Cambridge Dictionaries Online gives this definition of the word ‘anecdote’: ‘a short, often funny, story, especially about something someone has done’. Or take the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘Secret, private, or hitherto unpublished narratives or details of history’ (earliest recorded use, Andrew Marvell, 1676).
The original Greek verb from which the Latin term was borrowed means ‘to publish’, with the negative particle ‘an-‘ in front of it – so, ‘things not published’. The descent from ‘secret history’ to ‘something not very entertaining that you were told in the pub’ is a sad one, but I think it is possible to glimpse the evolving change of meaning from the titles of some of our books.
For example, Joseph Spence’s Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters, of Books and Men, Collected from the Conversation of Mr Pope, and Other Eminent Persons of his Time, left as a manuscript on its author’s death in 1768, was published in 1820. The book consists of a sequence of short paragraphs about, or uttered by Alexander Pope, as compiled by Spence, his devoted admirer, and definitely not published before. It gives all sorts of insights into Pope’s life and character, and must be one of the starting points for anyone studying the great (if now somewhat unfashionable) poet.
In 1799, William Coxe published his Anecdotes of George Frederick Handel, and John Christopher Smith, using material derived from Hawkins’ and Burney’s histories of music, though, as Smith’s stepson, he must also have had his own memories to draw on. But by the time we get to Charles Hindley’s Tavern Anecdotes and Sayings of 1875, we are looking at a revised, enlarged and amended version of a work first published in 1825. Not very much that is ‘anecdotal’ there.
The antiquarian Richard Gough (1735–1809) is not to be confused with the earlier local historian Richard Gough (1634–1723) author of the manuscript Antiquities and Memoirs of the Parish of Myddle, County of Salop, which was not published in full until 1875 (and is therefore by definition full of anecdotes). The son of a wealthy merchant, the later Richard Gough was a precocious child whose infant works his doting mother paid to have printed … but it shouldn’t be held against him. His father’s death left him a rich man at the age of sixteen. He pursued antiquarian interests in the congenial surrounding of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the wonderful manuscript library amassed by its sixteenth-century Master and later archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker; and on leaving Cambridge he decided to devote himself to the antiquities of Britain – especially those which, in his opinion, had been overlooked.
He travelled widely around the country all his life, making copious notes on archives, ruins, and the artefacts and inscriptions unearthed in the course of ploughing or building, to be found in the private collections of gentlemen. In 1768, a year after he had been elected to the Society of Antiquaries, he published his Anecdotes of British Topography, Or, an Historical Account of What Has Been Done for Illustrating the Topographical Antiquities of Great Britain and Ireland.
I have to confess that my heart sank somewhat when I opened the first copy of our reissue. It is, in the first place, quite heavy, and the print quality of the first signature was so bad that even the care of our skilled colleagues in the scanning room was not able to restore some pages to the quality we would have liked. However, it gets much better very quickly, and who could resist Gough’s historical overview of topography?
‘Somner … was immortalizing Canterbury, when the confusions of the times damped his ardour, and almost deprived us of his labours’; ‘We are quite unacquainted with Lancashire’; ‘a most verbose quaintness’; ‘materials not unworthy to see the light’; ‘the fatality attending antiquarian collectors’. This last is a comment on the large numbers of gentleman who had undertaken to compile documents from which to derive a history of their county or town, but had died in (of?) the attempt. Gough’s enumeration of historians from Gildas and Giraldus Cambrensis downwards is in part a rallying cry to his contemporaries to take up the study of their localities, and especially the works of the Anglo-Saxons, who tended to be looked down upon by classically educated antiquarians.
After chapters on the Roman geography of Britain, general descriptions of England, maps, ecclesiastical topography and natural history, we get to the real meat of the book: a county-by-county survey of relevant manuscripts, published books, prints and plans, inscriptions, and anything else that seems relevant.
Take Worcestershire, for example. There is apparently a parchment copy of the Domesday returns of the county in the library of Jesus College, Oxford. There is a short life of St Wulstan (the last surviving Saxon bishop after the Norman Conquest), translated from Old English, in Henry Wharton’s Anglia Sacra of 1691. Dr Beale’s and Dr Wall’s accounts of the medical waters at Malvern can be found in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, as can also a letter from Edward Pitt, alderman, ‘about the Sorbus pyriformis [the ‘Whitty pear’ or ‘true service tree’] growing in this county’, and Dr Beard’s account of ‘lightning at Worcester, Jun. 11, 1724’. Looking to the future of local history, there is ‘an exact plan of Kidderminster … in which the new streets are inserted as intended to be built’. Were they in fact built as intended?
This is another book which you are unlikely to sit down and read, but which endlessly rewards being dipped into, not just for the information it contains, but for Gough’s trenchant comments: see him, for example, on Mary Toft, who allegedly gave birth to several rabbits in Godalming, Surrey.
P.S. On the ‘Whitty pear’, I’ve just found this note from 1903: ‘A strike or seedling from the original tree in the Wyre Forest, which was described by Phil: Trans of 1678 by Mr Pitt. Then considered an old tree. Alive in 1856. Destroyed by fire in 1862, kindled by a vandal who knew that it was a tree of interest. He was afterwards transported for setting fire to some farm buildings.’ Efforts are now being made in Worcestershire to locate such trees and cultivate their seeds, to prevent the species dying out.