Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Westcountry Studies, issue 14, April 2020

Westcountry Studies

bibliographical newsletter

on Devon and its region

Issue 14

April 2020

Two losses for Devon and Exeter's Heritage

During the month word arrived of the death of two important figures in the recording of Exeter's written and graphic heritage. Todd Gray's touching eulogy to Margery Rowe, County Archvist from 1977 to 1996, delivered on 4 April at a small private ceremony in Exeter Crematorium, has been printed in the newsletters of the Devon History Society and Friends of Devon's Archives and it provides a fitting tribute to her, so I will confine myself to saying what a pleasure it was to work with her when the Record Office and the Westcountry Studies Library shared the same premises in the shell of the pre-War central library building. Always good-humored, she gave an air of cheerfulness to the Record Office and bore her learning lightly. After retirement she found a congenial companion in Mary Ravenhill in their project to record the manuscript maps of Devon, the catalogue of which was published by the Devon and Cornwall Record Society in 2002 under the title Devon maps and map-makers: manuscript maps before 1840. When I arrived in Exeter in 1977 there was a collection of documents in the store, the ownership of which had not been decided, many of them manuscripts that had formed part of the City Library collections before the blitz. We spent many happy hours going through these, deciding which were archival in nature and which were books that had failed to get into print, including early manuscripts of Tristram Risdon, Thomas Westcote and Sir William Pole which only reached publication many years after they were written. We reached decisions on allocating almost all items without any conflict. Strangely, items that provoked the most discussion were weather records - and that was years before the Met Office came to Exeter.

Peter Thomas left a different heritage in the Isca Collection, established in 1974 from the studio of Exeter photographer Henry Wykes and added to by him over the years until it contained some 60,000 photographs as well as a host of other documents and a collection of early photographic equipment. He was a great promoter of his collection, author of many books on Exeter's recent history and a presenter who could hit the nostalgia button in the series of talks and displays he put on, most recently in Exeter Central Library this February on the changes in Exeter since the War, when he was still full of ambitious projects but frustrated at the little time left to achieve them. He fought an uphill struggle to open a heritage centre for Exeter, based largely round the Isca Collection, probably the largest collection of Exeter photographs in private hands. One wonders what will happen to the collection now he is no longer with us; hopefully it will not be scattered to the four winds.

The Kent Kingdon Bequest

It is ironic that it was during the lock-down that the annual meeting of the charity was held for the first time in many years on the 24th April, Kent Kingdon's birthday, as he required in his will. Ironic too that, it being a virtual meeting, it had to be adjourned almost as soon as it began due to poor reception - the shade of the forbidding KK must have been protesting at this use of newfangled technology. However it was successfully resumed on 29th April. It had been a good year for the Trust with three substantial grants made to the Museum, the Westcountry Studies Library and Wren Music, but another exciting development was the result of work by Celia King, a volunteer who combed the archives of the Trust in RAMM to attempt to chronicle all the grants that had been made since its inception in the 1890s. Details of some 700 artworks, books and manuscripts have been gathered so far and it is particularly interesting to see the important role the Kent Kingdon Bequest played in building up the City Library's collections in the first half of the last century. Surprisingly few local publications were acquired but, to a librarian from a general reference library background, it was a great nostalgia trip to see the key reference works that were funded by Kent Kingdon, some of them, such as Rietstap's Armorial général or Halsbury's Laws of England, appearing in many volumes over a period of years. Kent Kingdon also paid subscriptions to volumes published by bodies such as the Parish Register Society and the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments and to periodicals such as Antiquity, the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society and the Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft. In fact the level of both foreign language and scientific publications is remarkable, reflecting an era when the public library was the only library freely available to the community for research and study. The museum hopes to mount an exhibition of artworks acquired by Kent Kingdon and other funders, and it is planned to provide a full listing on the Kent Kingdon web page. The Westcountry Studies Library and the rare books collection in the cage at Exeter Library are less fully recorded and it would be good to find a volunteer who could search the stock records and examine some of the volumes for bookplates to ascertain what exactly did survive the bombings in 1942. 

Work on the Devon bibliography

During lock-down attention has been diverted from keeping up with current publications to improving coverage of the 1920s to tie in with the Devon History Society's project: Devon in the 1920s. It included participation in the 2.6 Challenge, which replaced the cancelled London Marathon of 26 April. Concentrating on publications of 1926, £26.00 was raised for the Children's Hospice South West. This concentration on just one decade in the past reveals just how much work is needed to bring the standard of records up to scratch. There has also been much work on maps, including the inclusion of Bartholomew's coverage of Devon in the 1920s - a most attractive series of maps - and Ogilby's road maps of Devon from 1675. It proved to be a considerable challenge to convert the strip maps to 10KM squares. Just one example here, for SX99,  which includes roads radiating in seven
directions from Exeter superimposed from four different routes, each of which has very different ideas of what Exeter looked like and the direction in which the River Exe flowed. A considerable challenge and there remain a number of loose ends but Ogilby's achievement, rolling his large measuring wheel along the rutted tracks that served as roads in those days, compass in hand, is quite remarkable. It is to be hoped that Ogilby was more warmly clad than the cherub shown in one of the headers to the preface of Ogilby's road book. At present only National Grid square SX 99 has all the maps loaded.

