A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
46: Libraries and readers
Books were expensive and it was not possible for most individuals to purchase all the books they required. Some form of co-operation was necessary. In many communities in the later eighteenth century this was provided by the formation of book clubs. These informal groupings must have been more widespread in the late eighteenth century than is indicated by Kaufman (1969, 60)who only discovered three in Devon in Devon to 1800, the Tiverton Reading Society, the Exeter Reading Society, recorded in 1792, and the Powderham Literary Society, recorded in a 1796 subscription list. Close study of subscription lists can swell the numbers, certainly in the early 19th century. In 1814 a new periodical the Devonshire adventurer, was started in Tavistock and the subscription list includes the Book Society of Cullompton, the Book Society of Torrington, the Reading Society of Tavistock and the Book Society of Barnstaple. Periodicals were popular with book clubs as the parts could be regularly circulated and further names appearing as individuals on that and other subscription lists may well have passed their own copies on in a similar manner. Certainly such pooling of resources was common for newspapers.
Martin Dunsford provides details of the Tiverton society in his Historical memoirs of the town and parish of Tiverton (1790, 59): "Many evening clubs and friendly societies have been likewise formed here, for mutual enjoyment and recreation after the business of the day; where the temperately circulating glass, and friendly offerings of tobacco, have, perhaps, had a happy tendency to promote good humour and good will. ... One of these, deserving notice in this work, is the Book Club, or Reading Society, formed in March 1775, composed of twelve members, of almost every sect, party, business, and profession, in Tiverton; but remarkable for being an harmonious association, and that no vacancy hath ever been occasioned in it by death, nor any one that hath been a member of it died, since its first establishment, in the course of 16 years; though by changes, from a variety of circumstances, about twenty-four different persons have been members of the society. - The author of this work deems it an honour to have been one of the first members of these friendly and useful monthly meetings, at each others house in rotation, for the choice of proper books, and adopting convenient regulations."
Related to the book clubs were the literary societies. In fact the 1792 Exeter Reading Society noted by Kaufman is probably the same as the "society of gentlemen" whose inaugural meeting was addressed on 28 June 1792. The members included Dr Downman, Rev Richard Hole, Dr Parr, Rev John Swete, Rev Richard Polwhele, Rev Hayter, John Sheldon, J Codrington, General Simcoe, Captain Emmett William Kendall, the composer William Jackson and others. At each meeting a member would read a paper or poem which would give rise to discussion. In 1796 it published a volume of Essays by a society of gentlemen at Exeter, a book of 573 pages printed by Trewman and Son, optimistically described on some title-pages as volume 1, part 1. The volume was illustrated by engraved plates and included contributions by the Rev. William Swete of Oxton, a leading exponent of the then fashionable enthusiasm for the picturesque, who compiled extensive travel diaries, many now in the Devon Record Office, illustrated in the style of William Payne, and who read papers "On some of the more remarkable British monuments in Devon", "Of sepulture in general, and sepulchral single stones erect" and "On the Valley of Stones and country near Linton". The Rev. Richard Polwhele, author of multi-volume histories of both Cornwall and Devon, contributed "Historical outlines of falconry", "On benevolence and friendship, as opposed to principle", and various poetic effusions, including an ode to the "Genius of Danmonium". Science was not forgotten with Dr Parr presenting "Cursory remarks on the present state of philosophy and science" and "On light, particularly on its combination and separation, as a chemical principle". Unfortunately this literary society proved to be short-lived. The poet Southey, writing in the guise of a foreigner, published his Letters from England in 1807 under the name of Don Manual Alvares Esperilla. In the account of his visit to Exeter in 1799 he claimed that "The French Revolution which seems to have disturbed every town, village, and almost every family in the kingdom, broke it up" (Southey 1951, 29). Nevertheless it proved to be an example to those setting up bodies such as the Devon and Exeter Institution and the Devonshire Association in the next century.
