Blomefield, Francis (DNB00)
BLOMEFIELD, FRANCIS (1705–1752), topographer of Norfolk, who was born at Fersfield, Norfolk, on 23 July 1705, was the son of Henry Blomefield of the same place, a gentleman of independent means, by his wife Alice, the daughter and heiress of John Batch, of Lynn. He was the fifth in descent from Henry Blomefield, of Fersfield, and each of his four ancestors having married an heiress or coheiress, he was the possessor of ample means with which to gratify his literary tastes. When only fifteen he began collecting material for his future work, and from 1720 to 1733 he records that he spent 175l. 16s. in journeying about making church notes and in buying some few manuscripts. He was educated at Diss and Thetford schools, and when under nineteen proceeded to the Norfolk college of Gonville and Caius at Cambridge, on All Fools' Day 1724. While at Cambridge he is said to have published a thin quarto ‘Collectanea Cantabrigiensia;’ but the only copy we have seen purports to have been printed at Norwich in 1750. He took his B.A. degree in 1727, and was ordained deacon on 17 March in the same year, the next year being licensed preacher by Dr. Thomas Tanner, the well-known antiquary and author of the ‘Notitia.’ In July 1729 he was ordained priest, and was immediately instituted rector of Hargham. Two months later he was presented to his father's family living of Fersfield, which he held, with the rectory of Hargham, till January 1730. He then resigned Hargham, which he only held as the temporary predecessor of the Rev. John Hare, the brother of the patron.
On 27 May 1732 his father died, and on 1 Sept. he married Mary, daughter of the Rev. Laurence Womack, rector of Caistor by Yarmouth, and cousin and heir of the Bishop of St. David's, one of a family who had long been parsons of Blomefield's native place. By her he had three daughters, of whom two survived him. In October 1733 he began to put forward proposals for his history of Norfolk, which were very well received; Tanner, who had just been made bishop of St. Asaph, especially encouraging him. In the spring of 1735 he was recovering from a violent fever, and had the good fortune to obtain access to the evidence room of the late Earl of Yarmouth, the head of the Paston family, at Oxnead, and lived among the parchments for a fortnight. To Blomefield is due the credit of being the discoverer in that interval of the well-known ‘Paston Letters,’ which he describes as ‘innumerable letters of good consequence in history.’ It is a significant fact that these same Paston letters afterwards came into the hands of ‘honest (?) Tom Martin;’ and as we know that this unscrupulous topographer possessed himself of many of Blomefield's manuscripts after his death, it may be that the Paston letters were among them, and that in this instance Martin was only ‘from the robber rending his prey.’
By the early part of 1736 Blomefield had come to the conclusion that he was ready to begin his great work, and that he would print it in his own house. He bought a press and some type—apparently old and of different and insufficient founts, for his indexes are printed in all sorts of type, one after another—and hired a workman at 40l. a year. His troubles with his printers and engravers were endless, and to them was added the temporary loss of the whole of his collection for Diss Hundred, which miscarried when sent to Tanner for approval and correction. Then a fire is said to have consumed his press and printing office, and all the copies of his first volume. However, he gradually brought out number after number, and the work was so well received that he actually had to reprint his first part twice. His first folio volume was completed at Christmas 1739, just after he had received the gift of the rectory of Brockdish. The accounts of Thetford, which formed part of his first volume, and of Norwich, which took up the whole of the second volume, were separately published in 4to and folio respectively. ‘Norwich’ (913 pp. fol.) was advertised by him separately at 1s. a number of eight sheets, and its publication extended over more than four years, the date of its completion being 31 May 1745. He apparently took up his abode permanently at Norwich while his Norwich volume was in the press. Directly he began to advertise his Norwich volume, Thomas Kirkpatrick, the brother of the well-known John Kirkpatrick, issued a counter-advertisement in the local papers, complaining that Blomefield had stated that whatever occurred in John Kirkpatrick's original collections would be incorporated in the new work, and alleging that all such collections were in his own custody, and that neither Blomefield nor any one else had ever copied a line of them. To this Blomefield replied in a very temperate advertisement, that he would show any one (who would call on him at Fersfield) Tanner's, Le Neve's, and Kirkpatrick's collections. He added that Kirkpatrick always collected notes on loose papers, and that, when he had transcribed these papers into his note-books, he gave them to Le Neve in exchange for anything Le Neve found about Norwich.
