Biographical and bibliographical information on the book trades
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16 January 2007

Devon Book 57

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
57: Some scholars in the book trades

It is inevitable that the book trades should attract or encourage individuals with scholarly inclinations. This is true of Devon in the 19th century as at other times, but such individuals were not necessarily confined to the larger towns, nor did they necessarily pursue printing or publishing as their main vocation.

Among those who hastened to register their printing presses in 1799 was the rather unlikely figure of a clergyman in the remote Dartmoor village of Lustleigh. William Davy was born in Downhouse in the parish of Tavistock on 4 March 1744. Educated at Exeter Grammar School and Balliol College where he graduated in 1766 he was curate at Moretonhampstead and Drewsteignton before being appointed to the curacy of Lustleigh in 1786. He had for some time been gathering materials for publication - twelve manuscript volumes of sermons on various subjects are preserved in the Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter and in 1785-6 there appreared a System of divinity, in a course of sermons, on the being, nature, and attributes of God; on some of the most important articles of the Christian religion; and on the virtues and vices of mankind. This was printed in six volumes by R.Trewman in Exeter and he had been encouraged to bring out the work by a lengthy list of subscribers. Unfortunately many neglected to pay their subscriptions and Davy ended up owing Trewman more than £100. Such difficulties did not dispirit Davy and he determined to extend the work to 26 volumes. He was of a mechanical turn of mind. After the sinking of the Royal George in Portsmouth harbour in 1782 he had travelled there with the plan of a diving-bell to salvage it. Although his plan was later adopted, Davy received no benefit from his invention. He now used his mechanical skills to construct a press of a "very substantial and convenient form and on a principle very different from those in general use" print the book himself and avoid a further loss. When the Old Rectory was being repaired in 1930 a pulley and some rollers were discovered nailed to the roof. It may be that these were the remains of the press, or possibly held lines where the printed sheets wer hung to dry. Trewman sold him some old types saying, "I expect that, in less than a month, you will come and entreat me to take it all again from you". But in five months during 1795 he learned to set and distribute type and printed forty copies of a 328 page volume. He circulated 26 of these specimen volumes to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the Royal Society, editors of various reviews and others from whom he might hope for encouragement. In his own copy, now in the Westcountry Studies Library, he pasted the reviews and other comments from recipients. "No notice" is written against the universities and "His Grace the Archbishop". Davy approached three successive bishops of Exeter in vain. None accepted a dedication from him and Bishop Buller in 1794 "flatly refused to receive or look at it or to give any kind of assistance". Still undaunted Davy taught his servant Mary Hole to compose types and with her assistance proceeded over the next twelve years to print fourteen copies of the remaining 25 volumes. As no earthly representative could be induced to accept a dedication, Davy dedicated it to Almighty God. Surviving sets of the resulting System of divinity are to be found in the Westcountry Studies Library, Exeter Cathedral Library, the Devon and Exeter Institution, the British Museum, the Bodleian Library and Cambridge University Library. They are typographically extremely idiosyncratic. At first Davy could afford sufficient type to print one page at a time. Numerous notes, amendments and afterthoughts were accommodated on printed or manuscript slips which were carefully pasted in by hand and, if sufficiently lengthy, folded up. Sir Robert Harry Inglis, who presented a set to the British Library in 1852 considered it to be unparallelled in any age or country as an effort of the combined skill, industry, and perseverance of one man, undaunted by age, poverty, and forty years of neglect." The fourteen sets were for the most part sent away as presents, sympathic notices appeared, for example in the Quarterly review and letters of thanks were received, though, while the Dean and Chapter were grateful for their set, Bishop Fisher seems to have been very dismissive saying when it was presented that "he could not be supposed to be able to notice every trifle that appeared in print". Davy's response was that "If his Lordship considered 26 volumes 8vo., the labour of 50 years in collecting, compiling and printing a trifle, he certainly could not allow himself to expect from his Lordship either approbation or encouragement".

