The Chronicles of John Cannon

Dr John Money

   [Copyright 2010, Dr John Money]

[Incorporating minor edits for Glastonbury Conservation Society. Illustrations still to come. —jn 2010-11-17]

The Chronicles of John Cannon, sometime Officer of the Excise and Writing Master at Mere, Glastonbury & West Lidford in the County of Somerset, belie their title. At face value, they tell a tale of small beer, officiously recounted in an archaic form by a man who filled a succession of not very popular roles, not infrequently mocked, in obscure places. He was more likely to bring to mind Henry Fielding’s Squire Western, Anthony Trollope’s Barset or the farther reaches of mystic legend and cultic practice, than anything more historically and objectively significant.

My interest

   If the chronicles were known at all outside their own country, and beyond the few specialists who might have encountered them, that is probably how they would have been regarded when I first heard of them 30 years ago. Then, I was mainly interested, as I had been previously, in the later decades of the 18th century.

   Prompted, however, by debate at the time about the afterlife of the Tudor and early Stuart “educational revolution”, I was pursuing an enquiry into what then seemed to be the largely discounted and unexplored contribution of private-enterprise teaching to the broad levels of functional literacy and practical knowledge thought necessary to support England’s take-off into industrial transformation and sustained economic growth.

   That enquiry had started with a general letter to some 25 record offices chosen with a view to eventual regional comparison, asking about possibly relevant materials in their collections. The reply from Somerset introduced me to John Cannon.

   Even on first acquaintance, it was plain that the range of Cannon’s record went far beyond its direct relevance to the immediate agenda. That soon began to seem a bounded and formulaic approach to much broader processes, embracing virtually every aspect of what historians at the time were learning to call “mentality” — the habitual frames of mind, much slower to mutate, which conditioned the actual effects of more apparent changes and events — across a longue durée that stretched forward from the Elizabethan after-effects of the Reformation to the transitional decades which the Vicar of Bray called “pudding time”, between the last years of the Stuart Succession and the mid-Hanoverian anxieties attendant on the forging of Britannia’s rule.

Wider interest

   Since then, interest in Cannon’s manuscript has kept pace with the increasing attention now being paid to the close detail of social, cultural and religious history, and to the forms and conventions of inferior government and politics beneath the larger narratives of Church, State and Nation, as those too have continued to evolve. His record is now much more widely recognized and quarried for evidence on a growing range of specific enquiries. That is to be expected; but however proper such partial uses may be for their own purposes, they remain hazardous if they draw attention away from the full range of Cannon’s manuscript and from the need to understand its parts, both in relation to each other in and of themselves, and as fully as possible in relation to the contexts at large in which he lived, and which drove his writing as a whole.

   In brief, confined though his social and material horizons were for most of his life, John Cannon, who got away from home as a young man and never forgot, knew who he was more clearly than most of those around him, and needed to go on knowing. His response, from a social level that was seldom, if ever, so fully or so continuously documented, but summarily catalogued by his short entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography under “the lower middling sort of 18th-century provincial England”, records, often day by day, the interactions between intimate personal experience in places mostly off historiography’s beaten track, and larger processes and influences.

Cannon’s early life

   John Cannon was born at West Lydford on Good Friday and christened on Easter Sunday 1684 (March 28 and 30). He took these dates, like his portentous initials, for a sign. Cannon was just over a year old when the Duke of Monmouth’s defeat at Sedgemoor, barely half a day’s journey away, ended the last throes of the Civil War. He was brought up in the bosom of the Restoration Church, but his family had Quaker relatives and lived in close neighbourhood with a locally influential family of “Church Papists”, the largest leaseholders in the village, who constituted a nodal point in a network of recusant Catholics.

   Bright as well as physically strong, he had young hopes of going from his parish school to grammar school in Yeovil, and thence to university. If that had happened, he would probably have spent the rest of his life in unrecorded obscurity as a country curate. As it was, family hardship meant that he could not be spared, and he spent his teenage years as an apprentice servant in husbandry on his father’s farm. However, he continued to teach himself, to such good effect that in 1707 he qualified for entry into the Country Excise. After seven years, during which his postings to the crucial western approaches to London in the lower Thames Valley required him to learn a lot very quickly, he returned to Somerset late in 1714, newly married in the capital to a bride who was a complete stranger to his family and kindred.


