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16 January 2007

Devon Book 63

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
63: The development of scholarly publishing

While there had been groups of individuals who had met informally in book clubs or who had corresponded on matters of common interest, more formal societies did not appear in Devon until the nineteenth century. At a national level learned societies such as the Royal Society or the Society of Antiquaries had a long pedigree and it was on them that many of these local bodies were modelled, and like them they published journals and accounts of their transactions. Among the earliest of such bodies in Devon was the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society, established in 1841. Its Transactions first appeared in 1843 with engraved plates by J. Le Keux after the architect John Heywood, and for a century well produced volumes of architectural studies appeared, illustrated with engravings, lithographs and, later, photographs.

The formation of such bodies was a reflection of a more organised interest in antiquarian and scientific matters. The Public Record Office was established under a statute of 1838. It began to gather together the public records with an added impetus after the completion of the Chancery Lane building in the 1850s and in 1856 begun to publish the Calendars of state papers domestic. This was followed by Letters and papers of Henry VIII from 1862 and other series, such as the Calendars of patent rolls (from 1891), of close rolls, of acts of the Privy Council and so on, all well indexed and with many local Devon references. In 1858 the series of Chronicles and memorials of Great Britain and Ireland began to appear, publishing many medieval historical compilations. The Historical Manuscripts Commission was appointed in 1869 and its first report appeared in 1870. It examined many private collections of manuscripts including several in Devon, for example the Pine-Coffin manuscripts at Portledge were investigated for the Commission's Fifth report, published in 1876. In the 1860s the Domesday Book was reprinted in facsimile by the Ordnance Survey. There were also record publishing bodies such as the Harleian Society (established in 1869) and the Camden Society. These also published local historical sources, for example the Visitation of Devon in the year 1620 was published by the Harleian Society in 1872 and A calendar of wills and administrations relating to the counties of Devon and Cornwall was issued by the British Record Society in 1908.

Archival collections in Exeter began to be more carefully sorted and listed. The city's archives had received some attention in 1820 when the historian George Oliver was employed to draw up a calendar. The muniments were calendared more fully by Stuart A.Moore between 1863 and 1870 in three large manuscript volumes which proved very useful to J.H.Wylie when he examined the collections for his Report on the records of the city of Exeter, published by the Historical Manuscripts Commission in 1916. In the later 19th century the records were stored in a muniment room behind the Guildhall. This had the merit of good security as it had previously served as a prison, but in 1893 a report to the Council warned of the danger of fire, and in 1902 the premises were described as "not sufficient".

The chapter clerk Ralph Barnes had begun to sort the archives of the Dean and Chapter in the early 19th century but in 1873 Stuart Moore compiled a catalogue of some of them and a summary of the remainder, assigning a numbering system which long served as a basis for reference to items in the collection. In 1907 a report on the archives was made for the Historical Manuscripts Commission and published in its Report on manuscripts in various collections, vol. 4, p. 23-98.

Herbert Edward Reynolds edited editions of several items in the Cathedral's collections: the Legenda sanctorum: the proper lessons for the saints' days according to the usage of Exeter published in London by Elliot Stock in 1880 and issued to subscribers in fascicules with chromo-lithographic plates, the Ordinale secundum usum Exon, printed by M'Corquodale & Co. Ltd in 1882 and The use of Exeter Cathedral according to John de Grandisson with an abstract of Chapter acts from 1380 to 1660, issued in London by the Church Printing Co. in 1891.

Another scholar who was working on church records was F.C.Hingeston-Randolph who between 1886 and 1915 produced a series of ten volumes of the Episcopal registers of the diocese of Exeter, covering the period from 1257 to 1441.

In 1862 Devon's most significant organisation in this field was formed, the Devonshire Association, still the county's major learned society at the end of the twentieth century. Its annual volumes of Reports and transactions have brought out a wealth of well researched articles on all aspects of Devon, not just historical in scope but relating to its geology and natural history. The reports of groups and sections have included exhaustive surveys on topics ranging from barrows, to church plate, from dialect to manuscripts. In 1884 and 1892 it published a two volume edition of the Domesday Book with parallel texts of the Exchequer and Exeter versions, described by W.G.Hoskins as the most valuable of the Association's publications.

