DURING Gerard’s visit to Shrewsbury in September 2012, dropping into Shropshire Archives yielded a fascinating encounter with the turn of phrase of John Clavering Wood’s good friend, John Freeman Milward Dovaston (1782-1854), via a collection of letters written to Rev Thomas Archer (1780-1843) spanning 1805-35. The letters coincide with the years when Archer was a single man in Oxford, through his marriage and the arrival of children, to his incumbency at Whitchurch, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.
A sketch of “Crazy Jack” Dovaston by Scottish artist James William Giles, Aug 1842. From ‘Two old Shropshire naturalists’, Forrest (1910) in Transactions of the Caradoc and Severn Valley Field Club, page 128
The series begins with Dovaston’s letter of 20 June 1805 to Rev Archer, then at St Aldates’ Oxford. Dovaston, aged 23 years, is holidaying from the Temple at Stamford in Lincolnshire with Octavius Gilchrist (1779–1823), man of letters and an antiquary.
Dovaston protests his juvenile knowledge of the law: “For as yet I am but the lag in the lower form, and little skilled in the soft phrase of courts,” and refers to Shropshire as “his father’s house”.
Dovaston requests Archer to visit him: “If you come on horseback (which I should prefer), I wlll meet you at any intermediate town on the other side of Birmingham…” He signs it, “a rolling stone gathers no moss”.
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In Letter 1422/4, addressed to Archer at Shutford, near Banbury, Oxon, Dovaston expresses the “pleasures of anticipation from an obscure village in Shropshire”, and mentions his own birthday (30 Dec) as ”unpolluted with the tinsel of ephemeral frivolities…”
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On 31 March 1808, Dovaston’s father (also John) died at West Felton. Later that year on 15 October, writing from West Felton, Dovaston addresses a letter to Rev Archer of Whitchurch Vicarage, Bucks, appealing for a visit, and embarrassed about being so long in writing:
‘Tis seldom that I am in a letter writing humour, and when in that humour, still more seldom in a letter writing condition, being perhaps far from pens, ink and paper, three sine qua nons (more Arabic) to the writing of letters. Should you ever chance (or if you do not chance, you must) to come into Shropshire because do not forget a little hut(?) at West Felton near Shrewsbury, where one Jack Dovaston is governor — Here are beds, etc, etc. etc, for you and yours, tho’ I go and lie in the pig sty, or with any other learned brethren elsewhere.
Cannot you come this winter? or next Summer? or when? We have organs for you to play on, churches for you to preach in (with ample room for reformation), plants for you to gaze at, ditches to search insects in, apparatus for philosophy, shops for your mechanical powers, stars for you to admire (equal to any in Oxford) and above all, good roast beef, good ale and excellent pipes and tobacco.
Come along, come along, what the devil would you have more? What, why a hearty welcome to make use of them, in the company of your friend and real well wisher, John FM Dovaston (1422/5)
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JFM Dovaston inherited the Nursery from his father. The estate and dwelling near Oswestry no longer remain. (Photo: G Benjamin)
On 10 June 1809 from West Felton, D writes: ”…yet my wish is selfish – for what prompts my wish for you to come, is the pleasure you will give your friend.”
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In 1813, Archer is now incumbent at Whitchurch, Aylesbury and on 1 June 1813 (1422/8), writing from West Felton, Dovaston makes the only mention of Wood in this series of letters – namely Gerard’s ancestor John Clavering Wood (1778-1835) – when he says:
Dear Archer, Tho’ Wood is my neighbour (and we country folks call each of them neighbours tho’ fifteen miles apart), I have not seen him since Shakespeare’s birthday, which I must perhaps tell you, was the 23rd April. I have but little doubt but he received your very kindly sent parcel of the plants from Oxford; and I enclosed to him your letter to me about them, but he has not answered me. When I see him, depend on it, I will JAW him about it.
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In a particularly reflective mood, Dovaston’s Letter of 27 November 1828 (1422/9) provides a summary of his life… There’s more rumination in the letter of 24 March 1829 when he writes, “I had and have multitudinous pegs whereon to hang the rich drapery of memory…” and later (7 July 1830), “My life has had a great deal more shine than shower…”
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3 August 1832:
We kept the 23rd April as usual [Shakespeare's birthday], for (I think) the 25th time, and among others drank your health with cordial conviviality – and last Friday this day week, our merry Festival on the heights of the Breidden Mountain was celebrated (during a solar eclipse) on one of the finest days of this fine summer. I have never once missed that Festival for upwards of forty years. The lasses were very gay, and the gallants very merry and we kept it up at that altitude till nearly midnight. I was the senior member present, and they brought me roaring down the mountain like old Silenus amid his nymphs and bacchanals. … That mountain is the most noted in all Britain for the greatest number of the rarest plants. Some are exclusively peculiar to that habitat.
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Dovaston makes mention of the disease, the Collaring Morpheus, and the series ends with the letter of 7 January 1835 (1400/21) with:
Within these last three years, Death has made sad havock among mine: I have lost seven – not common acquaintances – but of the dearest, brightest, and best of men God ever made for friendship, men of my own age, that I had known and loved from infancy….
On 24 June, JC Wood of Marche Hall also passed away, thus adding to Dovaston’s ‘sad havock’. On 22 May 1843, the following entry appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine (p. 214):
Clergy Deceased: At Whitchurch, Bucks, aged 63, the Rev. Thomas Archer, Vicar of that Parish. He was of Peterhouse, Cambridge, M.A. 1807, and was presented to Whitchurch in 1812 by Lord Chancellor Eldon.