A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
43: Controversies in print
By the eighteenth century controversies of the day could be followed by interested persons in Exeter, two or three days laborious journey from the capital. On Tuesday 8 March 1709 Offspring Blackall, Bishop of Exeter, preached a sermon before the Queen on the anniversary of her succession. In it he maintained that rulers were "ministers of God" and none on earth had the right to question or resist them. The sermon was published with the title The divine institution of magistracy (London: H.Hills, 1709) and provoked a leading low church divine, Benjamin Hoadley, rector of St Peter le Poer in London, to publish Some considerations humbly offered to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Exeter (1709) in which he claimed that "the gospel of Jesus Christ hath not utterly deprived man of the right of self-defence". The Bishop reacted with his The Lord Bishop of Exeter's answer to Mr. Hoadley's letter (1709). Hoadley offered An humble reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Exeter's answer (1709), an anonymous "student at Oxford" produced A submissive answer to Mr. Hoadley's humble reply (1709). A Student of the Temple joined issue with such titles as The best answer ever was made, (London, J.Morphew, 1709), A better answer than the best answer ever was made, A modest reply to the unanswerable answer and so on, to a total of at least seventeen items. In the Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter are two volumes of these tracts, which have varying London imprints, both in near contemporary bindings. Thirteen tracts are present in both volumes and four, including the sermon which started the controversy, in one volume only. At least one of these volumes was probably collected in Devon since it bears the bookplate of William Webber of Exeter, probably to be identified with a gentleman of that name admitted freeman of Exeter on 6 July 1713, and with a subscriber to John Warren's Sermons upon several subjects in 1739 (Exeter freemen, 224). The fact that those resident almost 200 miles from the place of publication could assemble a comprehensive collection of topical pamphlets reveals both a considerable awareness of current events and a good communications system.
While the controversy with Hoadley in 1709 was conducted entirely through pamphlets published in London there was at the same time another religious controversy smouldering intermittently fuelled by pamphlets from Exeter presses. The first spark had been struck by a dissenting minister, John Withers in 1707 when he produced A true and impartial account of what occurred at the late conference in Exeter. An Exeter churchman, John Agate, produced a Reply the same year and, also in 1707, Withers retorted with A defence of the true and impartial account. In 1708 Agate published The plain truth in three parts, provoking from Withers Truth try'd: or, Mr. Agate's plain-truth proved an untruth which appeared in two parts in 1708 and 1709. In 1709 Agate contributed More plain-truth and Withers An answer to Mr. Agate's expostulatory letter. Agate waited until 1713 before producing A defence of the plain truth, with a second part appearing in 1714. Withers's Reply of 1715 appears too be the final shot fired in a pamphlet war that had lasted eight years. Agate was only published in Exeter but Withers, apart from his skirmish with Agate, appears to have had most of his thirty editions published in London.
Not everyone was prepared to hear both sides of such arguments. In 1772 the satirist William Gifford was apprenticed to a cobbler in Exeter, a stern presbyterian who only read polemic pamphlets produced during a theological dispute between two Exeter clergymen and some of the dissenting preachers in the city, but confined himself to those that supported his own views (Baring-Gould 1908, 441).
Not all controveries were doctrinal in nature and one in the field of medicine indicates the variety of media used to argue the case on both sides. It has already been mentioned that William Musgrave had been the first to mention the distressing disease known as the Devonshire colic in his Dissertatio de arthritide symptomatica in 1703. In 1738 John Huxham, who practised medicine in Plymouth described the symptoms in more detail in a work published in London Opusculum de morbo colico Damnoniorum. This was translated in 1759 as part of Observations on the air and epidemic diseases ... made by Doctor Huxham at Plymouth. John Philips in his work Cyder: a poem had laid the cause at the door of cider and Musgrave had agreed: "It only infests those that make use of that liquor." Huxham noted that the malady made its appearance during the autumn when new cider began to be consumed and thought, like Musgrave, that excessive acidity was the cause. George Baker, a native of Devonshire and phyisican to the royal household took the investigation a step further. On 29 June 1767 he read a paper on the cause of Devonshire colic at the College of Physicians, drawing on statistics compiled by the newly opened Devon and Exeter Hospital which showed a far greater indcidence in Devon than in other cider producing counties. He dismissed acidity as a cause, suggesting that the use of lead in cider making equipment was a probable cause. He took samples of Devon cider to London to conduct experiments assisted by Dr William Saunders. His paper was published as An essay concerning the endemial colic of Devonshire and was printed in London. A more outspoken version appeared in the first volume of the Medical transactions, published by the College of Physicians.
