Memoir of Mr John Legg of Market Lavington, Wilts
Memoir of Mr. John Legg, of Market Lavington, Wilts,
An Advanced Ornithologist of the 18th Century
By the Rev. A. C. Smith
In 1780 was published anonymously, price one shilling, in paper covers, printed and sold, for the Author, by Collins and Johnson, of Salisbury, sold also by Fielding and Walker, of Paternoster Row, a post 8vo treatise of x. and 45 pages, bearing on its title-page the following very lengthy description of its contents, after the manner of the age in which it was written:—
"A discourse on the Emigration of British Birds, or this Question at last solv’d, Whence come the Stork and the Turtle, the Crane and the Swallow, when they know and observe the appointed time of their coming? Containing a curious, particular and circumstantial account of the respective retreats of all those Birds of Passage which visit our island at the commencement of spring, and depart at the approach of winter; as, the Cuckow, Turtle, Stork, Crane, Quail, Goatsucker, the Swallow tribe. Nightingale, Blackcap, Wheatear, Stonechat, Whinchat, Willow Wren, Whitethroat, Etotoli, Flycatcher, &c., &c. Also a copious entertaining and satisfactory relation of Winter Birds of Passage, among which are the Woodcock, Snipe, Fieldfare. Redwing, Royston Crow, Dotterel, &c. shewing the different countries to which they retire, the places where they breed, and how they perform their Annual Emigrations, &c., with a short account of those Birds that migrate occasionally, or only shift their quarters at certain seasons of the year. To which are added Reflections of that truly admirable and wonderful instinct, the Annual Migration of Birds! By a Naturalist."
What makes this treatise so remarkable is that it enunciates the true story of the migration of birds, so far in advance of general belief on that point: for at the period when it was written, and indeed well into the present century, it, was commonly supposed that hybernation in hollow trees, holes of rocks and caves, and even submergence at the bottom of ponds, lakes, and rivers, during the winter, was the best explanation of the disappearance of the swallows, warblers, and other soft-billed species in the autumn. We all know now that such an hypothesis was untenable, yet it prevailed even among men of scientific attainments; but our anonymous author, more keenly alive to the truth, rejected these old-world fables, and boldly announced that migration beyond seas was the true solution of the problem; and doubtless his assertion, though long since recognized as the truth, drew down upon him the scorn and ridicule of many of his contemporaries.
How far this treatise was read, and how far its theory was accepted, we have no means of knowing; but that it must have attracted some notice is evident by the fact that a second edition appeared almost immediately after its issue in 1780, "printed in London for Stanley Crowder, Bookseller, No. 12, Paternoster Row, and B. C. Collings, Salisbury." Again a reprint was issued in "London in 1795 by J. Walker, No. 44, Paternoster Row"; and once more this reprint was re-issued in ” London in 1814," with a new title-page, "Printed for John Brunsby, 33, Castle Street, Leicester Square," and instead of "By a Naturalist," we read, "By George Edwards," which, however, was only a rash guess on the part of the publisher, and a very mistaken guess, as we now know. The only clue to the true authorship of this book, as contained within its covers, is that with the date at the end of the Introduction (page ix.) is given the place where it was written, "Market Lavington, Wilts": and again, at page 6 the author gives his residence as "Market Lavington, in Wiltshire."
By the same author, and at the same date (February 1st, 1780), and by the same publishers, another pamphlet of similar size and shape (pages viii. and 52), also in paper covers, was anonymously issued, entitled:—
"A new Treatise on the art of Grafting and Inoculation: wherein the different methods are copiously considered; the most successful pointed out; and every thing relative to these ancient healthful and agreeable Amusements, exhibited in so clear and comprehensive a manner, as will enable those who are perfectly unacquainted with this Department of Gardening, to become Masters of it in a very short time. To which are added directions for chusing (sic) the best Stocks for that purpose, and many curious experiments lately made by the author calculated in a peculiar manner for the use and advantage of the Gardener, as well as for those who would wish to make this rural and pleasing exercise, a part of their amusement. By an experienced Practitioner in this branch of Gardening."
