A Travelling Life: Dorothy Richardson’s Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Travel Journals

Colour etching by Francois Alvarez after Thomas Smith of Derby, ‘A View of the Petrifying Spring, Commonly called the Dropping Well, at Knaresborough, in Yorkshire’, 1746

Duplicate publication from the John Rylands Research Institute blog. I was Early Career Visiting Research Fellow at the Rylands in winter/spring this year, and this is what I was up to: 

In February and March of this year, I spent an extremely enjoyable two months reading through the manuscript travel journals of the eighteenth-century picturesque tourist and antiquarian Dorothy Richardson, held at the John Rylands Research Institute. As an early career researcher just out of the PhD, I loved the chance to spend so much time inside Richardson’s head, and to see through her acutely observational mind’s eye. There is a freshness to the characters she encounters and the landscapes she describes that brought famous landmarks such as Fountains Abbey newly to life for me, as I traced her journeys using Google Maps.

That quality of precise observation is in evidence from early in her life. When Richardson began keeping her journal she was 13 years old. Even then formidably observant, she noted in the grounds of Wentworth House, South Yorkshire, ‘a Bull & Cow […] no larger than a mastiff Dog, & had a Bunch of Hair upon their Backs like a Camel.’ As an adult, no travelling companion can keep up with her curiosity and stamina, which only seemed to grow in the later journals. On several occasions on her 1801 tour of the East Riding she is frustrated by lax or timid companions who don’t want to walk a few extra miles to inspect a lighthouse, are always trying to get back in time for a card party, or refuse to get up before dawn to watch the sun rise over the North Sea.

Richardson’s handsomely bound and marbled, conveniently portable notebooks are penned in the elaborate but – after a few hours of getting one’s eye in – perfectly legible educated hand of the day. Going through these pages, with text crammed right up to the margins (paper was a relatively scarce commodity even for the well-off) has been, among other things, a rare opportunity to read a woman’s account of eighteenth-century landscape, history, economy and culture, from the 1760s up until the turn of the nineteenth century. By the time of her final tour in 1801, Richardson was an extremely experienced traveller by the standards of the day. She had traversed virtually the whole of her native Yorkshire, much of Lancashire, the Derbyshire Peak and Nottinghamshire, not to mention forays south to Oxford and Bath. Aged 53, she would live another 18 years, until 1819.

Sample page from Dorothy Richardson’s travel journal

That Richardson was able to travel so much was underwritten by her family’s wealth and local importance in the West Riding, which, aside from disposable income, also gave her a network of contacts on which to call across the near north. Her grandfather, Dr Richard Richardson (1663-1741), was a famous botanist and antiquary, whose biography Richardson published in her only excursion into print. Her interests, then, found their roots in the scholarly ambience of her family home. While her texts were never intended for sale, they were nonetheless prepared for a circulatory reading audience by following the protocols of print.

But it’s the details and the moments that make these journals so characterful. Richardson twice pays a visit to Mother Shipton’s Well (in 1771 and again in 1801), a famed petrifying cave in Knaresborough that turns all it touches to stone. On her second visit she has great fun watching ‘Birds nests with eggs in them &c’ being dipped in the well, which are then transferred to ‘a small hut where the petrifications are kept for sale.’ One of the oldest tourist attractions in Britain, in 1801 it sounds a good deal more commercialised than when she first passed through in 1771. Being able to trace such changes is one of the intriguing virtues of reading Richardson’s account straight through, across four decades in which the landscape was transformed by enclosure, early industry and tourism – of which she is a part.

Colour etching by Francois Alvarez after Thomas Smith of Derby, ‘A View of the Petrifying Spring, Commonly called the Dropping Well, at Knaresborough, in Yorkshire’, 1746

These journals contain such a huge amount of information and observation: so much is packed in it makes one’s head spin after a couple of hours. But a lot of the expected upheavals of this uncommonly turbulent time are missing. Where is mention of the American Revolution of 1776, or the French, in 1789? Part of the answer to this is that the travel journals are restricted to recording local facts as she finds them, and do not often concern themselves with global or even national political events.

Indeed, Richardson is so concerned with local histories, names and landscape that we might be tempted to see her as uniformed and provincial. But that is far from true: she kept her newspaper cuttings elsewhere, in a series of scrapbook volumes. In the century of Linnaeus, different kinds of knowledge are kept in different places, and Richardson’s orderly division of local from international reflects that. At the same time, her historical scholarship draws on the vogue for antiquarian knowledge in the eighteenth century. Increasingly, though, she comes to garner her information not from the dusty tomes of past scholarly endeavour, but from the mouths of the people.

This tendency to talk with the common people she had all along employed as guides, drivers and cooks comes through most clearly in her final 1801 tour to the North Yorkshire coast, perhaps not coincidentally when she is for the most part unaccompanied by family. There, she chats amiably with fisherwives and their husbands, who guide her along treacherous littoral stretches. Just as she was in the Peak District caverns of Castleton back in 1771, she is still seeking underground thrills and their attached human stories and legends. In this case, trekking around the beaches of Flamborough Head, she is looking for ‘Robin Syths Hole’: either, she says, the refuge of someone shipwrecked during a tempest, or ‘the secret residence of a noted Smuggler or Pirate of that name’.

This sense of adventure and mystery, and of interest in the world and how it works at ground-level, never leaves Richardson. She was a woman traveller in an age of famous male domestic tourists, and a serious antiquarian when nearly all who pursued local knowledge were gentlemen of leisure. These facts alone make her interesting. But her lively tone, her unremitting observational capacity, and the depth of her learning, make her travel manuscripts the most fun you can have touring the country without leaving your seat. Time for an edited selection that can be carried about in the pocket!

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: