extravagance, which gained him the nickname of Count Combe; and after a chequered career as private soldier, cook and waiter, he finally settled in London (about 1771) as a writer and bookseller's hack.
In 1776 he made his first success in London with The Diaboliad, a satire full of bitter personalities. Four years afterwards (1780) his debts brought him into the King's Bench Prison, and much of his subsequent life was spent in prison. His spurious Letters of the Late Lord Lyttelton (1780) imposed on many of his contemporaries, and as late as 1851, a writer in the Quarterly Review regarded these letters as authentic, basing upon them a claim that Lyttelton was "Junius." An early acquaintance with Lawrence Sterne resulted in Combe's anonymous Letters supposed to have been written by Yorick and Eliza (1779). Periodical literature of all sorts—pamphlets, satires, burlesques, "two thousand columns for the papers," "two hundred biographies"—filled up the next years, and about 1789 Combe was receiving £200 yearly from the Pitt government as a pamphleteer.
In 1790 and 91, the six volumes of a Devil on Two Sticks in England won for Combe the title of "the English le Sage". In 1794–1796 he wrote the text for Boydell's History of the River Thames, and in 1803 he began to write for The Times. From 1809 to 1811 he wrote for Ackermann's Poetical Magazine the famous Tour of Dr Syntax in search of the Picturesque (descriptive and moralizing verse of a somewhat doggerel type), which, owing greatly to Thomas Rowlandson's designs, was an immense success. It was published separately in 1812 and was followed by two similar Tours, "in search of Consolation," and "in search of a Wife," the first Mrs Syntax having died at the end of the first Tour. Then came Six Poems in illustration of drawings by Princess Elizabeth (1813), The English Dance of Death (1815–1816), The Dance of Life (1816–1817), The Adventures of Johnny Quae Genus (1822)—all written for Rowlandson's caricatures; together with histories of Oxford and Cambridge, and of Westminster Abbey for Ackermann; Picturesque Tours along the Rhine and other rivers, Histories of Madeira, Antiquities of York, texts for Turner's Southern Coast Views, and contributions innumerable to the Literary Repository.
In his later years, notwithstanding a by no means unsullied character, Combe was courted for the sake of his charming conversation and inexhaustible stock of anecdote. He died in London on 19 June 1823.
- The Philosopher in Bristol (1775)
- Letters from Eliza to Yorick (1775)
- Letters to His Friends on Various Occasions by Laurence Sterne (1775)
- The Diaboliad: a Poem: Dedicated to the worst man in His Majesty's dominions. Also, the diabo-lady: or, a match in hell (1777)
- Letters supposed to have been written by Yorick and Eliza. 2 vols (1779)
- Letters of the Late Lord Lyttleton. 2 vols (1780–2) –
- Original letters of the late Reverend Mr. Laurence Sterne: Never Before Published. (1788)
- The devil upon two sticks in England : being a continuation of Le diable boiteux of Le Sage. 6 vols (1790–91)
- An History of the River Thames. 2 vols (1794–6)
- The Thames, or Graphic Illustrations. 2 vols (1811)
- Microcosm of London: Vol 3 (1811)
- The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. A Poem (1812)
- The Second Tour in Search of Consolation (1812)
- Third Tour in Search of a Wife (1821)
- The English Dance of Death. 2 vols. (1815–16)
- The Dance of Life (1817)
- The History of Johnny Quae Genus, The Little Foundling of the Late Doctor Syntax (1822)
- Des Doktor Syntax Reise : ein Gedicht in 26 Gesängen nebst dreißig kolorirten Steinstichen ; Herausgegeben zum Besten der Königlichen Preußischen General-Post-Armen-Kasse. (1822)
- Die Reisen des Doctors Syntax. Dem Deutschen einverleibt von Wolf-Dieter Bach und mit ihm gemeinsam herausgegeben von Norbert Miller und Karl Riha. 2 vols (1983)
- John Camden Hotten: The Life and Adventures of the Author of „Doctor Syntax”; in: Dr Syntax's Three Tours in Search of the Picturesque, of Consolation, and of a Wife. By William Combe. London: Chatto & Windus (1895), V – XLVIII.
- Harlan W Hamilton: Doctor Syntax – A Silhouette of Combe. London: Chatto & Windus (1969)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource
- Hotten (1895), p. XLVIII
- Books and Writers, William Combe