And of this treatise, too, at least a second edition or reprint immediately followed the first:
"Printed for Stanley Crowder, Bookseller, No. 12, Paternoster Row, and B. C. Collins, in Salisbury."
In this, too, there is no clue to the identification of the author beyond the date at the end of the preface (page vii.), "Market Lavington, Wilts": and after the last page, on the inner sheet of the cover, the following advertisement appears:— "This day is published, price 1/-, a Discourse on the Emigration of British Birds &c., &c. By a Naturalist.
There was yet a third little book of a wholly different character, entitled:—
"Meditations and Reflections on the most important subjects, or serious Soliloquies on Life, Death, Judgment, and Immortality. By the author of the Emigration of British Birds, &c., &c. Printed at Salisbury by B. C. Collins. 1789."
Published anonymously. It contains maxims of piety, reflections on a future state, and much self-condemnation, and shows not a little alarm on account of future retribution for sin. It bears evident marks of long and severe bodily suffering, and of a mind ill at ease, with a morbid inclination to look at the dark, side of life: and in it the author, though only thirty-four years of age, speaks of himself as
"Long afflicted with a violent nervous disorder, attended with lowness of spirits, and great weakness of body . . . . which gradually debilitated my constitution,” which determined me to retire from the world, and give myself up to a recluse life, and close retirement, and to spend the remainder of my days in quiet, in religious contemplation and peaceful serenity" (page vii.).
This pamphlet gives a further clue to the identification of our anonymous author, for previous to the date at the end of the preface (page X.), "Market Lavington, Wilts, Oct. 2, 1788," we have the important addition of the author’s initials, "J. L." Again, bound up and paged with the same treatise is another short pamphlet, entitled "Meditations in a Churchyard, or, Farther Reflections on Death and Immortality. By the Author of Emigration, &c.": and here, again, at the end of a short preface or advertisement (page 26), we have the locality of the author more accurately given, "Townsend, near Market Lavington": and the date "Feb. 20, 1789," and his initials "J. L." repeated: so that, from these two little pamphlets, we have it plainly stated that the initials of the author of the "Emigration of British Birds" are J. L. And now we are getting very near to discovering our author, and indeed, with these definite marks to guide us, it may seem strange that there should have been any difficulty in the matter; nor would there have been, had this third pamphlet come earlier into notice; but it was not found until after the name of the anonymous author had been revealed.
In addition to the three little books enumerated above, our author, still anonymously, contributed a number of articles on various subjects to the "Ladies’ Magazine": some on natural history, some on fiction, and these, too, are signed with the initials "J. L.," and are scattered among many volumes of that periodical. I am informed that he once began a novel, and a few chapters were printed in the same magazine: and then for some unexplained reason he stopped short, and left his story incomplete, to the indignation of the dismayed editor, who doubtless would have endorsed the verdict of his character as given by one of his surviving descendants, that he was a "contradictory and strange man."
Now these little books of J. L. would doubtless have remained unnoticed and unknown, and the author’s name as profoundly lost as he intended when he published them anonymously, if Professor Newton, in his indefatigable researches after such obscure treatises, had not chanced to come across a copy of the "Emigration of British Birds"; and, astonished at the excellent character of the book, resolved to discover its author; and seeing the locality whence it was written, "Market Lavington, Wilts," at once wrote to me and desired me to investigate the matter.
It is needless to recount here how often I was baffled in my attempts; how the parish registers yielded no information; enquiries at Market Lavington in all directions proved unavailing, and I had almost proposed to abandon the search as hopeless; but Professor Newton, still sanguine of success, urged me to persevere, and confidently predicted ultimate triumph: and sure enough I had no sooner addressed a letter of enquiry to the Editors of the two principal local newspapers, the "Devizes Gazette" and "Devizes Advertiser," when a Mr. and Mrs. Brown, of Market Lavington, replied, and gave the welcome information that the unknown author was Mr. John Legg, and this was soon afterwards corroborated by two other independent witnesses, who very kindly wrote to the same effect.
