Musings on some early Devon topographers

Devon's early topographers

Weighty manuscripts, but few books

With more than 120,000 books being published each year in the UK alone note 1, it is hard for us to appreciate the challenges that must have faced 16th and 17th century scholars in getting their manuscripts into print - of all the major works written about the county of Devon during this period only John Prince's Worthies of Devon appeared in book form during the author's lifetime, and even that was a truncated version.

John Hooker
John Hooker

The earliest topographical account of Devon was the Synopsis Chorographical of Devonshire by John Hooker(1525-1601) which he wrote around 1599. It was never published, even though a copy of the manuscript was readied for publication and submitted to a printer shortly after his death note 2. The View of Devonshire in 1630 wasn't published until 1845, more than 200 years after the death of its author Thomas Westcote, while Tristram Risdon's Chorographical Description or Survey of the County of Devon was started in 1605 and completed about 1632, but didn't appear in print in its entirety until 1811.

The revered antiquarian Sir William Pole (1561-1635) gathered together a large collection of manuscripts on the history and antiquities of Devon, many of which were lost during the Civil War. Those that survived were published in 1791 by his lineal descendent Sir John-William De la Pole as Collections towards a Description of the County of Devon.

Why did these authors not publish their manuscripts?

We can only speculate, and a different explanation may apply in each case, but here are some factors mitigating against the publication of works of a secular nature in Devon during the Stuart Period:

