Sketch of Risdon

Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1875, Vol VII, pp. 79-83.


J.M. Hawker

Prepared by Michael Steer

Tristram Risdon was born at Winscott, in the parish of St Giles in the Wood, near Great Torrington in Devon, England. He was the eldest son of William Risdon (d.1622) and his wife Joan (née Pollard). William was the younger son of Giles Risdon (1494-1583) of Bableigh, in the parish of Parkham, where Tristram Risdon stated that the family had been seated since before 1274. Risdon also stated that the family originated in Gloucestershire, where during the reign of King Richard I (1189-1199) they were lords of the manor of Risdon. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

In accordance with the aims of this Association, which, whilst unrestrained in its range of subjects, so long as they relate to science, literature, or art, desires to notice events of local interest, and to commemorate local worthies, I venture to put before you a slight sketch of one who was born close to and educated mainly in the parish where we are now assembled.

The year before last a distinguished Devonshire painter, Haydon, came before us; last year the scholar and poet, Winthrop Mackworth Praed; now literature claims recognition in another branch. Whether Risdon is to be ranked among historians I will not say. He is, at any rate, the author of - to use his own words - "The Chorographical Description or Survey of the County of Devon, with the City and County of Exeter; containing matter of history, antiquity, chronology, the nature of the country, commodities and government thereof, with sundry other things worthy observation. Collected by the travail of Tristram Risdon, of Winscott, Gentleman, for the love of his country and countrymen in that province.

There seems an appropriate retribution - taking the term in a good sense - that some two hundred and seventy years after his death we, as a county society, should be doing for him after a fashion, however slight, what he did with so much love and diligence, and that nigh to his own home, the scene of his labours. Doubtless, if there had been the opportunity in his day, he would gladly have joined our company, and valuable papers from him would have been easily and gratefully received, and published in the wellknown volume which, increasing each year in bulk, issues from the press of our excellent printers, Messrs. Brendon and Son.

I do not propose to weary you with any prolonged details of Risdon's life or work. They are not generally interesting, except so far as they enable us to draw a lesson from them. He was born about 1580, at Winscott, in St. Giles-in-theWood, the parish adjoining Torrington  (1).  The family came from Risdon, in Gloucestershire, and settled at Bableigh, in Parkham and Winscot, in the reign of Edward L Risdon's early education was at a school in Torrington. About the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign he entered either Exeter College, Oxford, or Bradgate; & Broad Grate Hall then, now Pembroke College.

It is uncertain how long he remained there, and he took no degree. Why he did not we have no means of ascertaining. It could not have been (judging from what he did afterwards) from any incapacity. Probably the inheriting of Winscott from his half-sister (on the mother's side) Thomazin, who married John Tripconey, of Gulvall, in Cornwall, and who died without issue, altered his views, as it did his position, and called him from academical studies to the personal superintendence and management of his property. No doubt he discharged all the duties of his station, and the immediate calls of his estate, well and fitly, as happily so many of his class did and do now.

But we may fairly assume that his sojourn at the University of Oxford - not then such a common curriculum in his rank of life as in these days - and the scholarly tastes he gained there, had stirred his intellectual nature, and caused him to aspire to something beyond the ordinary pursuits of country life. He set himself therefore a task which, whilst it befitted his liberal education, would likewise be of service to his fellows, especially those amongst whom his lot was cast

He tells us himself that he collected the materials of his survey of the county of Devon "with travail for the love of his country and countrymen in that province." A truly laudable and patriotic design. There was no Murray in those days to bring out admirable handbooks with full yet concentrated information about each locality, as suggestive and capable of expansion as Liebig's essence of meat. And besides the immediate benefit to those of his own time, such a work as Risdon's is of course a mine of materials for modern enquirers into the history of a county.

Moreover, like Falstaff, who was not only witty himself, but the cause of wit in others, Risdon appears to have stirred to similar labours men like Westcott, who compiled A View of Devonshire, which existed only in manuscript until it was printed for subscribers by Roberts of Exeter, in 1845, the editors being Dr. Oliver and Mr. Pitman Jones - and William Chapple, of Exeter, who wrote A Review of part of the Survey.

Risdon's work comes down to about the year 1630. He was much indebted to Sir William Pole in his compilation ; and no doubt, from his standing in the county, he was able to gain much information and assistance from many quarters.

Westcott speaks in high terms of Risdon, whom he visited at Winscott, and of the value of his researches. His authority is no mean one; for, as I mentioned, he himself wrote A View of Devonshire, which was not printed for many years, although quite worthy of a more immediate circulation than the three or four manuscript copies only that existed until 1845, one of them being in the possession of Sir Lawrence Palk, at Haldon House, where, by his permission, I have seen it in good preservation.