The name of our author once ascertained, of course it was easy to follow up his history so far as it could be gathered, though very meagre and scanty are all the particulars I could gain. Indeed the marble tablet, erected to his memory in the chancel of Market Lavington Church, gives the chief details as follows:— "Sacred to the memory of John Legg, son of the late Richard and Jane Legg of this town, who departed this life April 5th 1802 aged 47," and then follow the names of his sisters, "Jane Legg, who died Nov. 14th, 1816 aged 68." "Mary Legg, who died Deer. 29, 1830, aged 80." And "Elizabeth (widow of the Rev. John Palmer, Vicar of Fordington, Dorset), who died Nov. 13, 1829, aged 71."
The property which once belonged to our author at Market Lavington still remains in the possession of his family, and though there are no members of it who bear his name now residing in the parish, the lands and houses are still owned by a lady of advanced age, whose mother before her marriage bore the name of Legg; and at her decease will, I understand, revert to one of the same name, his great nephew, Mr. Henry J. Legge, now residing at Hollyfield, Surbiton Hill, Surrey, where I believe the family have for generations been settled.
The only other relatives of whom I can learn anything were his brother the Rev. Joseph Legg, who was for about fifty-four years Perpetual Curate of Maddington, also his son, Richard Henry Legge (nephew to our author); and his niece, the late Mrs. Fowle, of Market Lavington, whose sole surviving child (Mrs. Ludlow, of Dorchester) at present holds the Legg property at Market Lavington.
It has been stated that John Legg belonged to a branch of the Dartmouth family, and it may have been so, but I can find no evidence of it. It is true that the Dartmouth coat of arms and crest may be seen surmounting one of the monuments of the Legges in Market Lavington Church, but these were added in comparatively recent times by one of the family then residing in the parish, who asserted a connection, though (so far as we can ascertain) without authority. There may, however, have been grounds for such assertion which we have failed to trace. At any rate the present members of the family repudiate such claim. Lord Dartmouth is not aware that any branch of his family had settled in Wiltshire and the present representative of our author (Mr. Henry Legge) expressly says “we never claimed any relationship with the Dartmouth family.” That the name of the Dartmouth family is spelt Legge, and our author signed himself Legg, is quite immaterial to the point in question, as such variations in spelling were common with our ancestors: moreover, as I am informed by Mr. Legge, of Surbiton, the final e, though dropped for some years, was originally added, and was again resumed, and has been in use in his family for more than ninety years.
To return to our author, Mr. John Legg. When he published his two treatises on the “Emigration of British Birds,” and on “Grafting and Inoculation of Plants,” he was only 25 years of age. He lived and died a bachelor, and for some time at least, if not to the end of his short life, his sisters lived with him. He appears to have had no profession, but to have devoted himself in his early years to the study of Nature and he is reported by his descendants to have practised the art of grafting and inoculation of trees in his own garden at Lavington: but in the latter part of his life, for he died in middle age, he was absorbed in religious speculations; and he appears to have latterly given way to melancholy thoughts and unhappy broodings, to which he was doubtless predisposed by much infirmity of body. Family tradition reports that towards the end of his life he shut himself up almost completely, seldom moving beyond his garden, where he indulged in reveries, and mused in solitude: nay, so persistently did he shun the society of his fellows that he objected to be seen in the village street, and to avoid observation he is said to have made a private path to the Church, by which he could go unseen by any: and even when a young relative was taken by her mother to visit him, all she ever saw of the recluse was his pigtail as he darted upstairs to avoid the interview. His nephew, too, recorded that he never saw him but once, and that then he never spoke to him.
