Transferring Structual Remembrances

John Nichols, Binding directions for Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica, vol. 3, 1790

Friday n° 40, July 19th, 2019

“The plan of this Number was suggested by a valuable collection of Letters that passed between Mr. R. Gale and some of the most eminent Antiquaries of his time, which had been presented by his grandson to Mr. George Allan of Darlington. This gentleman, with the indefatigable diligence which distinguishes all his pursuits, transcribed them all into three quarto volumes, and communicated them to Mr. Gough, with a wish that in some mode or other they might be made public.”[1]

John Nichols, in: Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica, No. 2, part 1, General preface (1781).

When in 1781 the learned printer and editor John Nichols printed the first of three parts of Reliquiae Galeanae as the second volume of his Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica, this marked a point which is seldom observed and communicated as detailed as in this case: the point where references to a certain body of information, in this case the learned members of the Gale family, are no longer a private phenomenon but are taken up by an institution.

Institutional connections

The quote given above does in itself not convey any sense of an institution at work here: All people referred to are mentioned as individual persons without any affiliations clearly visible. By having a closer look at the matter however it becomes clear that the Society of Antiquaries served as the common denominator uniting them all.

Roger Gale (1672–1744) had been, together with his brother Samuel Gale (1682–1754) among those who re-founded the Society in 1717/18 and had been acting as its first vice-president, while Samuel had been its first treasurer (for 21 years, until 1739/40) – and it was their letters that formed the “valuable collection” reprinted by Nichols. George Allan (1736 – 1800) , who had acquired these letters, had for long carried out his antiquarian interests privately in his native county of Durham when he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1774, so that he at the time No. 2, part 1 of the Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica went off the press had been a member of that illustrious body for seven years already. Richard Gough (1735–1809), to whom he had communicated the papers, had been elected into the SAS already in 1767 and since 1771 served as its director.

Now Gough also had been a follower of the work of William Stukeley (1687–1765) since his studies at Cambridge, who had been a close friend of both Roger and Samuel Gale, had also been one of the re-founders of the Society of Antiquaries, and in 1739 had married their sister Elizabeth Gale as his second wife. Moreover, Gough was a close friend of John Nichols (1745–1826), the printer, to whose major journal, the Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, he contributed frequently, as well as developing editorial projects with him (such as, for instance, the Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica). This was nothing accidental also, as Nichols’s printing house had served the Society of Antiquaries as its official printer since 1736. Nichols himself was only admitted as a fellow into the Society in 1810, but throughout his career avidly pursued antiquarian interests and printed corresponding publications.

Leaving the family circles…

The only one falling out of this raster is Roger Gale’s grandson, Henry Gale (1744–1821), who, like his father Roger Henry Gale (1710–1768), does not seem to have shared the antiquarian interests of his ancestors. When – as I detailed here recently – Roger Henry Gale sold at least some of the books his grandfather and father left him in 1759, he obviously still kept the manuscript letters of his father and uncle, which his son Henry Gale could then, at some point after his father’s death, present to George Allan. In the fourth generation counted from Thomas Gale, the first and major learned member of the family, virtually all the materials needed for references to him and his sons had left the narrow circles of family ownership and had become dispersed among institutions, collectors, and other private owners. With the family displaying no interest in frequently referring to its learned predecessors, this would now likely be the point in time at which structural forgetting would set in. From the perspective of Thomas Gale, one of my protagonists, this unfortunate event took place a good sixty years after his own death in 1702.

…and passing into institutional channels

At this point, the letters came – via George Allen and Richard Gough – into one of the publications printed by John Nichols, changing the medium the information incorporated in this body of correspondence circulated in and, at least potentially, offering them to a wider public. The Society of Antiquaries itself cannot be credited with having initiated this development though, as Nichols’ publication was a commercial enterprise devised by Gough and him, and not commissioned by the corporate body as such. But it provided the necessary platform to connect the relevant actors responsible for putting Roger and Samuel Gale’s correspondence out in print, and it supplied them with a motive to do so. As Nichols in 1790 put it in the General Preface to the complete version of all three parts the 1781 issue had been the first of:

“Among the various Labours of Literary Men, there have always been certain Fragments whose Size could not secure them a general Exemption from the Wreck of Time, which their intrinsic Merit entitled them to survive; but having been gathered up by the Curious, or thrown into Miscellaneous Collections by Booksellers, they have been recalled into Existence, and by uniting together have defended themselves from Oblivion, Original Pieces have been called in to their Aid, and formed a Phalanx that might withstand every Attack from the Critic to the Cheesemonger, and contributed to the Ornament as well as Value of Libraries.”[2]

ohn Nichols, Antiquities in Lincolnshire, General Preface (1790).

Fighting Oblivion

This was exactly what Roger and Samuel Gale had aimed at in re-founding the Society of Antiquaries: fighting oblivion, and rescuing as many vestiges of bygone times as possible; in 1726 Roger Gale had written to John Clerk that in the meantime they had succeeded in that “a great many old seals, ruins, and other monuments of antiquity have been preserved from oblivion, and the danger of being intirely [sic] lost in a little time”[3], and Samuel Gale had in 1712 addressed Thomas Hearne (1678-1735) in a letter as that “[t]he Learned World is indebted to you for your sedulous Preservation of so many antient [sic] Monuments which otherwise in a little Time must have utterly perished.”[4] The remaining question is whether they achieved these goals, and if they did, for which period of time.

To which effect?

I would doubt that the institutional framework within which these references were now made and within which information about the Gale family circulated contributed little to rescuing them from becoming structurally forgotten. The communication circuit Nichols’ publication created via the audience it targeted was larger than the family or even the Society of Antiquaries as a whole, but it still remained a limited number of persons who took an interest in such matters. The predominant media products for the circulation of reference to the Gales – Thomas Gale first and foremost – since the middle of the 18th century were dictionaries, as I already hinted at; and even within their circuits there was no escape from becoming structurally forgotten. Even if scholars would were so lucky as to have an institution to care about their memory after their death, to really preserve that memory it needed a special kind of institution, which the Society of Antiquaries unfortunately was not.  


[1] Nichols, John (ed.): Bibliotheca topographica Britannica. No II. Part I. Containing Reliquiae Galeanae; or miscellaneous pieces by the late brothers Roger and Samuel Gale. In which will be included their Correspondence with their learned Contemporaries, Memoirs of their Family, and an Account of the Literary Society at Spalding. Printed by and for J. Nichols, Printer to the Society of Antiquaries: and Sold by All the Booksellers in Great-Britain and Ireland, London 1781, General Preface, p. [i].

[2] Nichols, John (ed.): Antiquities in Lincolnshire; being the third volume of the Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica. London: Printed by and for J. Nichols, 1790, General Preface, p. [i].

[3] Roger Gale to John Clerk, 26 April 1726, Bodleian Library MS Top Gen D 74, pp. 178–186; here p. 185.  

[4] Samuel Gale to Thomas Hearne, London 15 November 1712, Bodleian Library MS Rawl Letter 15/16 (Letters to Thomas Hearne Vol. 15–16, Letters G–T), p. 11.  


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