The reception was sympathetic in many quarters. There were two letters to the Exeter flying post in August 1767. On 21 August Dr E.Spry of Totnes wrote advocating that cidermakers should "avoid the least utensil of lead". The following week a letter signed Medicus also supported Baker, adding "I wish that these experiments were more generally known: the circulation of his treatise on that subject being as yet confined to Devonshire." But the same year an anonymous pamphlet signed Danmoniensis was printed by R.Trewman with the title An answer to Dr. Baker's essay concerning the cause of the endemial colic of Devonshire, denying that any great use was made of lead in cider. More serious was an attack from the Plymouth surgeon Francis Geach in his pamphlet Some observations on Dr Baker's essay on the edemial colic of Devonshire, published in London. He supported Huxham's theory of acidity being the cause and claimed that Saunders had revealed that the source of lead in the cider was the shot used to clean the retorts in the laboratory. Appended to Geach's pamphlet was a supporting essay by the Rev. Thomas Alcock of St Budeaux near Plymouth whose brother Nathan was an eminent medical practitioner in Oxford. In 1763 Alcock had published a pamphlet, printed for him in Plymouth by Orion Adams: Observations on that part of a late act of Parliament which lays an additonal duty on the cyder and perry, part of a vigorous campaign against the tax which was headed by Benjamin Heath, town clerk of Exeter and suceeded in getting the tax abolished in 1766 (Woodland). In his contribution to that pamphlet debate Alcock had described himself as a "cydermaker in Devonshire". Clearly less than a year after the abolition of the tax, cidermakers like Alcock did not want a second blow to the industry.
William Saunders returned to the fray in 1767 with a pamphlet entitled An answer to the observations of Mr Geach and to the cursory remarks of Mr Alcock, couched in the form of a letter to Dr Baker in which he drew attention to the fact that Alcock was a cider maker and so had a vested interest. Geach enlisted no less a person than the chemist William Cookworthy who had obtained a patent for the manufacture of hard paste porcelain in Plymouth for A reply to Dr Saunders's pamphlet relative to the dispute concerning the Devonshire cider which was printed in London in 1768. He claimed to have repeated Sunders's experiment but found no lead in the cider. Finally Alcock published an amended version of his essay with a title that reflects the cut and thrust of this acrimonious debate: The endemial colic of Devon, not caused by a solution of lead in the cyder. A particular reply is here given to Dr. Saunders' answer to cursory rearks; with some further remarks on Dr. Baker's essay on that subject. This probably appeared late in 1769 and defended his qualification to speak on medical matters. He also claimed that he would only sell a hogshead of cider when they happened to make more than was needed for consumption within the family.
But Baker's thesis soon became accepted. He took no personal part in the debates but presented a number of further papers on various aspects of lead poisoning to the College of Physicians. Devonshire colic became rare as the century progressed and the use of lead lined vats declined, so the mixture of scientific papers, articles in learned periodicals, letters to the newspapers and controversial writings had its effect in alerting the public to the problem. The mixture of scientific and economic argruments and of vested interests has its parallels in controveries at the end of the 20t century, such as the BSE crisis (McConaghey).
Election broadsheets were another source of controversy but virtually no such material has been traced for Exeter until the contest of 1761. Andrew Brice, who deals with a wide range of activities at the hustings in The Mobiad, a verbose poetical account of Exeter elections during the 1730s, makes no mention of election posters, but he notes that this was a depressed period in Exeter's economic fortunes, a depression which is certainly reflected in the drop in printing activity, and it may be that there was neither the money nor the printing presses available to produce election literature. However from the 1760s this lack was more than compensated for, and for 1790 a particularly fine set of some thirty election squibs survives in the Devon and Exeter Institution. It includes a large number of songs and poems whose titles give some indication of the level at which much of the election was conducted:
A new copy of verses called the niggardly barber's blaggardly action
A new copy of verses called smoke his old bacon
Bampfylde for ever, no sneaking contractor
Old Turkey-Legs has got the gripes
James Baring was particularly lambasted, being designated "Old Turkey-Legs", "Old Griping Jack" or "Poking Old Jack O".
However it is impossible to be clear about the full extent of Exeter election literature until 1812. In that year the printer Robert Cullum gathered together all the squibs, addresses and other papers in a volume entitled The spirit of election wit. For the City of Exeter election of that year he lists 17 items. That may not appear much but the election was uncontested. For the election for the county of Devon he records 38 items. While reproducing the text of the addresses he omits the imprints. Fortunately this gap is filled by a collection of many of the original items in the Westcountry Studies library which show that five printers in Exeter, one in Plymouth Dock, one in Bath and one in London were used. Many of the items though did not bear the printer's name, which they should have done by law, in some instances possibly because the content could be held to be contentious. For 1818 he repeated the exercise in The addresses, speeches, squibs, songs, &c. which were circulated during the recent general election and managed to round up 68 items leading up to the city election and 87 leading up to the county election, some of them published a couple of years before the actual poll as prospective candidates were staking their claims.
Even outside the period of the hustings local political issues could give rise to a flurry of pamphlets and leaflets. A collection survives in the British Library generated by a dispute over the Exeter Corporation of the Poor in 1784. Most of these examples of political broadsheets are taken from a period some time after the first introduction of printing, but the vagaries of survival mean that many early controversial items must have disappeared entirely. As early as 1698 The substance of what Sir Bartholomew Shower spake at the Guild-Hall, Exon, August 19th, 1698, upon declaring the poll for the burgesses of that city ... mentions two items critical of him, "Little reflections" and "Queries" which had been posted at the Guildhall.
This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.