Adrian Pearse is probably the closest descendant of John Cannon (1684–1744). Adrian is a Conservation Society committee member and lives at East Pennard.
Both volumes of The Chronicles of John Cannon, Excise Officer and Writing Master, published in January by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Academy, are of special interest to the history of Glastonbury.
These compact volumes contain almost half of John Cannon’s original Memoir and represent his core text, or “Cannon de-cluttered”. His extensive digressions, miscellanies, reports and, unfortunately, his local topographies, are reduced to a brief précis or noted.
The publisher was anxious to make each volume freestanding, but has not been entirely successful in this respect, resulting in a slight structural muddle and unnecessary duplication of some elements. These minor issues apart, the result is an astonishing compaction of a vast amount of detail into two modestly sized volumes — a scholarly task that took the editor, Dr John Money, more than 18 years to accomplish.
Volume 1 begins with Dr Money’s 150-page introduction to Cannon and his Memoir, with a full consideration of its context and significance. Then comes the section of the work from Cannon’s birth in 1684, his early life at West Lydford and subsequent Excise career, his return to Somerset and post as steward of the West Bradley estate and establishment in Glastonbury. Volume 2 covers his employment and residence in Glastonbury, 1734 to 1743, and his disappearance from the historical record and presumed death.
John Cannon was born at West Lydford, near Glastonbury, in 1684. He worked as an exciseman (tax officer) and then as a scrivener (solicitor’s clerk) and Glastonbury town schoolmaster.
Throughout his life he kept a meticulous diary, and it contains fascinating detail of people, places and customs that no one else of that period recorded. Cannon has been called “the poor man’s Pepys”.
Cannon joins the ranks of the other notable published diarists from eastern Somerset — doctor Claver Morris (1659–1727, Wells), parson James Woodforde (1740–1803, Ansford), vicar and antiquarian John Skinner (1772–1839, Camerton) — and his attitude bears closest resemblance to Skinner in that both accounts have a strong self-justificatory element arising from the difficulties that faced them in their interactions with their fellow man.
Cannon was the elder son in one of West Lydford’s most substantial families, but his intellectual ability set him apart from his peer group and set his life on a course that made it more of a struggle than it otherwise would have been, in that though he was able to survive by use of his skills, he was never able to truly prosper in the material sense and always led a somewhat hand-to-mouth existence.
This course had arisen from his own actions, but it had dire consequences for his family: after his death his daughters were re-absorbed by marriage to the Cannon cousinage, but his sons and their descendants plummeted in status. The very survival of his Memoir is somewhat of a miracle in itself, and long stretches of its history are shrouded in mystery.
Besides Cannon’s immediate family, his diaries mention more than 1,500 other persons, often in considerable detail over time. For many of them this is their only, or almost only, appearance in any historical record. Cannon is astonishingly frank in his detail — his neighbours in general he described as “hoggish and illiterate” and his unflattering accounts of their lives and deaths bear this out in lurid detail.
Eighteenth-century life was fragile and minor injuries or accidents were often fatal — or medical intervention ensured they would be. Diseases such as smallpox cut swathes through the population. Morals were extremely lax by post-Victorian standards, and maidservants seem generally to have provided their masters, clerical included, with services besides cooking and cleaning.
John Cannon lived in an era of great change and uncertainty. The beginnings of the modern world reached even to backwoods like Lydford, where although the mediaeval communal agricultural system was to remain for another century, the degree of squabbling and litigation between the participants that Cannon records heralds the rise of the individual. Mediaeval superstition remained a feature of daily life, and the disorder of the Civil War was still within the memory of some, and a degree of religious turmoil arising from the Reformation prevailed until just after Cannon’s death.
Many of the individual persons Cannon records will now have thousands of descendants across the globe, and many will be fascinated — if not astonished or horrified — to learn of the activities of their ancestors within these pages.
Newsletter articles about the John Cannon chronicles
Excerpts from the Cannon memoirs: 1704 bellringing and courtship;
1707 he leaves home for Reading to train in Excise