   In 1720, as a promising and ambitious officer, he was expecting to go further in the Excise. A year later, financial difficulties brought on by extravagance and overconfidence gave a handle to political enemies and jealous colleagues. Thus he lost his commission even as he was being vetted for the promotion on which he was counting to solve his temporary difficulty. Bad debts undermined his attempt to set up as a maltster in Bridgwater, and his own burdens were compounded by those left to him by his father’s death in 1723, but he was recovering by 1725. Over the next five years, however, a bad experience with a fraudulent private employer, followed by chronic sickness, brought him close to nervous as well as renewed financial breakdown and threatened his marriage.

   Then, a brief spell back in the Excise in 1729–30 as a temporary replacement snapped him out of his depression. Strong representations were made on his behalf for permanent reinstatement, but he was not much concerned when these were rejected because he had been too long out of the service. In fact, he was at last beginning to find his own feet as an accurate and trustworthy accountant and “tolerable Solicitor”, who “understood conveyances and all sorts of writings and got Employment at intervals on mine own account and had my fees though not as exorbitant as a Lawyer”.

   Together with the paying pupils whom he was now attracting, first in Meare, then from 1732 in Glastonbury, this returned him and his family to a more or less stable situation in the community. A year later, his appointment in Glastonbury as town schoolmaster and overseers’ clerk to the parishes of St John and St Benedict gave him back a sort of official status and with it, his self-esteem. Both remained precarious, however, and over the next ten years he had frequent cause to chafe at the “hoggish” and “illiterate” neighbours who thwarted his efforts to bring the method and certainty which he had learned in the service of the central state to the local concerns of his own country.

Cannon’s character

   At present, some parts of his story are better known than others. At large, beyond the closer readership of his later compatriots, the most familiar are probably his surprisingly candid recollections of his sexual development and experience, from its beginnings to the circumstances of his marriage at the mid-point of his Excise career. These have been deployed to corroborate an argument for the restrictive emergence of “modern heterosexuality”, which is widely held to have entered its critical phase during his lifetime. Revealing and important though these episodes certainly are, to abstract them from the rest of his life risks turning him into a lay figure in a dance of present discourse, tricked out in clothing to suit.

   Cannon was not a particularly nice or easy man. He was as belligerent about his physical as he was arrogant about his mental powers; he tried not to lead with his chin, but never quite learned how. He had chips on his shoulder, not least about the petticoat government, which he felt, not entirely without reason, had directly or indirectly ruled his early life; he frequently comes across as truculent and vindictive.

   The negative aspects of his personality and behaviour are not to be denied. Other, contrary patterns must be weighed against them, however: particularly the links between his struggle toward self-reformation before he left home in his early twenties, the choices he made when he returned, and the complexities of his reception back into his original community, especially during the period immediately after his discharge from the Excise.

   His Chronicles therefore do not simply document a linear conversion from one mode of manners to another. Their full contribution to the 18th-century history of sexuality, gender and family lies in their record of anxious and continuing contest between conflicting traits and tendencies, worked out in the cross-grained circumstances of ordinary life.

   The same is equally true of the broader historiographical discussion, implicit in his ODNB entry, which has drawn on his account: that concerned with the categories of social description and the emerging taxonomy of “class”.

Web of relationships

   The finely graded relationships at the core of Cannon’s life were framed throughout by intricately interlocking networks of dynastic kindred, especially regarding the retention and transmission of long tenures, among people whom he described as “frugal & rich although but leaseholders”.

    In close association with these concerns, his record continuously documents the processes of early modern literacy and numeracy, the interaction of print with older oral and scribal traditions, and thus the reception and interplay of different forms of knowledge. Though most obvious in direct passages about his own books and reading, and in the extensive and punctiliously referenced miscellanies which he compiled, probably as a teaching quarry, this is evident throughout. Some aspects seem comic, in the mode of Henry Fielding. Others, less obvious but ultimately more telling, foreshadow the darker world of Thomas Hardy.

A modernizer

   His modernizing impulse came mainly from his years in the Country Excise, which took him from rural obscurity to the domestic cutting edge of the fiscal apparatus which underpinned the rising power of the new British state.

   Very little other record of the Country Excise’s early development remains, except the Commissioners’ general minutes and correspondence with the Treasury, a file of general orders, and a few other random survivals, more local but of similar nature. Failing other survivals as yet unknown, Cannon’s first-hand account of Excise life in the field is thus unique.

