Histories and Mysteries: A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Daniel Defoe is best known, of course, as the author of Robinson Crusoe (1719) but he was also famous as a political pamphleteer and is often called the father of modern journalism.

He was born as Daniel Foe in 1660, the son of a butcher in Stoke Newington in London, but used the grander-sounding ‘Defoe’ as his pen name.

A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain is an account of his travels first published in three volumes between 1724 and 1727. Other than Robinson Crusoe, Tour was Defoe’s most popular and financially successful work during the eighteenth century.

Below is an extract from his writings on Devon:

From Honiton the country is exceeding pleasant still, and on the road they have a beautiful prospect almost all the way to Exeter, which is twelve miles; on the left hand of this road lyes that part of the county, which they call the South Hams, and which is famous for the best cyder in that part of England; also the town of
St. Mary Oterey, commonly call’d St. Mary Autree: They tell us the name is deriv’d from the river Ottery, and that, from the multitude of otters found always in that river, which however to me seems fabulous; nor does there appear to be any such great number of otters in that water, or in the county about, more than is usual in other counties, or in other parts of the county about them; they tell us they send 20000 hogsheds of cyder hence every year to London, and which is still worse, that it is most of it bought there by the merchants to mix with their wines, which if true, is not much to the reputations of the London vintners; but that by the by.

From hence we came to Exeter, a city famous for two things, which we seldom find unite in the same town, (viz.) that ’tis full of gentry, and good company, and yet full of trade and manufactures also; the serge market held here every week is very well worth a strangers seeing, and next to the Brigg-Market at Leeds in Yorkshire, is the greatest in England. The people assur’d me that at this market is generally sold from 60 to 70 to 80, and sometimes a hundred thousand pounds value in serges in a week. I think ’tis kept on Mondays.

They have the river Esk here, a very considerable river, and principal in the whole county; and within three miles, or thereabouts, it receives ships of any ordinary burthen, the port there being call’d Topsham; but now by the application, and at the expence of the citizens, the channel of the river is so widened, deepen’d, and cleans’d from the shoal, which would otherwise interrupt the navigation, that the ships come now quite up to the city, and there with ease both deliver and take in their lading.

This city drives a very great correspondence with Holland, as also directly to Portugal, Spain and Italy; shipping off vast quantities of the woollen-manufactures, especially, to Holland, the Dutch giving very large commissions here for the buying of serges perpetuan’s, and such goods; which are made not only in and about Exeter, but at Crediton, Honiton, Culliton, St. Mary Autry, Newton-Bushell, Ashburton and especially at Tiverton, Cullumbton, Bampton, and all the north east part of the county, which part of the county is, as it may be said, fully employed, the people made rich, and the poor that are properly so call’d, well subsisted, and employ’d by it.

Excester is a large rich, beautiful, populous, and was once a very strong city; but as to the last, as the castle, the walls, and all the old works are demolished, so were they standing, the way of managing seiges, and attacks of towns is such now, and so alter’d from what it was in those days, that Excester in the utmost strength it could ever boast, would not now hold out five days open trenches; nay, would hardly put an army to the trouble of opening trenches against it at all.

This city was famous in the late civil unnatural war, for its loyalty to the king, and for being a sanctuary to the queen, where her majesty resid’d for sometime, and here she was delivered of a daughter, being the Princess Henrietta Maria, of whom our histories give a particular account, so I need say no more of it here.

The cathedral church of this city is an antient beauty, or as it may be said, it is beautiful for its antiquity; But it has been so fully, and often described that it would look like a meer coppying from others to mention it: There is a good library kept in it, in which are some manuscripts, and particularly an old missal, or mass-book, the leaves of velum, and famous for its most exquisite writing. I shall take the north part of this county in my return from Cornwall; so I must now lean to the south, that is to say, to the south coast, for in going on indeed, we go south west. About 22 miles from Excester we go to Totness, on the river Dart.

This is a very good town; of some trade, but has more gentlemen in it than tradesmen of note; they have a very fine stone-bridge here over the river, which being within seven or eight miles of the sea, is very large, and the tide flows 10 or 12 foot at the bridge. Here we had the diversion of seeing them catch fish, with the assistance of a dog.