Chapple also, a bookseller of Exeter, wrote A Commentary upon Risdon' s General Description of Devonshire in or about 1770. Chaplie was a man of probity and large, generous mind. The first publication of any portion of Risdon's work was by a man of quite a different stamp. In 1714, one Curll, a bookseller of London, was about to bring out a curtailed and scamped edition, which would have done great injustice to the author. Prince, author of Worthies of Devon, happened to get sight of this dishonest production before it had actually gone forth to the public, and remonstrated strongly with Curll, who was at last induced to publish a continuation such as really did justice to Risdon's work. Probably in those days the law of copyright was not so accurately defined as it is now, at least in this country.

A complete edition of Risdon's works was published in 1811 from a manuscript belonging to John Coles, of Stonehouse, Devon, which was considered, on the whole, by competent judges to be the best and completest.

The range of Risdon's Survey was comprehensive, and far more than a mere compilation of dry facts and statistics, valuable as they are to succeeding generations. His general description of Devonshire, prefixed to the Survey, is an important and apparently trustworthy picture of the customs and resources, agricultural or otherwise, of the county at that time. It is more, too, than this ; for it not only shows how people cling to customs and resources, which arise naturally out of their position, even after the immediate occasion for them has passed away, but it illustrates forcibly the effect which such customs and modes of living have upon the soil itself and all connected with it. The philosophy of history may be seen in small, ordinary details, as well as by great wars or changes of governments and dynasties.

To take a few instances from Risdon's work. He describes the mode of traffic in his day throughout the principal part of the county by pack-horses. No doubt the lines and direction of our parish roads, at any rate, were thus determined; and I suppose the constant tramp of strings of heavily-laden horses on the soft soil, year by year, caused so many of our lanes and roads to be what they are, deep down beneath wasteful high banks; wealths indeed of loveliness in the time of flowers, but shutting out sight, light, and air.

Chapple, in his Commentary on Risdon, tells us of the introduction of turnpikes in 1753, and of the objections to them, one being that they would raise the price of oats!

I am old enough myself to remember an aged fanner who told me, now nearly twenty years ago, that in his younger days he used to start from Moretonhampstead at three in the morning, with potatoes and other vegetables on packhorses, for Exeter market, where he stood all day, often wet through with rain or snow, returning again late at night. He lived until ninety years of age, and must have had an iron constitution to stand such exposure and such long hours. Those who did live to old age under such hardships were undoubtedly giants.

Then, again, Bisdon speaks of what is still called and practised, " liming," as quite a new mode of husbandry ; and e comments on the use of lime, where a soil is defective in calcareous mixtures, with much good sense and acuteness of observation. He must, too, have been in advance of his time; for in speaking of leaseholdings by fines, he clearly denounces the system as fatal to improvements in farming. Yet it lasted long after Risdon's pen was laid down, and its ill effects have scarcely passed away altogether. Cyder, in his time, appears to have been as much part of the proceeds of farms, and to have helped to pay the rent, as it does now in a fruitful year. He notices also the geological strata of the county, dividing them into the three great divisions of what is now called schist, granite, and limestone; a sufficiently accurate description, I suppose, for ordinary classification. The industrial pursuits of the county are not forgotten by him. He mentions the mines, the large woollen manufactories, and those for serge especially, which still exist; so that his Survey must have been, on the whole, a very complete record of the various points for instruction and observation, either for natives or strangers.

Of course there were those - principally among the country gentlemen, who were the most likely to be interested in the work - who found fault, some saying that his account of their seats or localities was not long enough, and of other places too long. People are equally difficult to please in the matter of funeral sermons; the relatives generally thinking that much more might have been said of the departed, strangers and indifferent persons resenting any prolonged eulogy.

Such is a meagre sketch of a man who might have been merely one of the fruges consumere nati - the useless drones of society; those whom a little later George Herbert, Risdon's junior by about seventeen years, so indignantly apostrophised in The Church Porch:  

"O England, full of sin, but most of sloth,
Spit oat thy phlegm, and fill thy breast with glory!
Thy gentry bleat as if thy native cloth
Transfused a sheepishness into thy story :
Not that they all are so; but that the most
Are gone to grass, and in the pasture lost.
"This loss springs chiefly from our education;
Some till their ground, but let weeds choke their sun;
Some mark a partridge, never their child's fashion
Some ship them over, and the thing is done.
Study this act; make it thy great design ;
And if God's image move thee not, let thine."

His early possession of a fair estate might have tempted him to idleness, or disposed him to an unrestrained indulgence in field sports, like probably the majority of his neighbours of the same class. But from whatever cause - most likely from the good influences of his alma mater, Oxford - he devoted himself to a work which must have required much intellectual industry and patient Research, besides literary skill in its compilation. He appears to have been altogether an excellent specimen of a cultivated, intelligent country gentleman, then, as now, a class whom we may call the backbone of England.

Happily in these days we need not say despairingly, "0 si sic omnes! for the exception to Risdon's good qualities is, as a rule, rare, although all may not turn so diligently to his pursuit of literature.

Be useful where thou livest, that they may
Both want and wish thy pleasing presence still." - Church Porch.

1    Mooeb's History of Devonshire, vol. ii. p. 370.