A more formalised means of cooperating to gain access to a larger body of literature was by forming a subscription library. Unlike the circulating library, where the stock was owned by the proprietor, normally a bookseller, the library was owned by its subscribers, who, if the enterprise was sufficiently large, would pay an honorarium to a librarian. A local example of this is the Exeter Library Society which was established in 1776, just after a similar institution was set up in Bristol. It started in Bell Hill but moved premises on a number of occasions, to Mr Floyd in the High Street in 1778, in about 1783 to the bookseller Mr Dyer and in 1785 to Mr Morgan, linen draper in the High Street. One of the first librarians was a dissenting minister Rev James Finnemore, who died in 1781. By 1782 it boasted 90 members who each subscribed £1/6/-. It was open from ten to one o'clock on Monday, Tuesdays and Fridays and from six to nine on Wednesdays and Thursdays (EFP 8/11/1782). The library was supported by the local gentry. In 1778 for example Sir Charles Warwick Bampfylde presented to the Library 44 volumes of the Journal of the House of Commons covering the period 1547 to 1778 (EFP 18/11/1778). Each volume appears to have been assessed individually. A bookplate on a volume in the British Library Thoughts on the mechanism of Society by the Marquis of Casaux is completed in manuscript: "Bought June 1787 EXETER LIBRARY to be returned on the 7th day FORFEIT for EACH following day 1d" (Hamlyn 1947, 214).
Of course Exeter Cathedral Library continued its development in the 18th century. At the beginning of the century two prebendaries, Robert Burscough (1651-1709) and Humfrey Smith (c.1655-1709) bequeathed collections of books to the Library, adding a total of perhaps some 1,000 volumes, including some scientific and medical works. But he most significant additon was in 1786 when the local physician Thomas Glass (1709-1786) stated in his will: "I give to the Dean & Chapter of the Cathedral Church at Exeter all my medical printed Books on condition that they will assign them a place in their Library ... & permit any Physician being an Inhabitant of the City of Exeter to have recourse to them at proper times in the Library ... ". Clearly Glass saw the Cathedral Library as the only significant collection in Exeter; certainly there was no generally available medical collection at that time. The precise content of this collection are difficult to establish, but the collection seems to have comprised between 350 and 400 volumes. The collection remained in the cathedral until 1814 when it was passed on long-term loan to the newly established Exeter Medical Library, where they remained until they were returned in 1948 (Thomas 2003, viii-xi).
Less exclusive than the book clubs or the subscription libraries and less scholarly than the Cathedral Library were the circulating libraries. Among the first to be established in Exeter was that of Shirley Woolmer. Woolmer had taken over the Fore Street business of Henry Mugg, the bookseller in 1781. On 28 April 1785 he announced that he was purchasing books in London for his circulating library. He advertised his library in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post on 6 September 1787. But probably the best of the early Exeter circulating libraries was that run by the learned Edward Dyer. Dyer was born in Widecombe in 1743, the son of a schoolmaster whom he assisted early in his career. He was master of the school in Tuckers Hall from 1767 but by 1783 he had opened a circulating library in the College which he advertised in the Exeter Flying Post of 30 October 1783. This he soon moved to more prominent premises in the High Street. According to a book label it held 2-3,000 volumes in its earliest years and the subscriptions were twelve shillings per year or four shillings per quarter. It is mentioned by Southey when he visited Exeter in 1799.: "In most of the English towns they have what they call circulating libraries: the subscribers, for an annual or quarterly payment, have two or more volumes at a time, according to the terms; and strangers may be accommodated on depositing the value of the book they choose. There are several of these in Exeter, one of which, I was told, was considered as remarkably good, the bookseller being himself of considerable learning and ability" (Southey 1951, 28-9). That Dyer is probably intended here is supported by a letter written from Exeter in 1799 in which Southey praises Dyer's bookshop as "the very best collection of books for sale of any place outside London; and that made by a man who some years back was worth nothing ... Dyer himself is a thinking, extraordinary man, of liberal and extraordinary talents for his circumstances." (Southey 1849-50, 2:25). The historian of Exeter, Alexander Jenkins, mentioned Dyer's library in his history, first published in 1806 (Jenkins 1841, 267). The memory of this remarkable library clearly endured some time; William Hone in his Year book includes the following mention in P.T.'s "Exeter in my youthful days": " ... the erudite Maister Dyer, the collector of a circulating library, the choicest and perhaps the most extensive of any in the whole kingdom, except the metropolis". The library survived Dyer's death in 1820 being continued by his manager Maria Fitze.