   The effects of his post-Excise employments were much more complicated. The imprint of his service never faded, so that in some sense, he was always an exciseman; but now his credibility and authority no longer derived from his office. As he worked at the interstices of parish, town, county and diocesan affairs, and at the porous boundary between the law and the brokerage of credit and debt, it had to be negotiated with those of all kinds on whom his livelihood depended: from the labourers, farmers, alewives, innkeepers, tradesmen and attorneys who peopled his daily round, to the gentry, clergy and greater landed magnates in whose affairs he was frequently just as closely involved.

   Many of those who crowd his manuscript — some 1,500 in all, in hundreds of places and capacities — are minor and peripheral; but many also connect to a substantial core, women as well as men, who frequently recur and are specifically described. Faces and characters can thus be given to what would otherwise be mere names.

   The most telling feature of Cannon’s chosen title is its plural: Chronicles. His own is not the only story that he tells. The result opens pathways, at the meeting point of its informal affinities and its formal structures and processes, into the interlocking histories of a region which at its outer limits stretched from Salisbury and Winchester to Exeter, and from Dorset to Glamorgan, with outliers to Penzance and the Scillies, and through Bristol to southern Ireland and even Newfoundland.

Secular and religious

   Cannon was also drawn, not only by his work but also by his own background and inclinations, to mark the close interplay and merging of lay and secular affairs with ecclesiastical and religious concerns. These have generally been approached from predominantly clerical or explicitly denominational sources and perspectives.

   Cannon, whom others thought much more mixed in his affiliations than he himself cared to admit, shows the variability of lay response at ground level, especially in his detailed register of, and commentary on, some hundred local sermons which he heard during the 1730s and early 40s. These allow the pulpit message to be recovered in context, as it was heard at a critical conjuncture in local and national affairs, by one who often found himself in two minds about the practical operations of ecclesiastical polity, whatever his formal principles. This was especially the case when those operations came home to the affairs of his own parish and thus to the situation of his own family.

About the manuscript

   After a brief account of his descendants and the later history of his Chronicles, that brings this précis back to the manuscript itself: to its genesis and successive rewritings, and to the design of its final version, whose material form is as integral to its intended testimony as its contents.

   John Cannon himself vanishes from the surviving record early in 1743. Though his descendants remained in and close to West Lydford — his daughters and their progeny to the present day, his sons and their issue until their emigration to the American midwest and Australia in the middle decades of the 19th century — very few clues remain to the fortunes of his manuscript between his disappearance and the early 20th century.

   In 1774, Elias Bampfylde, a Langport attorney, quoted from some of Cannon’s log-book entries of the conveyances which he engrossed in the course of his later work as a legal scrivener in business correspondence with Caleb Dickinson, the Bristol merchant and developer, by then long established in landed dignity at Kingweston House, not far from West Lydford.

   After that, there can only be conjecture until 1891, when an enquiry in the second volume of Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries asked, to no recorded avail, for information about some short excerpts.

   It was Cannon’s antiquarian and topographical interests which eventually returned him to the light of common day, when the architectural historian Frederick Bligh Bond drew on his close descriptions and drawings while preparing his Architectural Handbook of Glastonbury Abbey (1909). Bond, who made further contributions to the proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, had borrowed Cannon’s manuscript from its then owner, a Mr T. H. Felton of Weymouth, and there are signs that he was planning a more general digest of its contents, though none of actual publication.

   According to later correspondence bound with the manuscript, it was later bought from Mr Felton by Harold St George Gray, FSA, sometime secretary and curator of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, and given to the society by his wife in or about 1948.

Final revision

   In the third and final revision, Cannon’s manuscript fills a single folio volume of 700 pages, bought for the purpose from Mrs Mullins of Shepton Mallet, his usual supplier, in January 1740, “having a thought of setting it forth in a more advantageous & better manner”.

   A rough average of 850 words per page (750–900 for normal entries, up to 1,200 in double-column for the frequent miscellanies and digressions) yields a conservative estimate of 600,000 words in all, plus a substantial allowance for quantitative material, sketches, diagrams and other illustrations.

   Apart from the last two pages, which are still in rough form, it is written throughout in a clear and consistent round hand, except for some variation in size or where a different script marks some special emphasis. It is remarkably free from mistakes and erasures, and complete except for two cuts: one significant and probably made by Cannon himself, against the grain of his rigorous training as an exciseman, at a critical conjuncture in his and his children’s relationships; the other of barely three half-lines of no apparent importance.

