Archaeological Journal/Volume 1/Notices of New Publications: An Essay on Topographical Literature

An Essay on Topographical Literature. By John Britton, F.S.A., &c. 4to. London, J. B. Nichols and Son, 1843.

Many years ago Mr. Britton attempted in vain to accomplish for the county of Kent that which it is to be hoped he has now achieved for Wiltshire, During the career of a long life devoted to rescuing the antiquities of our country from the neglect in which they were still held, visiting in turn all parts of England with one ruling object in view, he had opportunities of witnessing the ruin towards which many of our national ancient remains were fast declining, and of seeing how little had yet been done towards their preservation, and what vast efforts were to be made ere their value could be appreciated to an extent that would secure them from further and final spoliation and decay. Mr. Britton entered the field of archæological research when it possessed but few labourers, and his recorded exertions honourably shew how assiduously, for upwards of half a century, he has done his duty, and he must be gratified in witnessing the matured and ripened public regard for our antiquities which at the present moment is being developed, and which, all must own, his zeal and perseverance have essentially served to promote. The appeal which Mr. Britton long since made to the public to commence a systematic investigation of English antiquities, failed in its object, not from want of judgment or ability on his part, for in principle his project assimilated to those which are now so successful, but solely because his aspirations were in advance of the capacity of the public mind to second or comprehend them. It is beyond the power of individual talent to counteract general apathy and supineness, and to induce a universal disposition to further so great a change as that from utter ignorance to intelligence, a transition which time and long teaching can alone effect. The Wiltshire Topographical Society, for whose use this Essay is especially published, though it is also of general application, has set an example to the antiquaries of other counties to gather together those materials for their respective histories which can only be properly collected by themselves through division of labour applied to their own districts and neighbourhoods. The best County Histories we possess in many respects fall far short of what is really wanted, from the impossibility of one individual doing full justice to a work which requires so much time, patience, judgment, and minute research, to be executed properly and completely. As Mr. Britton observes, "The author who reasonably expects to be paid for his labours, cannot afford either the time or the expenses which are required, and the wealthy country gentleman has usually other and more seductive demands on his attention. A resident clergyman or private gentleman may accomplish with completeness and minuteness a history of his own parish, as White, in the History of Selbourne; Cullum, in the History of Hawsted; Whitaker, in the History of Whalley; Gage, in the History of Hengrave; and a few others: but that of a whole county is more than ought to be attempted or could ever be adequately executed by one person." The Rev. Joseph Hunter, in his "History of Hallamshire," has forcibly shewn the great use of Topography, and its comparative neglect. "If this," says he, "has fallen amongst us into some degree of disrepute, who will venture to say that it does not lend a useful light to enquiries into almost every department of our national literature? Who will say that there is not room for the exercise of some of the higher powers of the mind? or that learning, both classical and indigenous, may not be successfully applied? Topography, in the sense it is now used, is a literature peculiar to the English nation. It cannot be said to have extended itself even to Wales or Ireland. No shire of Scotland has yet been described as our English counties are described. Foreign nations have admirable descriptions of their principal cities and towns, but their topographical writers have not yet learned to ascend the rivers, and penetrate the recesses of their pasturable forests, shewing us where men in the infancy of society fixed their habitations, and where and how the village churches arose in the infancy of Christianity. So little do foreign nations know of their country, that even Pæstum remained to be discovered within the memory of man."

For the benefit of the students in topography, Mr. Britton has given notices of the plans adopted by the chief writers in this department of literature, a brief and useful account of our national, historical, and topographical records, and a glossary of words in Domesday Book, so that the essay may extend its sphere of influence beyond the limits of the Wiltshire Topographical Society. c. r. smith.