The Plymouth Institution had been founded earlier but, like its counterpart in Exeter, it had no regular publication in its early years. From 1865 it too began to publish its Proceedings. But there was room for further publications in this field. In 1882 The Western antiquary first saw the light of day. Edited by the Chief Librarian of Plymouth, W.H.K.Wright, its subtitle "Devon and Cornwall notebook" gave a hint of its format. It was similar in format to the national periodical Notes and queries with a mixture of articles, often continued from one issue to another, reviews and questions posed by readers to which answers might (or might not) be given in later issues. The periodical was printed in Plymouth by Latimer & Son at the Frankfort Printing Works and terminated in 1892 after completing its eleventh volume. In 1888 Exeter produced a rival publication of a similar kind in Notes and gleanings, described in its subtitle as "a monthly magazine devoted chiefly to subjects connected with the counties of Devon and Cornwall" and printed by William Pollard & Co. in North Street. From 1890 it began to print the manuscript calendars of the city's archives which had been compiled by Stuart Moore but this was cut short when the publication terminated in 1892. It was not until the turn of the century that a publisher could be found to produce a successor. That publisher was James G Commin. Born in Exeter on 3 December 1856 Commin was apprenticed to Messrs Drayton and Sons a well established firm of Exeter booksellers. He then went to London to complete his business training at the prestigious London form of Henry Sotheran & Co. of the Strand and Piccadilly. On his return he established himself in business at 230 High Street, where he remained until the end of his life. He was described in an obituary as "no mere bookseller, and, although a keen business man, he was rather more a book-lover. His knowledge of books, their authors, titles, bindings and formats was exceptional, and it was an education to hear him discourse on the books and editions that he loved so well". His bookshop gained a reputation that was more than local and his business took him to all parts of the country and even abroad. Nevertheless he found time to serve the local community. He was prominent in the Devonshire Association and at one time the chairman of the Exeter Literary Society. In the late 1890s he became one of the governors of the Royal Albert Memorial and as a member of the Library Committee he was very active in building up the collections. He was largely instrumental in acquiring for the Library the Fisher Bequest, the Brooking Rowe Collection and many early editions of Sir Walter Raleigh's works collected by T.N.Brushfield. He also made many donations of paintings and engravings to the Museum and was known for his discerning judgement in the field of pictorial art. In 1900 he was the leading spirit in the establishment of Devon notes and queries: a quarterly journal devoted to the local history, biography and antiquities of the county of Devon. This was edited by P F S Amery, John S Amery and J Brooking Rowe. Apart from the main issues of the periodical, which was well printed on good quality paper with photographic plates, Commin produced a supplementary series of publications which reflected his bibliographical and antiquarian interests with a mixture of editions of manuscripts, early printed items and modern studies. These included Sir George Carew's scroll of arms, 1588 (1901), The ancient stone crosses of Dartmoor and its borders, by William Crossing (1902), The accounts of the wardens of the parish of Morebath, Devon, 1520-1573, transcribed by the Rev. J.Erskine Binney (1904), Two Widecombe tracts, 1638, introduced by J.Brooking Rowe (1905) and a series of other useful volumes over the years up to 1921. Commin entered the City Council as an alderman in 1903 and served as mayor in 1908-9. During his mayoralty he became aware of the wasting disease which caused his death at the aged of 57 on 15 September 1914. He was succeeded in business by his sons James H and Harold Commin who continued the publication of Devon and Cornwall notes and queries (as it became) until 1931 when it was taken over by A.Wheaton and Co. and then by James Townsend and Sons.

In 1904 the Devon and Cornwall Record Society was established to publish carefully edited editions of historical source material. Its early publications were printed on heavy antique laid paper by William Pollard & Co. of North Street, Exeterand and in the years up to World War 2 subscribers would receive unbound fascicules with several publications appearing in sections at the same time, perhaps a maens of encouraging continuing membership. Several important historical sources were tackled such as A calendar of inquisitions post mortem for Cornwall and Devon, from Henry III to Charles I, 1216-1649, compiled and edited by Henry Alexander Fry, the first item to be completed in 1906, feet of fines for Devon and Cornwall, the publication of its four volumes dragging on from 1912 to 1950 and the manuscript of The description of the citie of Excester by John Hooker (1919-47). Exeter's City Librarian H.Tapley-Soper was prominent in the Society and was involved in the editing of many of the volumes. There was however a concentration on parish registers, sixteen parishes being completed by the start of World War 2. As there were over 700 pre-1837 parishes in Devon and Cornwall, the Society must have been very confident about its long-term survival if it intended to complete the publication of this class of record. The slow progress resulted in a build-up of manuscript and typescript transcriptions awaiting publication, and these soon constituted a library of several hundred volumes which found a home in the public library, a demonstration that in the 20th century just as in the 17th by no means all historical research reached printed fom.

However the provincial atmosphere of Exeter did not always provide sufficient stimulus for a person with intellectual pretensions, and that explains the departure from Exeter of one of the leading literary publishers of the early 20th century, Elkin Mathews. Born in Gravesend in 1851 Charles Elkin Mathews started his career in London working for Charles John Stewart, known as "the last of the learned booksellers". After some years managing Peach's library in Bath he returned to London to work, like Commin, with the antiquarian bookseller Henry Sotheran and Co. In 1884 with £125 acquired from an uncle he opened an antiquarian and general bookshop at 16 Cathedral Close, Exeter as it "seemed to lend itself to the nature of the work upon which I had decided to embark". He had decided that "unable to achieve distinction in letters oneself, the next best thing was to be the means of giving to the world the work of others more generously endowed" and in 1887 he participated in the production of We donkeys on the coast of Devon, an account of travels in a donkey cart by the indomitable Maria Susannah Gibbons. But, after being involved in the publication of several other local items, he moved to London in the summer of 1887 to enter into partnership with John Lane. A draft of his reminiscences in the Elkin Mathews archive contains the sentence "I had settled down in the native city of Sir Thomas Bodley but it was no good for ambition's ladder. I had already formed the fixed idea of joining the publishing ranks and my aim was to become the Edward Moxon of my time." His subsequent achievements in becoming the publisher of such leading literary figures as W.D.Yeats, Ezra Pound and James Joyce would certainly have been less easy had he remained in Exeter (Nelson 1989, 4-5).

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