This article came from the Chronicle published April 1979. Pages 7-11


Rev. John Collinson – County Historian

Author: Winifred Oatway


The publication in 1791 of The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset in three quarto volumes, gained for its author, the Reverend John Collinson, F.A.S., the title of Somerset Historian. According to the Reverends Weaver and Bates, editors of its index published 107 years later, it also made his name a household word in the county, a fact which may have been due to the scathing criticism it received at the time.

There is little left in the way of biographical detail to enable us to draw a clear picture of Collinson the man. Nevertheless it would seem from the little we do know that he was an earnest young scholar, full of goodwill and good intent. A perfect, if unfair, target for the waspish tongues of the reviewers of the day. Ten years of the 36 he lived were engaged on his mammoth task, and he died two years after it, was published. An event which after his labours was thought ‘not surprising’.

He was born in 1757. A copy of his certificate of baptism reads:

‘Born July 9th Baptized 21st, Jolua the son of the
Revd Mr Collinson and Elizabeth his wife. This
is a true copy of the Parish Register of Bromham
in the County of Wilts,
(signed) John Rolt, Rector of Bromham, October 29th 1779.’

He received his B.N.C.Matric. on 8 April 1775, aged 18, and subsequently became a student of Queen’s College in the University of Oxford on 2 July 1777, where he stayed until 17 June 1779, The precise dates of his sojourn there are given in the formal testimonial requested by him from the then Provost of Queen’s College, Thomas Fothergill, D.D., and Geo.Murthwaite, B.D. According to them he ‘lived piously, soberly, honestly, and behaved himself as a faithful subject of the Kings Majesty, and as a dutiful son of the Church of England’. With due caution they added land did not (as far as we know) embrace or maintain any Principles or Doctrines contrary to the same, and moreover we do believe in our conscience that he is fit to be admitted to the holy order of Deacon’,

Even more cautious were the Rectors of Bromham. (the same John Rolt who made a copy of the certificate of baptism) and those of Potshot and Ditcheridge, in their testimonial addressed to ‘The Right Reverend Father in God John by divine permission Lord Bishop of Sarum’. Confirming John’s piety, sobriety honesty, and dedication to the doctrine of the Church of England, to the words ‘as far as we know’ add ‘or have heard’. It would appear that John was a model of diligence and conformity,

In 1779, at the age of 22, he had published a. work entitled ‘The Beauties of British Antiquities selected from the writings of esteemed antiquaries with notes and observations’. No record can be found of the effect this work had upon the public in general, but it. was perhaps this which gave him the impetus for gathering together the material for the more ambitious History of Somerset.

The date of his ordination is unknown, but a letter dated 1 November 1779, addressed tonthe Right Rev. Lord Bishop of Oxford, reads: ‘My Lord, The Bearer hereof John Collinson Student of Queen’s College in the University of Oxford, is a candidate for Deacon’s orders at this time. He has a real title in my Diocese and I am very well satisfied in regard to his testimonials and certificate of his age and shall be obliged to your Lordship if you will be so good as to ordain him Deacon with your other Candidates at your next Ordination if he appears to your Lordship upon examination to be properly qualified in point. of Literature. I am My Lord, Your affectionate Brother J.Sarum’.

On 25 March 1781 he married Mary Hill of Cirencester and it is reasonable to suppose that he was by this time. ordained, It was during this year that he announced his intention of publishing the History of Somerset. The following year Mary gave birth to a son, he too was christened John on 16 April 1782, and in this year of fatherhood John became Vicar of Clanfield in Oxfordshire.

As was the custom, Collinson left the running of Clanfield to his curate, who in 1784, was reported as being a Mr Johnson of Bampton. It was a small Community. In 1770 there were only 30 to 40 houses and one farm. The Vicar at that time was a Mr Thomas Middleton who lived at Bampton ‘one mile distant and has a free school there. Service and sermons here every Sunday morning. Prayers on particular days – both in Lent. Communicants from 10 to 20. £5 per year paid out of two estates for the poor’.