For many reading and books formed part of the fabric of social life. In Memoirs of a gentlewoman of the old school, written by Anne McTaggart in 1830, she recalls her younger years in Exeter between 1769 and 1772 when, as Miss Anne Hamilton, she was in her late teens (vol.1, 30-3). She lived a full social life. "From church going, I must here confess, I took to ball and play going, which is now said to be forbidden in the Bible; but I defy the Bible-readers to point out the place." Reading had its place in this social whirl: "I belonged to a set of young ladies, who met once a week, at each other's houses, to work and read after tea till eight o'clock, and then dance till nine ... Our books were submitted to parental inspection, and never read without parental approbation. Mrs Wolstonecraft was not born, and, of course, her book on the rights of women had not appeared, to make young ladies think better of their own judgment, than that of their parents - a sad mistake in general but we were free from it; however, had our book not been faultless, listening it for a couple of hours once a week was not very dangerous. Few novels were then in existence, and as history was tedious, we inclined to poetry, more especially as one of the ladies had a poet for a lover - the celebrated Dr. Downman. One of our first books was a volume of his poems, which were read greatly to her delight." But the admission of men was to break up this weekly gathering of ladies. Dr Downman was the first: "who so proper to read his own works as the author; he was admitted, and during the first meetings in the following winter, we congratulated ourselves on the improvement of our plan, when, lo! another lover appeared, and contested for admission; most eloquently did he plead, ... thus we had two readers, to whom we listened alternately; but it produced the effect of dissolving the meeting. Ridicule assailed us; other lovers, real or pretended, claimed admission; gentlemen in general are not good listeners ... so the young ladies' reading and working party ceased to exist."
But while these privileged young ladies were enjoying their reading, others had problems in obtaining access to books. The autobiography of the satirist William Gifford is quite revealing on his early trials and tribulations. Born in Ashburton in 1756 he lost his father in 1767 and his mother in 1768. His godfather, named Carlile, made him work first at the plough then on a coasting vessel, despite his lack of physical fitness. He was sent briefly to school in Ashburton where he made rapid progress, but after little more than a year was apprenticed to a sour Presbyterian cobbler in Exeter, who read only controversial theological pamphlets. Gifford only owned a Bible, a Thomas à Kempis, a black letter romance Parismus and Parismenus, which had belonged to his mother, and a few chapbooks. He stumbled on a book on algebra in a lodging house, acquired it for himself, but could make litle sense of it. His master's son possessed a copy of Flemming's Introduction to knowledge, which he took pains to conceal from Gifford By chance Gifford discovered where it was hidden made off with it secretly for several nights and, after eagerly devouring its contents, was able to pursue his studies in algebra. Alone and penniless in his garret "pen, ink and paper were for the most part as completely out of my reach as crown and sceptre". In greatest secrecy he wuld beat out pieces of leather as thin a possible and use that as a medium for his algebraic calculations. He began to write short satirical pieces, one of which imitated his master's pretentious use of language. Furious, his master searched Gifford's garret, removed his books and papers, and forbade him to write further or read any books other than the Bible. Gifford was eventually helped by William Cookesley, a surgeon from Gifford's birthplace, who raised a subscription to buy him out of his apprenticeship and complete his education. With assistance from others Gifford obtained a Bible readership at Exeter College, but such obstacles would have prevented many less resolute apprentices from obtaining books and improving their prospects.
This page last updated 10 Mar 2003
© Ian Maxted, 2001.