These, I regret to say, are all the authentic particulars I am able to collect about our author’s life and family. I admit that he was somewhat eccentric: but that he was at the same time a man of superior intellect is evidenced by his books, and by the correct conclusions to which diligent investigation brought him: and the more on that account is it to be regretted that a larger work, of which he gives notice in his treatise on "Emigration of Birds,” is not to be found either in print or MS. And yet for the assurance that such a work was written and indeed ready for the press, we have his own word: for he says:—
"Those who are desirous of being more particularly acquainted with the natural history of the Snipe, and other British Birds, should consult a work entitled, A new and complete Natural History of British Birds, which, with great labour and expense, we have compiled. This performance is not yet published, but it is now going to the press, and will appear in a short time . . . . A curious, particular, and accurate account is given of every bird found in Great Britain, whether aquatic, migratory, or local; and every thing relating to the nature of birds in general, is treated of in as entertaining a manner as the nature of the subject would allow. In short, we think we may style it, A new and complete system of British Ornithology. See more of the particulars of this work in the Ladies Magazine for October, 1779, page 528." (p. 36.)
And again of the same book he says:–
"It is a work which has lain by me finished some years, but has not yet been published . . . . It will be comprised in two large volumes octavo, and will speedily appear. The publication of this performance has been purposely delayed, in order that it may be rendered as perfect and complete as possible." (p. 21.)
Of what interest to the British ornithologist would such a work by so accurate an observer, and at that date, be! Of what tenfold, nay, of what infinite interest to the Wiltshire ornithologist! Then we should know something definite of the Birds of Wilts in 1780.
What valuable information we should gain in regard to the hawks and other birds of prey, then so abundant, now so nearly exterminated! What accounts of the (carrion Kite, then to be seen every day, now altogether banished from the county! What personal experiences of the Great Bustard, then frequenting the downs just above Market Lavington, and all Salisbury Plain, at that time for the most part an unbroken tract of pasture! What reminiscences of the Dotterel, even within my recollection to be seen on those same downs, but now very rarely met with! How familiar he must have been with the peregrine, the hen harrier, the marsh harrier, the buzzard, the raven, the great plover, the bittern, and many others, now so seldom seen in the county!! As I picture to myself the solitude of those vast plains and downs, when the tinkle of the sheep-bell was the only sound telling of man’s occupation; when the whistle of the steam engine was yet unknown; when wheat-hoeing in the spring (so destructive to such birds as nest on the ground) was not yet practised; when the sportsman’s only weapon was a flint-lock gun, and breech-loaders and even percussion caps had not been invented; and when to "shoot flying" was an art only mastered by a select few; our wild birds enjoyed such security and freedom from disturbance as one can hardly realize now. And our author must have learned his experience of Wiltshire ornithology under these happy conditions; and I repeat that his "History of British Birds" would be to the Wiltshire naturalist almost invaluable. And it is possible, though perhaps hardly probable, that the MS. still exists: for it is strange how old MSS. which have lain neglected and unknown for years in some cupboard or box, do occasionally come to light; and in many a remote country house there are stores of documents, generally perhaps of little interest, but sometimes of surpassing value, and such would doubtless be this work in question, which we know to have been ready far the press in 1780. Should that MS. still exist, it will, I think, be eventually recovered, for the late Rev. Edward Ludlow (into whose keeping all the papers belonging to that branch of the family came) was happily (as I am assured by his executor) one who never destroyed any document, not even an ordinary letter; and that executor (Mr Hungerford Ludlow Bruges) has promised, when opportunity offers, to make a careful search, and use every effort to discover the missing MS.
By the kindness of Mr. John Watson Taylor I have seen the probate of the will of John Legg, dated April 19th, 1786. It is exceedingly short, and indeed is contained in some half-dozen lines. But the postscript, or codicil, which is three times as long as the will, is valuable, in that while it makes mention of the three books which he wrote (viz., the two books on natural history and that on religion) it altogether omits any mention of the "History of British Birds," of which he had elsewhere written in such high terms. And this silence corroborates, we fear, the tradition in the family, that for some unknown reason, its author subsequently became dissatisfied with that work, so that it is probable it was never printed, though it may still perchance exist in MS.
It only remains for me to thank the many kind friends who have interested themselves in this enquiry and supplied me with many scraps of information; and more especially am I indebted to the active cooperation of the clever young lady at Clyffe Hall, in the parish of Market Lavington, who has gathered for me all the details to be gained in that locality.
August 17th, 1894