In 1797 ‘Mr Johnson gives a vague account of the number of communicants that it is tolerable. Sunday School supported partly by the Society in London’. Was it the influx of London society which was responsible for the growth of the community, or was it merely following the general trend of the country in which the population doubled during the eighteenth century? In 1790 Great and Little Clanfield contained 100 houses and nearly 600 inhabitants. ‘Mr Johnson resides at Langford. Salary £25’ Mr.Johnson, it seems, from his vagueness on the number of his communicants and from his laconic ‘We have no papists’ to a lengthy questionnaire in June 1793 from the Bishop of Oxford on the subject, apparently bore his stewardship with equanimity.

John spent the years of his marriage at Cirencester. An entry in an old ledger belonging to the business of Mr Harold Smith, a Cirencester chemist, whose business included that of bookbinder and stationer, shows that on 21st November 1786, he paid £1 for ‘Binding 4 Octavos his Antiq.’ The accounts also show from the books on Somerset which he had bound and from the quantities of paper and quills purchased, that he must have been engaged on writing the greater portion of his history of Somerset during that period.

It was in 1784 that he issued the ‘Proposals for printing by subscription the history of the county of Somerset . . . The historical and ecclesiastical part by the reverend John Collinson, F.A.S. The topographical and natural history by Mr Edmund Rack.’ A year later appeared ‘A specimen of the history of the county of Somerset. Being an account of the parishes of Chilcompton and Porlock. N.B. The work is intended to be published in three volumes agreeable to the proposals annexed, dated Bath, October 1784’- It was in Bath that Edmund Rack resided, and it is obvious that John held him in great esteem. When the History was finally published he devoted six pages to an account of his life and 84 pages to the city of Bath alone.

One can imagine that these years were happy ones for John, immersed in work he enjoyed, with a wife and friend-, to support and sustain him and the promise of public recognition when his task was done. If happy he was, however, it was to be short-lived. On 27 February 1787 his friend Edmund Rack died at Bath ‘in the 52nd year of his age, sincerely regretted by his friends who were as respectable as they were numerous’ records John in his History. His description of the illnesses sustained by him during his lifetime are detailed and full of praise for his Christian fortitude.

On 28 November of the same year, after only six and a half years of marriage, Mary his wife died. The entry in the Cirencester Burial Register is unusual since it, also records the circumstances of her death. ‘Mary ux.Rev. John Collinson clerk who was attacked on Thursday November 28th with a violent pain in her bowels and died in about 12 hours after’. She was 32, her husband being some eighteen months her junior.

It was some time in 1787 that John was appointed Vicar of Long Ashton and Perpetual Curate of Whitchurch in the county of Somerset, whether before or after his wife’s death is not certain, but it would seem that her demise prompted his taking up residence in Long Ashton. We like to think that the work involved in completing his task, helped to assuage his grief.

His history was eventually published in, 1791, in three quarto volumes, although there were also 12 copies only of a large paper folio, The earlier copies were issued without the illustrations, and the plates consequently sold separately together with ‘Directions to the binder for placing the plates etc. to M:r Collinson’s History of Somersetshire’.

The ‘Gentleman’s Review’ of the day from which society must have taken its cue, was vicious; ‘Careless of authorities, or unknowing how to use them, almost all he advances reflects on printed books or his own assertations’. ‘Mr C is a mere compiler from PRINTED books, borrowing even his descriptions of facts and grounds from Arthur Young, that universal tourist, and we doubt not, that had Mr Pennant journeyed over the same track, he would have made off with large excerpts from him’. ‘We tremble for the fate of the history of Wiltshire which Mr C announces as preparing, in the press.’

The latter’s fears were groundless. Any ambition John Collinson had to continue his writings must have been quenched not only by this damning criticism but by his failing strength engendered by the enormity of his labours. He died at Bristol on 27 August 1793 at the age of 36.