The case is this, on the south side of the river, and on a slip, or narrow cut or channel made on purpose for a mill, there stands a corn-mill; the mill tayl, or floor for the water below the wheels is wharft up on either side with stone, above high-water mark, and for above 20 or 30 foot in length below it, on that part of the river towards the sea; at the end of this wharfing is a grating of wood, the cross-bars of which stand bearing inward, sharp at the end, and pointing inward towards one another, as the wyers of a mouse-trap.

When the tide flows up, the fish can with ease go in between the points of these cross-bars, but the mill being shut down they can go no farther upwards; and when the water ebbs again, they are left behind, not being able to pass the points of the grating, as above, outwards; which like a mouse-trap keeps them in, so that they are left at the bottom with about a foot, or a foot and half water. We were carryed hither at low water, where we saw about 50 or 60 small salmon, about 17 to 20 inches long, which the country people call salmon peal, and to catch these, the person who went with us, who was our landlord at a great inn next the bridge, put in a net on a hoop at the end of a pole, the pole going cross the hoop, which we call in this country a shove net: The net being fix’d at one end of the place they put in a dog, who was taught his trade before hand, at the other end of the place, and he drives all the fish into the net, so that only holding the net still in its place, the man took up two or three and thirty salmon peal at the first time.

Of these we took six for our dinner, for which they ask’d a shilling, (viz.) two pence a piece, and for such fish not at all bigger, and not so fresh, I have seen 6s . 6d. each given at a London fish-market, whither they are some time brought from Chichester by land carriage.

This excessive plenty of so good fish, and other provisions being likewise very cheap in proportion, makes the town of Totness a very good place to live in; especially for such as have large families, and but small estates, and many such are said to come into those parts on purpose for saving money, and to live in proportion to their income.

From hence we went still south about seven miles, (all in view of this river) to Dartmouth, a town of note, seated at the mouth of the river Dart, and where it enters into the sea at a very narrow, but safe entrance; The opening into Dartmouth Harbour is not broad, but the channel deep enough for the biggest ship in the royal navy; the sides of the entrance are high mounded with rocks; without which just at the first narrowing of the passage, stands a good strong fort without a platform of guns, which commands the port.

The narrow entrance is not much above half a mile, when it opens and makes a basin, or harbour able to receive 500 sail of ships of any size, and where they may ride with the greatest safety, even as in a mill-pond, or wet-dock: I had the curiosity here with the assistance of a merchant of the town to go out to the mouth of the haven in a boat to see the entrance, and castle, or fort that commands it; and coming back with the tide of flood, I observ’d some small fish to skip, and play upon the surface of the water, upon which I ask’d my friend what fish they were; immediately one of the rowers or seamen starts up in the boat, and throwing his arms abroad, as if he had been betwitch’d, cryes out as loud as he could baul, “a scool, a scool.” The word was taken to the shore as hastily as it would have been on land if he had cry’d fire; and by that time we reach’d the keys, the town was all in a kind of an uproar.

This town as most of the towns of Devonshire are, is full of Dissenters, and a very large meeting-house they have here; how they act here with respect to the great dispute about the doctrine of the Trinity, which has caus’d such a breach among those people at Excester, and other parts of the county, I cannot give any account of. This town sends two members to Parliament.

From hence we went to Plympton, a poor and thinly inhabited town, tho’ blest with the like privilege of sending members to the Parliament; of which I have little more to say, but that from thence the road lyes to Plymouth, distance about six miles.

Plymouth is indeed a town of consideration, and of great importance to the publick. The situation of it between two very large inlets of the sea, and in the bottom of a large bay, which is very remarkable for the advantage of navigation.

The Sound, or bay is compass’d on every side with hills, and the shear generally steep and rocky, tho’ the anchorage is good, and it is pretty safe riding: In the entrance to this bay, lyes a large and most dangerous rock, which at high-water is covered, but at low-tide lyes bare, where many a good ship has been lost, even in the view of safety, and many a ships crew drown’d in the night, before help could be had for them.