Friday, 3 December 2010

Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott

It's one of my mild bibliographic ambitions to identify the anonymous authors of the 1848 Legends of Devon, the book that kicked off the locally-set story (now enshrined as regional legend) of the Parson and Clerk at Dawlish (see Parsons unknown).  No luck so far, but in passing I ran into the works of Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott, 1821-1880.

A particular work, available in full through Google Books, is his 1859 A guide to the South coast of England, from the Reculvers to the Land's end, and from Cape Cornwall to the Devon foreland. It's highly readable, sometimes entertaining, sometimes geeky and completist. In skimming the local sections, I noticed the cold dead hand (then warm, I guess) of Legends of Devon in a couple places, as in the section on Dawlish where The Legend of the Parson and Clerk - a "legend" written only 11 years previously - gets an outing (page 428) and the sub-Shakespeare The Legend of Babicombe Bay gets upgraded to "fairy tale" (page 443).  In both cases, the source is uncredited despite the specifics showing Legends of Devon to be the primary source.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Walcott was a career clergyman with a strong sideline in  antiquarian and ecclesiological subjects:
Walcott contributed articles on his favourite topics to numerous magazines and to the transactions of the learned societies, and he was one of the oldest contributors to Notes and Queries. His works mainly comprised historical accounts and guides to the English cathedrals and other ecclesiastical buildings in the British Isles ... William of Wykeham and his Colleges (1852) ... He contributed to the Revd Henry Thompson's collection Original Ballads (1850) and ... presented to the British Museum manuscript materials for a history of cathedrals and conventual foundations in England.

See Google Books - inauthor:"Mackenzie Edward Charles Walcott" - for more of his extremely prolific output, which includes the companion volume The east coast of England from the Thames to the Tweed. It's interesting to read, however, the footnote in Nigel Yates's Anglican ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910:
Walcott was described by Dean Hook of Chichester as 'a grandiloquent as well as an inaccurate writer ... He has much miscellaneous archaeological information but is very inaccurate', A. McCann, 'Archives and Antiquaries', in M, Hobbs (ed.), Chichester Cathedral: an historical survey, Chichester, 1994, 199

- page 123, ibid.
The full letter from Dean Hook is online at the National Archives here.  Hook notes that Walcott had been "severely castigated" in the Saturday Review, and concluded:
I do not think that the Sussex Archaeological Journal will gain much if he shall [sic] be appointed editor. He is, however, an amiable man and I am always glad to have him as my guest.
Although it's not strictly a scholarly work, the same doubts apply to A guide to the South coast of England: virtually none of the content is credited. Walcott's not alone in this fault; the book is typical of a style of Victorian learned compilation: a mixture of fact, factoid, hearsay and outright invention. Modern critics of the Internet rightly point out the risks of using indiscriminate Web results for research, but the problem really is nothing new. Some writers have always been slack in their attribution and sourcing.

Nevertheless, I'm overall inclined to like Walcott's work.  I couldn't agree more with the outro in all of his regional guides, where Walcott quotes these lines - further good advice to any weblog maintainer - in praise of finding continuing fascination close to home.
'Tis ever what's within our ken,
Owl-like, we blink at, and direct our search
To furthest Inde, in quest of novelties;
Whilst here at home, upon our very coasts,
Ten thousand objects hurtle into view,
Of interest wonderful.

- unknown - more later
- Ray

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