Blomefield was about halfway through his third volume when he died, literally in harness; for coming up to London to see some deeds in the Rolls Chapel he caught the smallpox, and died of it on Thursday, 16 Jan. 1752, at the early age of forty-seven. It is said he had always refused to be inoculated, thinking it was wrong to attempt to avoid evils sent by his Creator. He was buried on the Saturday following in the south side of the chancel of Fersfield Church. Little is known of his personal appearance, but though there is no portrait of him extant, he is said to have so much resembled John Flamsteed that ‘honest Tom Martin’ of Thetford preserved and valued a portrait of the astronomer for no other reason, and a copy of it is prefixed to the octavo edition of Blomefield. It is of a man with a good forehead, fine eyes under rather beetle brows, a prominent nose, and a firm mouth. There seems no doubt that he died in debt, for by his will, dated shortly before he died, he directed all his personal property to be sold and applied towards payment of his debts, and the winding up of his estate seemed so formidable a matter to his executors, that they declined to act and renounced probate; administration was therefore granted to his two principal creditors. Whether his great work cost him more than he expected one cannot say, but one of his female relations, who lived to be very old, told Mr. Freeman, now living at St. Giles, Norwich, that he was very fond of foxhunting, kept a pack of hounds, and got into difficulties thereby, and had to retire to Norwich, where he lived in Willow Lane. That he was a tory we know from his voting for Bacon and Wodehouse in 1734, and that he was of a jovial way of living may be supposed from his being a boon companion of Martin, who was notorious for his love of drinking.
It is difficult to say whether he had original collections for the rest of the county on a similar scale to what he printed. If he had, they were not made much use of by the Rev. Charles Parkin, who, though a most incompetent man, was entrusted with the completion of the history of Norfolk, and who, according to Craven Ord, died before he sent any (all?) of his work to the press, the book being ultimately finished by some bookseller's hack employed by Whittingham of Lynn. The third volume was published in folio at Lynn in 1769; the fourth and fifth volumes at Lynn in 1775. These were described as ‘continued by the Rev. Charles Parkin.’ The whole work was republished in London in eleven octavo volumes between 1805 and 1810. A very good index of the names mentioned in the octavo edition of the ‘History’ was prepared by J. N. Chadwick and issued by him at King's Lynn in 1862.
Blomefield probably worked on the principle of taking Le Neve's collections as the backbone of his history, and working up each parish as he came to it. Certain it is that in the five folio volumes there is vastly more of Le Neve's work than Blomefield's, and to the former, therefore, should more justly be given the credit of being the county historian of Norfolk. Indeed, if we were to analyse the book and eliminate Le Neve's, Tanner's, and Kirkpatrick's work, there would be very little of Blomefield's left. Some of Blomefield's unpublished manuscripts were taken possession of and sold by Martin, who thus acted as the literary wrecker of two fine collections, Le Neve's and Blomefield's. Others of them passed into the hands of the descendant of one of Blomefield's daughters, a Mr. Robert Martin, of Bressingham, who buried ‘a large mass of them in the earth’!
One can hardly estimate the real value of the great work which, rightly or wrongly, bears Blomefield's name, and which, had he lived, would have been so much larger and better. It is full of errors, its descriptions of all buildings singularly scanty and bald, and its attempts at etymology ludicrous in the extreme; both Blomefield and his continuator apparently having ‘water on the brain,’ for they attempt to derive nearly every place-name from some word or another which they allege to mean water. In critical faculty Blomefield was absolutely wanting, and he fell an easy victim to all the monstrous pedigree fabrications of the heralds, his pages chronicling as gospel all the ridiculous family histories of the Howards, the Wodehouses, the Clares, and others, which bear their own contradiction on their faces. Specimens of Blomefield's errors and omissions will be found at p. 318 of the third volume of the ‘East Anglian.’ His book, however, is an enduring monument of hard disinterested work, for it was wholly a labour of love, and as far as the facts chronicled it is usually very trustworthy. It is wonderful indeed how often the searchers among manuscripts of to-day come across Blomefield's private mark or his beautifully legible handwriting on charters or rolls. A very good point in his character was the unselfish readiness with which he imparted his knowledge to others working in the same field.