Chronicling Covid-19

On 1 April 2020 the British National Bibliography weekly list contained a mere twelve titles - none of them of any Westcountry significance. This must be the shortest list of the 3,589 since BNB started back in 1950. There was no list for 8 April, it being Easter, and the list for 15 April was the next shortest since at least October last year. Sobering - if our national bibliography is so knocked sideways by Covid-19 what hope do we have out in the sticks? Already hit by years of austerity, the prospects for local studies libraries in Devon look bleaker than ever in the months and years to come. The government and local authorities will have higher priorities when it comes to rebuilding - and hopefully rethinking - society as a whole and the economy and heath and care services in particular.

It also set me wondering whether anyone locally was recording the present. These weeks are perhaps the most momentous in our living memory, in many ways more of an upheaval than the world wars. Perhaps the Spanish flu epidemic is the nearest equivalent. In fact a century on from that outbreak the Devon in the 1920s project has an interesting parallel to hand, two decades a hundred years apart, each beginning with the need to recover from a severe pandemic arriving on the heels of traumatic events, be it a devastating war or years of austerity after a financial crisis, compounded by the uncertainties of leaving the European Community. I think that over the coming decade the 1920s project could make interesting comparisons between the past and present. It also made me think of the very different resources required to chronicle the events of these present weeks of lock-down. At the end of the last century the Westcountry Studies Library was still cutting newspapers and indexing periodicals but there is nobody in post in Devon to do this now and times have in any case moved on. We learn for example that newspapers themselves are facing difficult times as a result of Covid-19 and some may not survive. With libraries closed and staff working from home the situation looks very difficult but there is something that was not available to the library staff busily cutting newspapers in the 1920s - the internet. But time is of the essence. With the picture changing daily, pages on local websites are ever more evanescent, and if they are not archived much information may be irretrievably lost. It is also difficult to disentangle the local from national news. Many of the websites too are difficult to search to locate even recent items, much in the way that last week's printed newspapers are consigned to the waste bin. Nor can the archiving websites be of great assistance. Our National Web Archive seems to have nothing at all covered for 2020 - falling behind the WayBack Machine in the respect - and its search facility seems very difficult to use.

Anyway here are the results of a little trawl through websites made on 17 April which might be of some assistance: Local authority websites are the source of much information, often being the origin of material used in newspapers and the media. Devon County Council provides a web page Coronavirus advice in Devon which was actually archived by the WayBack Machine on 10 April 2020 although not all links are operational. It is also possible to look at almost daily archives of these updates on the DCC website back to 10 March. The County Council also hosts the Devon News Centre with press releases back to February 2018 (this link may change in content but can be used by changing the page number to avoid scrolling down 70 or more pages to home in on a specific date). Exeter City Council also has a page for Coronavirus latest updates which goes back to 16 March. This is part of its main Coronavirus page. Like Devon it also has its News archive which goes back to 2018. One more local authority, East Devon District Council, must suffice, but all have special pages devoted to the pandemic and its effect on individual services. The same is true of health authorities, for example the news service of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital which goes back to 2017. Other public services, businesses, charities and organisations also have websites detailing the problems they face and services and special initiatives they offer.

For more general information the news media vary in their coverage. A search of the main BBC News website using the terms Devon+coronavirus produced a mere 16 items going back to 2 March but the use of the local news option searching for a radius of 30 miles from EX2 postcode produces a much richer haul. How many times it is possible to click "view more" at the foot of the page I have not ascertained. Other problems are revealed from the ITV Westcountry website where it is difficult to disentangle Devon from other counties in the region whole and from some national news which was relayed locally. Some of the local papers, including the Express and Echo, Western Morning News and Herald Express are combined in the Devon Live website which has its All about coronavirus section with 16 pages extending back to 10 March. Perhaps better returns come from the independent papers where it is possible to use the term "coronavirus" to search across the website - the alternative "covid-19" was not checked for this exercise. The Live updates North Devon Coronavirus page was good for recent news items and a general search on the North Devon Gazette website produced 170 results back to 26 February. The Sidmouth Herald gave 202 results, the Exmouth Journal 208 hits, the Exeter Daily, only available online, produced 220 hits not in any discernable order. The Plymouth Herald on the Plymouth Live website promised us "55,800 results". I did not stop to verify them all, but was relieved to see that there is information in plenty out there for the historian of the present, even if lock-down continues indefinitely. As for this old bibliofool, safely locked away, he has other fish to fry, but is putting all Covid-19 emails he receives into a special folder and may make an anthology of them later if he doesn't hear of any other projects in hand.