Davy, aged over 60 laid his press and types aside with no intention of using them again and turned his attention to his flock, his garden and the establishment of a village school. But in 1824, aged 80 he was stirred into action by "the many scurrilous and blasphemous tracts that had been industriously circulated in his immediate neighbourhood by Deists and Socinians." He selected passages from his System of divinity which he deemed suitable "to refute the dangerous and destructive errors of the Infidel and the Socinian" and in "one winter actually printed, by himself, and without any assistance whatever, an 8vo volume of 480 pages. This volume entitled Divinity, or discourses on the being of God, the divinity of Christ, the personality and divinity of the Holy Ghost and on the Sacred Trinity was warmly received and the following year Davy actually paid £300 to have an enlarged edition printed in two volumes by Featherstone and Sparke in Exeter. Bishop Pelham finally recognised his labours and presented Davy with the vicarage of Winkleigh. Davy died about five months later, remembering his faithful servant and typographical assistant Mary Hole in his will. A second edition of Divinity, or discourses on the being of God appeared in three volumes in 1827 with a memoir by his son, the Rev. Charles Davy. Such determination to get one's ideas into published form has few parallels, but his pertinacity, although admired by many, did not find approval everywhere. Sabine Baring-Gould, himself a prolific author, was very dismissive of his efforts in his Devonshire characters and strange events.

But it was Exeter that was the cultural centre of Devon. Certainly Richard Ford, the author of The traveller in Spain, decided on Exeter as the most congenial place to settle after his years in the Iberian peninsula and wrote to his friend Henry Addington on 4 February 1834 "This Exeter is quite a capital, abounding in all that London has, except its fog and smoke. ... There is a bookseller who has some ten thousand old tomes to tempt a poor man" (Ford 135-6). With its six weekly newspapers and its choice of booksellers and libraries Exeter at this time clearly enjoyed a good intellectual reputation.

Perhaps the most notable bookseller in Exeter in the later 18th and early 19th centuries was Gilbert Dyer who was born at Dunstone in the parish of Widecombe in the Moor, Devon, the son of Gilbert Dyer, schoolmaster (died 1809) and his wife Mary. After assisting his father he was appointed on 30 June 1769 master of the school for children of freemen of the Corporation of Weavers Fullers and Shearmen at Tuckers' Hall in Exeter. In 1770 he published The most general school-assistant, a work of practical arithmetic. He continued as schoolmaster until his resignation in 1788 but already by October 1783 he had established a circulating library. For a short period to November 1785 he also accommodated the stock of the Exeter Library Society in his High Street bookshop located opposite the Guildhall in premises probably formerly occupied by the bookseller Walter Dight. From at least 1791 he produced annual catalogues which were highly regarded. Thomas Frognall Dibdin (p.626) described him as "a distinguished veteran in the book-trade: his catalogue of 1810 in two parts, containing 19,945 articles, has I think never been equalled by that of any provincial bookseller, for the value and singularity of the greater number of volumes described in it." A contributor to Hone's Year-book (p.1469) remembered "the erudite maister Dyer, the collector of a circulating library, the choicest and perhaps the most extensive, of any in the whole kingdom, except in the metropolis". Hone himself commented on Dyer's collection of theology as being "astonishing; it was stacked on manifold shelves to the angle point of the gable of their huge upper warehouse". Dyer's erudition appeared in several publications. In 1796 he published anonymously The principles of atheism proved to be unfounded, from the nature of man, in which he set out to prove that man "must have been created, preserved, and instructed by Divine Providence". In 1805 appeared A restoration of the ancient modes of bestowing names on the rivers, hills, vallies, plains, and settlements of Britain, which investigated the Celtic origins of river and other place-names in the Exeter region. His Commentary on Richard of Cirencester, and Antoninus itineraries of Britain was published in 1814 and two years later this and his tract on atheism were reissued with an introduction as Vulgar errors ancient and modern. Several of the ideas expressed in this volume had appeared in the Monthly magazine in 1809. His works were admired by contemporaries for their "considerable industry and research" (Oliver). He died at Exeter on 19 October 1820 from a fever contracted after a long walk. His library was taken over by Maria Fitze and remained in her family until the 1850s while the bookshop was continued from 1821 to 1829 by Dyer's son, born in 1776 and also called Gilbert, by William Strong from 1829 to 1837 and by Edwin Jeanes from 1837 to 1843.

A generation younger than Dyer was Edward Upham who set up business in Broad Gate in 1796. His father Charles was mayor in 1796/7 and he himself was common councillor from 1806, chief magistrate in 1809, later rising to the position of mayor. He was a man of wide-ranging interests, undertaking much research towards a history of Exeter, writing a History of Buddhism, two novels on oriental themes and a Concise history of Turkey.

Studious individuals such as these helped maintain a high level of intellectual curiosity in Exeter and Devon during this period, encouraging the acquisition of books and the growth of private and community libraries.

This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.