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Surtees, Robert (1779-1834) (DNB00)


SURTEES, ROBERT (1779–1834), antiquary and topographer, was only surviving child of Robert Surtees of Mainsforth, by his wife and first cousin Dorothy, daughter and co-heiress of William Steele of Lamb Abbey, Kent, a director of the East India Company. He was born in the South Bailey of the city of Durham on 1 April 1779, nearly eighteen years after his parents' marriage. He was educated first at Kepyer grammar school, Houghton-le-Spring, under the Rev. William Fleming, and subsequently (1793) under Dr. Bristow at Neasdon, where he gained the friendship of Reginald Heber (afterwards bishop of Calcutta). He matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, on 28 Oct. 1796, graduating B.A. in November 1800, and M.A. in 1803. In 1800 he became a student at the Middle Temple, but was never called to the bar, for on the death of his father on 14 July 1802 he relinquished the profession and established himself for life at Mainsforth, being then in his twenty-fourth year.

From childhood Surtees seems to have exhibited a natural taste for antiquities, being when a boy an assiduous coin collector, and showing a peculiar attraction for every species of folklore. Even in his undergraduate days he contemplated writing that ‘History of Durham’ to which he practically devoted his life. Once having determined on his task, he brought to bear on it an exceptional power of minute inquiry and considerable critical scholarship. Throughout his task he was sustained by a real love of the work. His plan was to drive about the county with a groom examining carefully all remains of antiquity, and noting all inscriptions, registers, and any accessible documents. The groom, says his friend James Raine [q. v.] (Memoir of Surtees, p. 17), complained that it was ‘weary work,’ for master always stopped the gig and ‘we never could get past an auld beelding.’ Surtees suffered from almost continuous ill-health, which made his habit of study somewhat desultory; his great work was written piecemeal, paragraph by paragraph, and the copy so produced despatched at irregular intervals to the printers. The new ‘History’ was advertised on 14 April 1812, the first volume appeared in 1816, the second in 1820, the third in 1823, and the fourth after Surtees's death in 1840, edited by Raine. Although the work was handsomely subscribed for in the county, yet the magnificent style of printing, paper, and illustration entailed upon its author a heavy expenditure. The ‘History’ contains an immense amount of genealogical information for the most part very accurate, and this is doubtless due to the fact that Surtees's local position and reputation secured for him a liberal access to family deeds and documents. A playful humour, not generally to be expected in a learned work of such magnitude, characterised the style, ‘every now and then breaking out like a gleam of sunshine … and exciting the reader to a smile when least expecting to be surprised’ (Quarterly Rev. xxxix. 361, review by Southey). The fragments of poetry interwoven with the notes and the poems generally entitled ‘the superstition of the north,’ are of Surtees's own invention. ‘He was imbued with the very “spirit of romaunt lore,”’ says Dibdin (Northern Tour, p. 256), and was an apt ballad-writer. Indeed, he inaugurated his acquaintance with Sir Walter Scott by imposing upon him a spurious ballad of his own composition. This production, called the ‘Death of Featherstonehaugh,’ and describing the feud between the Ridleys and Featherstones, was published in the twelfth note to the 1st canto of ‘Marmion’ (ed. 1808), and was inserted, with notes by both Scott and Surtees, in the ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ (ii. 101, ed. 1831). Probably from fear of wounding Scott, Surtees never revealed the playful imposture, which was not divulged until after Surtees's death.

Surtees lived as much as possible in the quiet seclusion of Mainsforth, where he kept an open house for antiquaries, scholars, and genealogists. He was very generous in the use he permitted others to make of the many documents and transcripts which he accumulated throughout life.

He died at Mainsforth on 11 Feb. 1834, and was buried on 15 Feb. in the churchyard of Bishop Middleham. He married Anne, daughter of Ralph Robinson of Middle Herrington, Durham, on 23 June 1807.

Scott, writing to Southey in 1810 (Lockhart, Life, ii. 301), described Surtees as ‘an excellent antiquary, some of the rust of which study has clung to his manners; but he is good-hearted, and you would make the summer eve short between you.’ To provide a fitting memorial for Surtees, the society which bears his name was founded on 27 May 1834 with the object of illustrating the history and antiquities of those parts of England and Scotland included in the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, by publishing inedited manuscripts mainly of a date anterior to the Restoration, and relating to the history and topography of northern England.

A silhouette portrait of Surtees is prefixed to the ‘Life’ by G. Taylor.

[Life of Surtees, by George Taylor (Surtees Soc.) 1852; biographical notice of Surtees in Richardson's Collection of Reprints and Imprints, Newcastle, 1844; Surtees's Hist. of Durham.]

W. C.-r.