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Paley has used—the hand of a beneficent and wise designing Providence, acting from the first.
Geology has a special claim to the attention of Wiltshiremen. I speak within hearing of some who may easily contradict me; but without fear of any such interruption I say, that in no part of England did the science receive an earlier or stronger impulse than in this very neighbourhood. Your own neighbourhood supplied the men who first detected its true principles. The district between Warminster, Bath, and Pewsey, included the residences of three men, whose names have been mentioned in connection with this particular point at metropolitan associations; and who should not be forgotten by a Society formed on the very spot near which they lived. Those three men were the late Mr. Wm. Smith, engineer of the Kennet and Avon Canal; the Rev. Mr. Richardson, Rector of Farleigh; and the Rev. Mr. Townsend, of Pewsey. To their industry and power of original observation, more especially to those of Mr. Smith, we owe the first table of regular stratification, and the first geological map of England. Stratification, i.e., the succession of the different layers of rock and earth, in a certain uniform order, is one of the great principles of Geology : and it was arrived at in the right way,by experiment. It is the foundation on which a great deal has no doubt since been laid by others, but that was the foundation, and those were the men who laid it.
Their observations and experiments were carried on very much in the district I have described; nor could you easily find a better for the purpose. The reason is this:—The different layers or coats of which the earth is formed, and which follow one another like the leaves of a book, do not lie exactly flat one upon the other, as flat as when the book lies on the table, but they sie edgewise; so that the edges, first of one, and then of another, appear in succession upon the surface of the earth. It is over these that we travel when we pass from chalk to green sand, green sand to freestone, and so on. They have a considerable breadth, sometimes extending for many miles. Now it so happens that in this part of England they are narrower than elsewhere, and consequently they approach nearer to one another-something like the ends of the leaves of a lady's fan. You have therefore more of them brought together within easy reach. Within ten or twelve miles north-east or south-west of Bradford, you may see almost every variety of the fossil-bearing strata of England. In Somersetshire the varieties of rock are still greater; and I have often heard Dr. Buckland say that he knew no better school for beginners in Geology than that county.
But we must not meddle with Somerset, for they have a “Natural History and Archæological Society” of their own; who will be jealous if we poach upon their manor. However we do not covet it, for there is plenty of game at home. In proof of this—that is, to show the richness of fossiliferous Wiltshire-I cannot here forbear to mention a collection of fossils formed chiefly in the neighbourhood of Bradford by the late Mr. Channing Pearce, a surgeon of that town. I have had many opportunities of seeing it, having lived for several years at no great distance from that place: and a more beautiful private collection I never did see. Mr. Pearce died some years ago, and his museum was removed to Bath, where, I believe, it still remains entire. We are in Somerset again; but we have full right to go there this time, for the collection I speak of was undoubtedly formed in this county.
But you who live at Devizes need not follow Mr Pearce's fossils to Bath; for you have in your own town, a private museum, which, so far as it goes, may challenge competition with any other. I speak of that which is, of course, well known as formed by Mr. Wm. Cunnington; and which is one instance more of the abundance and variety of the illustrations which your own neighbourhood presents, to tempt you to the study of this branch of Natural History. Though it is one of the latest that has been brought forward in this country, and is therefore in that sense very young; yet in another, Geology is extremely old; for it deals with things that are of immense antiquity. Compared with fossil organic remains, those which we commonly call Antiquities are absolutely modern. As for Nineveh it is a history of yesterday. This will not I hope deter you from approaching with respect, the Archæology of Wiltshire, i.e., the study of those monuments which owe their origin to the art and labour of mankind.
Standing as we do within a few miles of British earthworks, temples and camps; of Roman ways and stations; of cathedrals and churches built in Saxon and Norman times; of the remains of castles, religious houses, and residences of ancient gentry, all more or less connected with past English History; it is needless to say that those who are curious in such matters have surely plenty here to inquire into; and those who are not curious have plenty to tempt them to become so.
It is a little strange that such places are, so often as they are, allowed to crumble to pieces and disappear, without its being ascertained when they were built, who lived in them, and how they were destroyed. It is remarkable that standing as they have done for so many years, their history has not long since been fixed with accuracy, and placed within easy reach of all who wish to know it. I believe that people even of the commonest sort, who have no leisure or means of attending to such studies themselves, still like to hear what others are able to tell them about objects of antiquity, with the sight of which they are familiar. No places are more in favour with holidayfolk than a picturesque old monastery, or castle yard. There is a sort of charm about ivy-covered towers and mouldering arches; where great people once lived, though who they were nobody knows; and where great deeds were done, though what they were nobody can tell. About such places there is very often nothing to be learnt upon the spot by the visitor but some trumpery story-some exaggerated or distorted tradition. Indeed this is sometimes the case, I am sorry to say, even with buildings whose history has been written; but so long as books are published in so costly a style that none but the wealthiest can afford to buy them, small people are likely to remain ignorant.
I remember once visiting Glastonbury Abbey, a place whose history has been pretty well ascertained in fine folio volumes, and I was informed by the enlightened individual who conducted me over the ruins (and to whom of course I was obliged to make, for his information, a valuable return), that the Abbey had been built, “as he'd heer'd tell,” by Oliver Cromwell. “Then” said I, “who do they say pulled it down?” He "warn't quite sure, but did believe it war William Norman.” Now that the county of Somerset has its Archæological Society, we may presume that no such distressing confusion of national history may ever occur again, to shock the nerves of visitors. I mention this absurdity not so much for its own sake, as because it leads one to think whether one of the uses of such a Society as the present may not perhaps be that of making local information better known; and putting it within reach of many who can't afford to pay much for it. It is (as I have already said) not only literary and educated people who like to know about their own neighbourhood, but I do believe that speculations upon old castle and abbey stories often furnish evening talk for cottage firesides. In almost every parish you have somebody or other to play the part of “Old Mortality," who picks up fragments of tradition, and is the oracle of past times: who takes pride in “minding an old house;" or “a deal more stained glass in the church windows, than there is now;" or who has, perhaps, got some wonderful treasure of an old writing, coins that have been dug up, and the like. One meets with such people very often.