Felix Farley’s Journal for Saturday 31 August records his death as follows. ‘Tuesday last August 27th, died at Hotwell, after a lingering illness, the Revd John Collinson F A S . . . the ingenious author of the History and Antiquities of Somersetshire:- a most valuable member of Society whom to know was to respect and love’. This last epitaph we feel was not a platitude uttered to the glorification of the departed, as so often is the case. Whilst there are few facts to be discovered about the personal life of the man, the letters of his remaining, are revealing with regard to his character.

On 22 September 1783, to a Mr Gough at Enfield, Middlesex, whom he addressed as a ‘Friend of Literature who generously offered your assistance’: ‘Various considerations having induced me to resume the History of Somerset, I think it incumbent on me to give you.the latest information of it as you expressed desire of being made acquainted with . . . Mr Rack of Bath has nearly surveyed the whole county taking note of everything in his way necessary to be known, with draughts of all the Parish Churches which are intended as Headpieces to our work. On my own part I have reason to lament want of Mr Strachey’s materials which notwithstanding several applications are not to be come at – he says that he himself designs to digest them one day or other, but if there are any particular points we wish to be informed of he will search for them and give me necessary extracts. No proposals have been published since your letter, when there are any I will take care to loan a few to be conveyed to you by only London correspondents. The book is to be printed in one Folio Volume many plates are promised and much encouragement proposed by the County in general. We have some doubt with regard to the arrangement of our Materials what method will be best whether by Hundreds (which are irregular in this County) or Alphabetical order beginning first with Bath & Wells. Permit me to say that your good advice on this or any part of our undertaking would be highly acceptable and gratefully esteemed. Your obedient and much obliged servant, J.Collinson’.

Penned in a meticulous legible hand, John’s letters are in complete contrast to Mr Gough’s which are almost indecipherable. The above letter is worthy of note if only for the mention it makes of Strachey’s materials. In view of the reception his History got from the Press of the time Collinson would undoubtedly have appreciated the interest it was still causing more than half a century later.

Sir Edward Strachey, antecedent of John. F.R.S., Sutton Court, author of the original MSS, remarked from the Presidential chair of the 1867 meeting of the Somerset Archaeological Society, that the reason his ancestor was not acknowledged in the History was because his manuscript was not known to Collinson. A statement inclined to make one believe he wished that it had been used and acknowledged, This letter of Collinson’s is proof that it was known, and indeed desired, but not forthcoming. A further letter signed by him and Edmund Rack and addressed to Sir Charles Kemys Tynte of Halswell mentions again the promise of ‘the use of those valuable materials’.

On 2 October 1786 John wrote once more to Mr Gough: ‘I have felt much uneasiness in not being able to fulfil my promises to you sooner and avail myself of your correspondences which I shall always value and esteem. I have at length made use of the notes concerning yr parishes of Widcomb and Bathampton with which you forearmed me and I propose to return them the beginning of next week in a parcel to Mr Longman in P’Noster Row, together with some remarks on a few passages in your Britannica, some of the first sheets of our work, and an exact copy of the inscriptions on Canning’s monument which a visit to Bristol since the Rec’t of your last letter furnished me with an opportunity of taking. The pavement you enquire after is in a cellar belonging to Thomas Smith Esq., in Dyer St. I have a rough drawing of it which as it may give you some idea of the original (if you think it worth your acceptance) accompany the Articles. I am Sir with respect your obedient and obliged servant J.Collinson’.

Copies of Mr Gough’s replies to John dated 15 September 1787, 7 March 1789, and 30 April 1789, have survived, but the gentleman’s handwriting grows steadily more abandoned. He would appear, However, to have been a testy man, prone to take offence, from the placatory tone of John’s letter to him.

