Biography of William Godwin

William Godwin

William Godwin was an eighteenth/nineteenth century philosopher who married Mary Wollstonecraft the feminist and mother of Mary Shelley.

When and Where was he Born?

3rd March 1756, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England.

Family Background:

William Godwin spent his childhood in Guestwick, Norfolk.

Education:

Hoxton Presbyterian College.

Timeline of William Godwin:

1779: Godwin starts a five-year ministry of religion at Ware, Stowmarket and Beaconsfield where his sympathies turned increasingly republican.

1787: He becomes a complete “Non-believer”.

1791: William Godwin takes rooms in the St. Paul’s District of London. He first met Mary Wollstonecraft at a dinner held by the publisher Joseph Johnson where Tom Paine was speaking. Godwin was disappointed with Mary as she spent the whole time criticising Paine.

1793: Godwin’s “An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice” brings him fame and the admiration of such people as Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth and Shelley. Shelley was later to become his disciple, benefactor and son in law.

1794: Godwin’s publication of the masterpiece “The Adventures of Caleb Williams” was sceptical about much of the law, especially that of marriage, however it deprecated violence, especially against the state and he narrowly missed prosecution.

1796: He meets Mary Wollstonecraft for the second time and starts a relationship with her.

1797: In March he marries Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, at St. Pancras Old Church, London. She died shortly after giving birth to Mary in August of that year. They move to 29 The Polygon, Somers Town, London after the wedding..

St Pancras Old Church
St Pancras Old Church where Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were married. The church has stood here since the eleventh century. 
The West Tower was demolished in the mid nineteenth Century 
and a new bell tower was erected on the side.  (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1798: He writes “Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women” about Mary Wollstonecraft which shocks many of his friends and polite society with its candour.

1799: His friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb come to stay.

1803: His son William is born. He opens his bookshop just off the Tottenham Court Road in Hanway Street.

1807: Godwin moves his shop to 41 Skinner Street.

1812: He visits the Shelleys in their cottage in Lynmouth in Devon only to find that they have fled from the authorities.

1822: He moves to 195 The Strand still owing a lot of rent at Skinner Street.

1833: As his bookselling business was not financially successful he is relieved to be appointed to the post of “Yeoman of the Exchequer”. (Lodgings at New Palace Yard came with the post).

1834: Part of his duties is to maintain the fire fighting equipment for the Houses of Parliament. Unfortunately this equipment proved inadequate when the parliament buildings caught fire during the evening of 16th October causing extensive damage.

When and Where did he Die?

7th April 1836, London.

Age at Death:

80.

Written Works:

1793: “Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness.”
1794: “Things as They Are.” or, “The Adventures of Caleb Williams.”
1797: “The Enquirer.”
1798: “Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Women (Mary Wollstonecraft).”
1799: “St. Leon.”
1800: “Antonio.” (Play).
1805: “Fleetwood.”
1817: “Mandeville.”
1820: “Of Population, in Answer to Mr. Malthus.”
1824: “The History of the “Commonwealth of England.”
1830: “Cloudesley, A Tale.”
1831: “Thoughts on Man, his Nature, Productions, and Discoveries, Interspersed with some Particulars respecting the Author.”
1833: “Deloraine.”
1834: “Lives of the Necromancers.”

Marriages:

1. March 1797 to Mary Wollstonecraft, Mother of Mary Shelley, at St. Pancras Old Church, London. (died shortly after giving birth to daughter Mary in August 1797).
2. 1801: To Mrs Mary Jane Clairemont.

Site of Grave:

Originally buried in St Pancras Old Churchyard but was re-interred in 1851 by his grandson Percy Florence Shelley in St. Peter’s Churchyard, Bournemouth, Dorset, England with wife Mary Wollstonecraft and next to Daughter Mary Shelley.

William Godwin's Grave
The original grave of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft 
in St Pancras Old Churchyard. (Note the ornate grave of Sir John Soanes in background 
which was later the inspiration for the public telephone box K2) (copyright  Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:

LONDON:

The British Library.
St Pancras Old Church and gardens.

DEVON:

Lynmouth. Visits the Shelleys.