With summer here it’s time to start to decide where to go for a late UK holiday. Where better to look than The natural history of England : or, A description of each particular county, in regard to the curious productions of nature and art : illustrated by a map of each county and sculptures of natural curiosities by Benjamin Martin (STORE 34:18-19). Martin, called “one of the first genuine retailers in the instrument trade“¹, wrote numerous books covering a range of topics including astronomy, optics, the description and use of scientific instruments, mathematics, natural philosophy, and the English language. The book under consideration here was first published as part of The general magazine of arts and sciences which was established by Martin and his bookseller William Owen. Facts provided about each English county include their size and shape, distance of major towns from London, how they are administered, if they have charity schools, the types of trades and crops they have, air and soil quality, market days, and notable antiquities. Northumberland, my home county, is described as a triangle and “the air is as pleasant as can be imagined in such a mountainous country” and “almost every places shews Roman alters, inscriptions, monuments of battles, heroes killed, armies routed, castles in ruins…”, it does have the lovely Hadrian’s Wall and lots of castles. Cambridgeshire has differing air and soil depending on what part of the county you are in, with Ely being “12 miles from Cambridge, 69 from London, is an ancient city, Chief of the fenny country …. surrounded by the Ouse and other streams, is therefore unhealthy, tho’ it stands somewhat on rising ground …. their cathedral church is a very lofty fabric, and has a stately cupola, tho’ it seems to totter with every gust of wind”. I’m assuming he means the Octagon, which looks quite secure when I pass it almost every morning.
Along with the more mundane facts there is the occasional item of curiosity such as tales of medicinal springs, of a dwarf being born in Rutlandshire and in Cheshire some odd sheep: “they are of a larger size than most others, and bear rather a kind of hair than wool; they have all 4 horns and sometimes of extraordinary size. The two horns next to the neck are erect like those of goats but larger: the other next the forehead are curved”. Cheshire also has a spring that when bottled forces itself through the pores in the glass, and a remarkable echo at Norton.
These books cover more than just England, they also covers Wales, the Isle of Man and Isle of Anglesey. Of the Welch: “They had a language of their own …. endeavours have been long used to extirpate it, yet to no purpose; and at present, beside the bible, many books of practical religion, and on other subjects of literature, are printed in that language.” He goes on to explain that many of the church ministers in Wales were English and only used that language but now most of the clergy are natives and therefore preach in both Welch and English. The description of the Isle of Man includes the following on the wildlife “They have no badgers, foxes, otters, moles, hedgehogs, or snakes in that Country, or any other noxious animal: Nor had they any frogs till lately, some spawn of frogs was brought over by a gentleman, since which they have considerably increased.” These animals are still not seen on the Isle of Man to this day.
Not only is this a interesting book (who can resist a fold out map), but Martin himself seems like an interesting character. He was self educated, was a school teacher, lectured about natural philosophy around the country and finally set up shop in London making and selling scientific instruments. He had at least two advertising wars with other instrument makers, one over portable steel-yards (coin balances) and the other over what he called visual glasses. He also traded insults with John Frekes over each other’s books on electricity. Martin died in 1782 after being declared bankrupt, it is thought that he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt and died a month later.
Note and bibliography:
1. Preface by G. L’E Turner in Millburn, J.R. Retailer of the sciences: Benjamin Martin’s scientific instrument catalogues, 1756-82. London: Vade-Mecum Press, 1986
Millburn, J. R. Benjamin Martin: author instrument maker, and ‘country showman’. Leyden: Noordhof International publishing, 1976
Millburn, J.R. Benjamin Martin: author, instrument maker and ‘country showman’, Supplement. London: Vade-Mecum Press, 1986.