And speaking of bibliofools ... 

In a moment of idleness I recently looked through the full text of the poem accompanying the woodcut of the book fool in Alexander Barclay's translation of Sebastian Brant's Ship Stultifera navis or Ship of fools, published in 1509. Alexander Barclay was attached to the church at Ottery St Mary so this makes him probably the first Devonian to get into print. It was a free translation, and some local references to a long-lost controversy can be glimpsed in it. As I read the poem I saw myself reflected uncannily in it, so, if the cap fits, wear it. Lock-down seems to have become an excuse for sharing poems but even I could not issue his doggerel without improving the metre, modernising the spelling and updating some of the vocabulary. It is offered with all its remaining faults.

Here beginneth the fools and first unprofitable books.
I am the first fool of the whole navy
To keep the pump, the helm, to man the sail,
For this is my mind, this one pleasure for me,
Of books to have great plenty without fail.
I take no wisdom by them, nor avail
Nor them perceive, and then I them despise
Thus am I a fool like all that show that guise.

That in this ship the chief place I govern
By this wide sea with fools a-wandering
The cause is plain, and easy to discern
Still am I busy books assembling
For to have plenty is a pleasant thing
In my conceit, and have them all to hand
But what they mean I do not understand.

But yet I have them in great reverence
And honour, saving them from filth and ordure
By often brushing, and much diligence
Full goodly bound in pleasant coverture
Of damask, satin, or else velvet pure
I keep them sure, fearing they should be lost
For in them is the cunning that I boast.

But if by fortune any learned men
In my house should fall to disputation
I draw the curtains, show my books then,
That of my cunning they should make probation
I take care not to fall in altercation
And, while they talk, my books I turn and wind
For all's in them, and nothing in my mind.

Ptolemy the rich ordained that long ago
O'er all the world good books were to be sought.
Soon done was his commandment and so
These books he had and in his study brought
Which passed all earthly treasure, as he thought
But nonetheless his mind did not apply
To their doctrine, but lived unhappily.

Lo in like wise of books I have a store
But few I read, and fewer understand
I follow not their doctrine nor their lore
It is enough to bear a book in hand
It were too much to be in such a band
For to be bound to look within the book
I am content on the fair covering to look

Why should I read to hurt my wit thereby
Or trouble my mind with study excessive
Since many are which study right busily
And yet thereby shall they never thrive
The fruit of wisdom can they not contrive
And many to study so much are inclined
That utterly they fall out of their mind

Each is not lettered that is made a lord
Nor each a cleric that hath benefice
They are not all lawyers that pleas do record
All that are promoted are not fully wise
On such chance now does fortune throw her dice
That though one knows nought but the Irish game
Yet would he have a good gentleman's name

So in like wise I am in such a case
Though nought I know yet would I be called wise
And I may set another in my place
Which may for me all my books exercise
Or else I shall follow the common guise
And say concede to every argument
Lest by much speech my Latin should be spent.

I am like other clerics which so forward guide.
That after they are once come unto promotion
They turn to pleasure, study set aside.
Their avarice covered with feined devotion.
Yet daily they preach : and have great derision
Against the rude laymen : and all for covetise.
Though their conscience be blind unto that vice.

But if plain truth I utter and express,
This is the special cause of this inconvenience.
That greatest fools, and fullest of lewdness
Having least wit, and simplest science
Are first promoted, and have greatest reverence
For if one can flatter, with a hawk on his fist
He shall be made parson of Honiton or Clyst.

But he that is in study full firm and diligent.
And without all favour preaches Christ's lore
By the community these days is sent.
And oft with prison threatened too therefore.
Thus what avails it, then to study more :
To know other scripture, truth, wisdom, or virtue
Since few, or none without favour dare them show.

But O noble Doctors, worthy of that name :
Consider our fathers : note their diligence :
Follow their steps and thus obtain such fame,
As they did living, and that by true prudence.
Within their hearts they planted their science
And not in pleasant books. Too few such be,
Therefore in this ship let them row with me.

Envoy of Alexander Barclay, translator, exhorting fools cloyed with this vice to amend their folly.

Say, worthy doctors and clerics curious,
What moves you all of books to have such number.
Since divers doctrines through ways contrarious.
Do man's mind distract and sore encumber.
Alas, blind men, awake out of your slumber
And if you will needs your books multiply
With diligence endeavour some to occupy.