On 5 March 1789, from Long Ashton, he virites: ‘In a late conversation with Mr T.Bannor I learnt that you had expressed surprise at not receiving some papers I promised you so long ago as when I resided in Gloucestershire. I confess myself equally surprised for I assure you I forwarded two parcels for you at Enfield’ He ends by ‘being at all times happy with your correspondence’.

We have no means of knowing whether the parcel was traced but Mr Gough would not be placated. On 20 September 1791 John writes again. ‘There seems to have existed an unfortunate misunderstanding in our correspondence for which I am sorry, particularly if it had been owing to some neglect of mine. But I well remember that my last letter was dated subsequently to yours in March 1789 and from Long Ashton near Bristol where I have resided almost four years, constantly engaged in the Somersetshire book. You was (sic) therefore misinformed concerning my having been in London, my labours in the county having hitherto prevented that Attention which I owe to my friends there and particularly to, the Society of Antiquarians. I have now the satisfaction to inform you that the History of Somersetshire, except a few additions and connotations is finished in the press, and its publication awaits only a few plates by Mr Bonnor. I should with the greatest pleasure pay any respects to you personally whenever my business might call me to the metropolis, and in the mean time would answer any enquiries you might please to favour me with. I am Sir with great respect your obedient and obliged servant J.Collinson.

From these letters, the manner and. tone in which they are written, John Collinson would appear to have been a young man of courtesy, self-control, and with a desire to please. Reading his History one could say even over-anxious to please. Every village in the county is chronicled in meticulous detail, delightfully so, read by today’s eyes, facts which he must have hoped posterity would be interested in and be grateful for, as indeed we are. It is not surprising perhaps that the critics of his day were so severe, antiquity lends modern eyes a more tolerant view. A great part of its charm lies in the earnestness of its observations. What is surprising is the fact that no, allowances were made for the enormity of his task and the length of his labours. Many years were to pass before such a crumb of comfort was given. The compilers of his History’s Index write: ‘After a lapse of a century errors many, derivations comical in their genesis, observation trivial or puerile, remarks telling of artificial standard of taste, are scattered over the pages; this does not detract in the slightest from the credit due to a man who first, made his way through an enormous mass of detail which made up the parochial history’.

Collinson himself at the end of his Preface admits its imperfections. After a long list of names to which he professes himself indebted, he writes: ‘With all these aids I am still aware that there are numerous errors and imperfections throughout the whole of this performance; some of which may probably have arisen from the extent of the territory it surveys, and others from the ambiguity of records relating to facts at very remote periods; but most I lament from my own inability to do justice to a task, which, in regard of the places and persons it has to represent, is in itself so important and honourable’. There speaks an honest man, more of a gentleman we feel than the reviewers of that name, at. that time.

It was Milton, writing of the death by drowning of his learned friend, Lycidas, 120 years before Collinson’s birth, who wrote:

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
To scorn delights and live laborious, days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind fury with the abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life . . .

Whether it was a dream of fame which spurred on John Collinson we shall never know. As a scholar in an age in which there were few, he may merely have been ahead of his time in wishing to bring knowledge to, the masses who were denied it. He dedicated his History with great humility to ‘His most Excellent, Majesty King George III’, patron of arts, whose book collection laid the foundation for the British Library. Certain it is that he must have scorned many delights to concentrate on the laboriousness, of his task. Did he think of Milton’s poem, we wonder, when hoping perhaps for ‘the fair guerdon’ he received instead of the ‘blind fury’?

Whatever the truth was, his work remaindd the standard work on the county until today when the Victoria County History is in progress of being completed. Undoubtedly a first-class production for the time in which it was written, its value to the local historian even now is reflected in current prices being asked for it by antiquarian booksellers.

Authorities consulted:

Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries
Bibliotheca Somersetensis . E.Green
History of Somerset : Rev.J.Collinson
Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal
Gentleman’s Magazine
Diocesan Record Office, Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Bodleian Library, Oxford,
Kings and Queens of England and Great Britain : E.R.Delderfield.

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