16. Walpole’s copy of Thomas Pennant’s Of London (1790)
By Stephen Clarke, Independent Scholar
Thomas Pennant (1726-98) was a naturalist, a traveller, and a writer. In addition to managing his family estate at Downing, near Holywell in North Wales, he wrote extensively on zoology, topography, and antiquities. His British Zoology led to his being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767, while his travels in Britain resulted in his publishing two Tours of Scotland, and various accounts of his tours in England.
Walpole admired him, though he thought his works tended to be superficial, commenting that “he picks up his knowledge as he rides.” But he described him as honest and good-natured and even (“a credit to us antiquaries”) vivacious, and owned a number of his topographical works. One of these was a copy of Pennant’s Of London (1790), an anecdotal antiquarian tour of the capital. He wrote on the title page “With MSS. notes by Mr Horace Walpole,” and added some notes in ink to the text, but then provided seventeen further manuscript pages headed “Additional Notes,” which are bound in at the end of the book.
Some of the notes are purely factual, identifying names or supplying additional references, but mostly—particularly in the Additional Notes—they are anecdotal, supplementing Pennant’s text, providing information that might well otherwise have been lost. Walpole naturally expands factual information to anecdotal illustration, as in his note to Pennant’s mention of the vestments at Westminster Abbey: “three sumptuous copes are preserved in Westminster-abbey. I saw them worn by 3 Prebendaries at the funeral of George 2d. Some remain in a few other Cathedrals, as Durham &c.” Elsewhere, he provides stories that not merely illustrate the text, but provide historical background. For example, in discussing St James’s Park, Pennant mentions how King Charles II used to feed his ducks and play with his dogs amidst crowds of spectators. Walpole adds this story:
“He frequently conversed there very freely with a plain Country-Gentleman, of whom he one day inquired, what the people said of him. ‘why, answered the Gentleman, they say you waste half yr time sauntering here with yr hands in yr pockets.’ ‘well then, replied the King, the next time they say so, tell them, it is well I do, for if I did not keep my hands in my own pockets, I shoud have them in theirs.‘”
And Walpole adds this anecdote of longevity to Pennant’s account of Somerset House, in relation to the porter of Lady Henry Beauclerk:
“When his great Age was rumoured, many persons questioned him about ancient events, and particularly if he remembered the Revolution —he asked what that was? tho he had always lived in London—but having been at that time an underbutler in a private family not affected by the Change, it had not disturbed his laying the knives & forks for dinner, and he had not noticed the alteration of the Government.”
The pages of notes bound in at the end of the book are arranged by streets, and one of the pages is headed “Notices from my MSS. collections for anecdotes of the streets of London”, while the last two pages are devoted to London’s Clubs. These notes are not tied to Pennant’s text, but are used by Walpole to expand it. He records the ownership of houses and their histories, as of a property in Albemarle Street, “let to a Whig Club in 1764, called Wildman’s… After which it was as remarkable for a Club set up by Ladies of the first rank for both men & women & called, the Ladies Club, which tho grievously censured soon died of innocent insipidity”.
An account headed “Cheapside” begins with a note of its displays of chintzes and oriental porcelain, but veers off to anecdotes of Queen Caroline visiting one of the India warehouses there, and then on to members of the Court attending theatrical events; and from there to the limited number of entertainments that ladies could attend unaccompanied, and then again on to Vauxhall and Ranelagh and London’s other pleasure gardens.
The interest of the notes lies in the way they fill out the historical record. Walpole aptly summarized his motive in annotation with this final note: “These slight notices may explain many passages in the poems & pamphlets of the Time, which without such a key might be very obscure or unintelligible; & to later times, if such trifling notes shoud happen to last, woud represent some striking manners of the Age.” But more than that, in their flow and variety and diversity they suggest something of Walpole as conversationalist, entertaining his company with an apparently boundless flow of anecdote.