And so again, when newspapers contain, as they sometimes do, articles about some matter of local curiosity, you will find that such articles are read with interest by the people of the place to which they relate. All this shows that the desire to know something about their homes and neighbourhood is popular enough; and that all such persons want is only some cheap publication, to furnish them with the rational amusement. Newspapers are, no doubt, useful in this way, as they now-a-days fall into everybody's hands. But being too cumbrous in size for common preservation, they are read and thrown aside.
Many articles again, and notices of county history and antiquities, find their way to magazines and other periodicals. Perhaps some means might be devised by which such communications might appear not in remote, but in local publications. If all that is scattered here or there were collected and embodied, so that any one
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might lay his hand upon it when he wanted it; and if, besides folio volumes, costing their tens and twenties of guineas, for the gratification of the wealthy, there were Wiltshire History of a cheaper sort; many more would be gråtified by this kind of literature than can possibly be now; and so another rational object of the Society would be answered. This leads me, with your permission, to enter a little more upon the Topography of the County.
By Topography is meant a description of any district, its towns and villages. This includes a great many things—the history of memorable places, persons, and events; the descent of manors and lands through successive families; the history of buildings, ecclesiastical, military, and civil; the charitable foundations, ancient usages, language, coinage, &c. In the mirror of such description the reader sees the reflection of past times; an epitome of the changes which have raised his country from what it was centuries ago, to what it is now.
It is the business of a Topographer to drag, as it were, the pool of Lethe; to recover facts and events that have fallen into that melancholy receptacle of things forgotten. He has not merely, like the gazetteer, to give the names of parishes, the number of acres, and the distance from a post town, but to search, far and near, for names and circumstances, form these into some orderly outline, then fill it up with such connecting narrative, that the reader's mind shall see, as in a picture, the history of the place from beginning to end. Every parish in England has some history belonging to it; and almost every one contains some peculiar relic or fragment; some curious church or cross; some battle field, old mound, or the like. In new countries, like America, English people have no ancient local recollections of that kind. They have noble scenery, greater novelty in animals, plants, and minerals; a fine field for Natural History, but a very barren one for Archæology. In England, in the old country, every village has some story to tell. It is certainly so in Wiltshire.
Well, then, what has been done for the Topography of this county? We have, first of all, the history of the lower part of it, published in the splendid volumes of the late Sir R. C. Hoare, of Stourhead. Of the merits of that work it scarcely. becomes me to, speak. Of course in so large and laborious an undertaking, imperfections must be expected. But speaking of it as a whole, it is an important and valuable history. It is however got up in a style unnecessarily expensive; the effect being that few can afford to buy it, and those who do, soon discover that by ordinary compression and a different arrangement, it might have been easily presented to the public in a more manageable size and for much less money.
Still this, as well as another work, called “ Ancient Wiltshire,” to the preparation of which, the late Mr. Cunnington contributed so much, reflect the highest credit upon the patriotic gentleman
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whose name they bear. I only regret that the information which they contain is not also placed within reach of the more ordinary purchaser. With reference to this Society and any project which it may by-and-by entertain of finishing the History of the County, it is to be hoped that the gentlemen of Southern Wiltshire will not altogether abandon us of the North, and rub their hands with complacency because their History is written. The privilege of enjoying, as they do, light and knowledge, ought rather to inspire them with an active compassion for us who are sitting in darkness.
Yet not in total darkness ; for a few rays of topographical light have from time to time broken out to illuminate even our Northern hemisphere. We have the labours of Mr. Britton, in the “Beauties of England and Wales," and the “Beauties of Wilts :" The History of Lacock, by Nichols and Bowles : The Histories of Bremhill and of Malmesbury. Devizes has its annalist in Mr. James Waylen, who, (as I believe I may say, having seen it advertised,) is about to confer the same service upon Marlborough and its district. To these we may add the History of a place, which enjoys the (now very unusual) distinction of having belonged to one and the same family for 500 years: a family which has given to England two Earls, and I know not how many Barons, one Chancellor, four Treasurers, two Chief Justices, one Archbishop, two Bishops, five Knights of the Garter, and numerous Bannerets. Such a Wiltshire parish deserved a separate volume from an accomplished historian : and Castle Combe has found one--in Mr. Poulett Scrope.
Several publications have issued from the private press of Sir Thomas Phillipps, Bart. : but they have been limited to so few copies that it is now very difficult to meet with them. One of these is of great utility,—viz., the “Wiltshire Institutions,” as it is called, being the Ecclesiastical Register of Salisbury transferred to print. The permission to make such an use of that record was most creditable to Bishop Fisher, and Mr. Davies, the late Registrar. It is of great assistance to any one interested in our Topography, as it supplies an important key to Manorial history.
Of another book printed by Sir Thomas Phillipps I must now speak more at length, as it relates especially to the Northern part of the county. It also enables me to introduce to your notice a worthy of former days, who ever deserves kind mention by all Wiltshiremen—John Aubrey, of Easton Piers.
It is impossible to refer to the subject of Wiltshire history without mentioning Aubrey; and it would be ungrateful to omit him, for no man was more attached to his native county, or laboured more diligently, though in an odd way of his own, on its behalf.
He was born in 1626, on the site of what is now the farm-house of Lower Easton Piers, in the parish of Kington St. Michael, three miles north of Chippenham. Though by position and education, a gentleman, he was from an early period of his life so involved in