  1. Lack of motivation
  2. The simplest of explanations is that the author was of sufficiently high standing in the community through his position or his pedigree to regard his writing as merely a hobby or passion which he pursued for his own satisfaction. In which case he might be content to circulate the fruits of his labour among his peers in manuscript form. As Joyce Youings says of Thomas Westcote:
  3. Like most Elizabethan country gentlemen, he wrote primarily for his own amusement and that of his friends and did not aspire to publication. [6, ch3, p60]
  4. Lack of demand
  5. Levels of literacy in Devon at this time were low; among those who could read, the books most favoured were bibles and other devotional texts.
  6. Some evidence of literacy, or at any rate the ability to sign one's name can be gleaned from the protestation returns. In 1641 the male population of Devon aged 18 or over was required to sign a protestation of loyalty to Parliament. For 42 of the 468 parishes in Devon the original returns survive, and these show that 70 per cent of those signing did so with a mark. This indicates that only 30 per cent of adult males in Devon possessed even the basic skill of being able to sign their own name. Even in Exeter some churchwardens were reduced to making a mark instead of a signature. The literacy rate among women would have been still lower. There were probably about 35,000 families in Devon at that time, so it can be calculated that there was a potential market of less than 10,000 throughout the county of Devon for any printed item. [From Maxted, 7, #35: Books and readers in the 17th century]
  7. Probate inventories from this period reveal the number and type of books passed on to heirs. The records of these for the small community of Uffculme to the north-east of Exeter have survived: they show that during the 17th century 30 out of 207 wills mentioned books. The Bible was mentioned most frequently, with prayer books and other religious texts being itemised as well. Only rarely were other types of book mentioned.
  8. Prohibitive cost deterring subscribers
  9. Topographies by their very nature are relatively large volumes, thereby increasing the printing cost as compared to, say, a slim pamphlet or prayer book. Given the small number of individuals wealthy enough to afford to buy such a large book the only viable route was to adopt the subscription model. Under this scenario the publisher agrees to print the book if there are enough subscribers, who must make a down-payment with the balance to be paid when the book is ready. The publisher may decline to proceed if the number of subscribers is too few to give him a reasonable profit margin.
  10. John Prince, vicar of Berry Pomeroy, completed his Worthies of Devon in the final years of the 17th century. He had already had two other books published in London, but by this time a number of publishing houses had become established in Exeter, and Prince decided to have this substantial manuscript of more than 600 pages printed locally. Perhaps because of the favourable reception given to his earlier printed texts, he managed to drum up enough subscribers to satisfy the publishers.
  11. Ian Maxted draws our attention to a notice from the Exeter bookseller publishing the Worthies in which the cost of subscribing is given:
  12. The work was completed in August 1697 according to the dedication and sufficient interest had been canvassed for it to be in the hands of the printers by 1698. In the list of "books printed for, and sold by, Charles Yeo, John Pearce, and Philip Bishop, booksellers in Exon" which appears in A practical treatise concerning evil thoughts by William Chilcot, one of the first books to appear from the press, is the notice: "In the press. Danmonii orientals illustres: or, the worthies of Devon; printed by way of subscription, price in sheets sixteen shillingsnote 3; the first payment eight shillings. All gentlemen that are willing to take advantage by subscribing, are desired to send in their first payment with all speed to the undertakers, Charles Yeo, John Pearce, and Philip Bishop." [From Maxted, 7, #42: A good face of learning]
  13. It is a fair assumption that one or more of the Devon topographers referred to had explored the possibility of publishing their work, but abandoned the idea when they found insufficient support among potential subscribers.
  14. Manuscript not ready for publication
  15. Sir William Pole amassed a collection of manuscripts and papers which he never crafted into a coherent whole for publication before his death in 1635.
  16. On the other hand Tristram Risdon took nearly 30 years to complete his Survey of Devon, but there were many copies of the resulting manuscript, each somewhat different from the other. It was unclear which was the definitive version.
  17. Prince praised Risdon highly in his Worthies of Devon and defended him robustly against his detractors. But he expressed concern about the inconsistencies between the various manuscript copies of Risdon's Survey in circulation:
  18. The greatest misfortune which I know does attend this work is, that, among the various copies which are abroad (whereof I have seen very many) hardly any two of them agree together, but have severally either something redundant or deficient, which the other has not.
  19. Even getting the Worthies into print was beset with difficulties on account of its size: the publishers persuaded Prince to reduce the number of biographies before the typesetting was complete. Since the worthies appear in alphabetically order, those at the front of the alphabet are better represented, and names beginning from L to Z only covered a quarter of the book when it appeared in 1701. Prince prepared a second volume with the missing names but it was never published. His personal life was in disarray around this time after receiving a dubious conviction for sexual misconduct. He was deprived of his living temporarily in 1700 but his ministry was reinstated following an appeal.
  20. Anxiety about rogue publishers
  21. One major obstacle facing an author aspiring to have a manuscript printed at that time was the system for regulating the book trade which was heavily weighted in favour of the publisher. If an original manuscript should find its way into the hands of an unscrupulous bookseller he might choose to print the work in a truncated or mangled form in the hope of making a quick profit with scant regard for the reputation of the author who had no legal redress at his disposal. This fate awaited Risdon's Survey which was published posthumously by the notorious Edmund Curll and his hireling scribblers in a form that was a travesty of the original (of which more later). Fear of losing control over a work that may have taken many years to complete would deter some authors from having it printed, especially if the manuscript had to be sent as far from Devon as London for want of a local publisher.
  22. Dislocation due to Civil War
  23. Though all four of our Devon topographers were deceased before the Civil War had spread to the West Country in 1642, the biographical notes in William Chapple's 1785 Review of Part of Risdon's Survey of Devon mention that Risdon had wanted his Survey to be published by his executors:
  24. ..although Mr Risdon intended his work for revisal and publication, which his death prevented, his executors seem to have neglected it, or were rather deterred from it by the Civil Wars, which immediately ensued, and for many years distracted these nations.

A Cornish gem

Antony House
Antony House

Let us leave Devon behind for a moment and take a short detour westwards into Cornwall via the Torpoint Ferry. Continue inland for a mile or so beyond the border, and you pass Antony House to the north. This is the grand ancestral home of the Carew Poles built for Sir William Carew between 1711 and 1721. More than a century earlier Sir William's forefather, Richard Carew of Antony, a contemporary of John Hooker, had completed his widely admired Survey of Cornwall, a work of exceptional quality for this genre. As with Hooker's Synopsis Chorographical of Devonshire, Carew's survey wasn't overburdened with the litany of genealogy and estate inventories of the county's gentry to be found in the treatises by Westcote and Risdon. Unsurprisingly a London publisher was readily found for a manuscript of this quality, and it appeared in print in 1602.

