Thursday 7 May 2020

Foote's notes from history

Over a series of blog posts we will be sharing with you what we have been doing whilst working from home, and giving you an insight into some of the interesting collections and items we have come across whilst the Record Office has been closed.

As shown in our previous blog, one of the things we have been doing is updating our online catalogue, starting with our "D" paper lists. One of the interesting collections in the D listings is the Foote Gower Papers (D 4784).

This collection contains letters received by the Cheshire antiquarian Foote Gower (c.1726-1780) from his peers. The listings for these letters offer a fascinating insight into the development of his most famous work and its ultimate abandonment.

Gower made extensive collections of documents for a proposed history of Cheshire that “would be infinitely superior to any history yet existing of any county". He outlined this project in "A Sketch of Materials for a New History of Cheshire" which was published anonymously in 1771 (D 4784/1). 

The Sketch was re-issued in 1772 together with an Address to the Public (D 4784/3,4), resulting from the enthusiasm generated by the Sketch. It contained a more detailed plan of the proposed work and asked for subscribers to donate ten guineas towards the anticipated cost of 4,000 guineas.

Gower started work in 1775, and initially received much encouragement, as can been seen in a letter from fellow antiquary George Allan of Darlington asking to be added to the list of subscribers (D 4784/29).

Ultimately however, the required number of subscriptions were not forthcoming, and interest in the project dwindled.

By 1776 the project was all but abandoned. Indeed, the engraver James Calveley, who had been commissioned in 1773 to produce illustrations for the History, wrote in a letter to Gower dated 27 March 1776 (D 4784/28), that he was too busy to work much for him. He further remarked that “the people of this country have almost given up thoughts of your history, as so little has been said of it as late”.

It seems that the project suffered other setbacks too. A letter from Edward Harwood of Chester, dated 18th May 1776, commiserates over a fire at Gower’s house and the loss of papers of his History (D 4784/31).
Upon his death in 1780, Gower’s work passed to Dr. J. Wilkinson and then William Latham, who, in 1800, republished the Sketch with additions (D 4784/2). Unfortunately, Latham was unable to finish the project due to ill health. The manuscripts were passed back to Wilkinson and later disposed of by auction, some going to the British Museum and others to the Bodleian Library.

In the end only one volume of text for the History, dealing with Cheshire history from prehistoric to Norman times, was produced.

However, Foote Gower's greatest legacy was arguably in documenting the sources of valuable extant manuscripts for Cheshire local history. His work was a key influence on the later work of George Ormerod, whose History of the County Palatine and City of Chester was first published in 1819 and remains a standard history of the county.

A final interesting tidbit from D 4784 comes from Richard Gough, the prominent antiquarian, who served as director of the Society of Antiquaries of London from 1771 to 1791. 

In a letter to Gower dated 16th December 1770, he spoke highly of Cheshire’s Archive, and was of the opinion that London’s record offices at that time compared "unfavourably with Cheshire" which “had a Castle and Archives of its own”.

Our collections have expanded greatly since then, and as they continue to do so, we’ll continue to undertake projects like the D listings which update and improve the catalogue for our users. I’m sure Messrs Gower and Gough would have approved!

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