Mark Brayshay offers this generous assessment of Carew's volume in his introduction to Topographical Writers in South-West England:

Of all the work of Tudor and Stuart topographers in the South West, Carew's Survey of Cornwall is easily the best. Regarded by some as a minor classic of the English language, in ranks as amongst the finest of its type in Britain as a whole. It is, moreover, one of the most accessible of the early works, as it was (unusually) published in Carew's own lifetime. [6, ch1, p8]

Accursed Curll mutilates Risdon's Survey

Many copies of the manuscript of Risdon's Survey of Devon were in circulation after his death, and some 70 years later one fell into the hands of the reviled London bookseller Edmund Curll who in 1714 published by subscription a much-altered and abridged version bearing little resemblance to the original. John Prince, on discovering that Curll intended to produce this mangled edition, urged him to publish the whole work. In response he printed a second volume containing the omitted parts under the title The Continuation of the Survey of Devonshire.

To anyone familiar with the original manuscript, the shortcomings of Curll's effort were all too plain. If fell to William Chapple to redress the situation and to go some way to restoring the reputation of Risdon that had been tarnished by Curll's misrepresentation of his work. In 1772 he decided to issue a "correct" version of the Survey of Devon but died before it was complete. Nevertheless, his effort wasn't in vain; in 1785 a book entitled A Review of Part of Risdon's Survey of Devon; with corrections, annotations, and additions appeared in Chapple's name. The introduction contains this diatribe aimed at Curll:

..his injurious treatment of the authors whom he pressed into his services, by borrowing their names to puff off the productions of his hireling scribblers, are too notorious to need being enlarged upon here; having been sufficiently exposed by Dr Jonathan Swift and Mr Alexander Pope, who has damned him with immortality in his Dunciad. How much he has maltreated Mr Risdon, by mutilations, dislocations and amputations, will require more particular notice elsewhere;...But if Risdon be restored to himself, by being freed from the imputation of Curll's mistakes, and the pads and patches of that fool's coat with which he, or his bungling botchers and shred-stitchers, have deformed and disguised him, it will be entirely owing to the care of those who preserved his genuine remains in manuscript.

Share alike without attribution

Plagiarism was widespread among the Devon topographers of the Stuart period, a practice that had surfaced in the Tudor age when the writings of the father of English topography John Leland were copied by others.

Hooker's Synopsis Chorographical was the template for Risdon and Westcote. Risdon even purloined that unusual 'C' word in the singularly verbose title he chose for his manuscript:

The chorographical description or survey of the county of Devon, with city and county of Exeter; containing matter of history, antiquity, chronology, the nature of the country, commodities and government thereof with sundry other things worthy of observation. Collected by the travail of Tristram Risdon of Winscot, gent, for the love of his country and countrymen in that province.

The first chapter he copied almost verbatim from Hooker's manuscript without attribution, though he did acknowledge Sir William Pole as being the inspiration 'from whose lamp I have received light in these my labours'.

Risdon imposed his stamp of originality by choosing a different sequence from his rivals in the remaining chapters of his Survey:

Risdon considered various possible methods of organizing his survey. He rejected that of the JP Sir William Pole, who divided his work according to the units of county government, and that of Westcote in following the rivers. Instead he decided to begin 'in the east part of the county, and with the sun, to make my gradation into the south, holding course about by the river Tamar, to visit such places as are offered to be seen upon her banks', and then finally 'to take notice of such remarkable things as the north parts afford'. This method gave Risdon the freedom to describe parishes in the same order as he visited them, convincing one of his firsthand knowledge by adding enlivening details. [Wolffe, 1]

Westcote was piqued that he was denied access to Hooker's manuscript; at least he said he was. In many instances his descriptions bear an uncanny resemblance to Hooker's. For example, Hooker said of Barnstaple 'It is a very clene and sweete towne, well paved.', which Westcote redrafts as 'The streets are somewhat low, yet well paved and thereby clean and sweet in all weathers.'.

As the first turnpike roads weren't laid in Devon until 1753, the temptation for 'sharing' the words of others to avoid the hard slog of visiting all the parishes of Devon must have been considerable. What passed for roads were little more than farm tracks by the standards of today. On the good authority of Hooker, they were:

longe, craggye and very paynfull for man or horse to travell, as which all strangers travellinge the same can wytnes it, for be they never so well monted upon theire fyne and deyntie horses out of other countries, after that they have travelled in this countrie but one journey, they can forebeare the second.

The first English copyright statutes

As a postscript, here is a quick look at the laws of copyright obtaining in England in the Tudor and Stuart periods.

When the notion of copyright first emerged in 16th century England, it was not to protect the intellectual output of authors; it was for the benefit of publishers who wished to protect their exclusive right to print a particular title. The Stationers' Company of London was given responsibility by Royal Charter in 1557 for regulating the publishing industry in England. They maintained a record for each printed work in the Stationers' Register which established the publisher's right to reproduce that book in perpetuity on payment of a modest fee. The charter gave the Stationers' Company the exclusive power to seize pirated editions and bar the publication of unregistered books, though enforcement was erratic. Authors were denied membership of the Stationers' Company, making it unlawful for them to publish their own works other than through a member publisher, bookseller, or printer.

This state of affairs lasted until 1710 with the introduction of the Copyright Act, or Statute of Anne, which was the first law to enshrine the exclusive rights of the author to his own work. It created a 21 year author's copyright for works already in print at the time, and a 14 year term for all works published subsequently.


According to Nielsen BookData the number of new books published in the UK in 2008 was 120947, failing to match the highest total thus far of 129762 achieved in 2003. These figures represent only those publications allocated an ISBN, so it excludes the growing number of self-published print-on-demand books. [return]
John Prince in his Worthies of Devon mentions the attempt to publish Hooker's manuscript after he died:
Upon the author's death, [the manuscript] was put into Judge Dodderidge's hands (who was a learned antiquary) to correct and fit for the press. [Prince, 8, p506]
It was passed on to a printer named Zachary Pasfeild with a letter of recommendation from a lawyer. Prince then remarks:
Notwithstanding all which, for what reason I know not, this book never yet came under the press.
A small part of Hooker's manuscript was reproduced in more recent times in [5]. [return]
According to the calculator on Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1264 to Present, 16s. in 1700 is equivalent to more than £108 in 2008 prices (as measured by changes in the Retail Prices Index). [return]


Mary Wolffe, 'Risdon, Tristram (c.1580-1640)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. †
Ian Maxted, 'Pole, Sir William (bap. 1561, d. 1635)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. †
Ian Maxted, 'Prince, John (1643-1723)' , Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. †
Ian Maxted, 'Westcote, Thomas (bap. 1567, d. 1637?)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. †
W. J. Blake, ed., Hooker's Synopsis chorographical of Devonshire, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 47 (1915), p334-348.
Mark Brayshay, ed., Topographical Writers in South-West England, University of Exeter Press, 1996.
  • 1. Introduction: The Development of Topographical Writing in the South West by Mark Brayshay
  • 3. Some Early Topographers of Devon and Cornwall by Joyce Youings
Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12 A history of the book in Devon by Ian Maxted:
Worthies of Devon by John Prince, Exeter, 1701 and 1810.
The Survey of Cornwall by Richard Carew, new edition, London, 1769.
† online access to the DNB is for subscribers only, but it is available as a free service for Devon public library members (and elsewhere, no doubt).


The picture of John Hooker is adapted from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum collection in Exeter.
The image of Antony House is adapted from the photo by Brian on and licensed under this Creative Commons Licence.