   The result is not just a very long manuscript full of all manner of detail about its times. Fair-copied at a annual rate of some 200,000 words during Cannon’s last three years, when he was as busy with other things as he had ever been, his Chronicles are a work of considerable art in their own right: a deliberate monument to his own industry, whose overall form and internal design are as essential to their testimony as the contents themselves.

From loose papers to book

   Since Cannon burned his previous efforts to leave no room for doubt about the “authorized” version, a detailed account of the compilation of his Chronicles is impossible. Even so, the remaining clues show that the process, formally begun in 1725 from loose papers which he must have been keeping for several years before he joined the Excise as a young man in 1707, was far from simple.

   His volume is laid out in different ways depending on content: from log-book entries across the page, meticulously cross-referenced as needed, to double-column format and sometimes more, in the manner of The Gentleman’s Magazine (his regular reading), for his frequent and elaborately footnoted digressions, miscellanies and other set-pieces.

   Whether as a work of scholarly reference, almost resembling a biblical concordance in its religious passages, or on occasion simply as a polemical pamphlet, its deliberate typographical mimicry plainly shows the shaping influence of print on one already obsessed with “my darling, my books”.

   If so, however, the rareness of erasures and mundane mistakes and the intricate design bespeak something else. Borne of the abhorrence of error which Cannon learned the hard way as a junior officer during first major expansion of the Country Excise — the most advanced and far-reaching fiscal organization in Europe but still dependent in all respects, and at every level from the Commissioners downwards, on the absolute copied uniformity of scribal communication — it testifies to the vital importance of consistently accurate penmanship, too easily and too often overlooked in the rush to hail the advent of “print culture” as the foreordained destination of change, and its only valid template.

   That his pen was not just vital to his work, but also a source of lasting pleasure and self-affirmation — a recreation therefore in the fullest sense of the word — is evident from his volume’s carefully planned allocation of spaces, each ruled in green and red ink, and from his elaborate genealogical tables and religious emblems, in which written texts intertwine with baroque decoration.

Looking forward and back

   Like Janus, whose features he himself applied metaphorically to several of his acquaintance, Cannon’s monument to himself is thus two-faced. Such writings usually do look as much backward as forward, but in this case the threshold watched over by the Roman god is much more plural. Even in compressed form, detailed exploration would extend this abstract far beyond practical limits.

   Here, it must be enough to say that whatever its many antecedents and affinities, it is not sufficient simply to read Cannon’s self-writing either as a late throwback to the Godly disciplines of the Reformation, or as a homespun prototype venture in the secular prehistory of autobiography or the novel. His Chronicles are better understood in their own right.

   In this sense, what can be said is that as his neo-Elizabethan title explicitly states by its allusion to a form supposedly long dead by his time, his writings indeed chronicle the ways in which the political and social relationships originally articulated in the ideal forms of the Tudor Commonweal, and enshrined in what has been called “The Elizabethan Writing of England”, encountered the Namierite realities which beset their successors. To that process, he brought the effects of his own compulsive reading.

   The result, living and working as he did at the intersection of different ways of knowing and doing still as much communal and locally spoken as objective and systematic — thus on the fringes of the environments from which the familiar literary genres emerged, neither “city” nor “country” and only marginally and at best occasionally “polite” — is that if his writing belongs anywhere in that emergence, it does so as witness from outside the usual range of sources, and from the reception- rather than the production-end, to the ways in which a society which for the most part sought facts and thought fiction blasphemous nevertheless generated the conditions in which those genres could develop.

Meshing narratives

   In 1699, his fifteenth year, John Cannon resolved “to converse with the lives & actions of great men and worthy heroes especially those of my own nation & of other nations such as was authentick & bore a good and genuine character not tinctured with fables nor sounding of any romance”. “This with books of divinity”, he continued, “was my diversion in my early years (a thing not common in many)”.

   What he built on those foundations, and from the abiding concern with Tudor and Reformation biography and history to which they led, was what might be called an early Hanoverian “Reading of England”, as counterpart to that “Elizabethan Writing”. The forms of that progenitor were still very much present, both in Cannon’s own writing, finished on the eve of their metamorphosis during the coming decades, and at large: none more so than that which inspired his plural title.

   The intricately meshing narratives which follow that title form a continuum throughout the full length of a crucial period, linking the personal relationships and collective memory of his native parish, expressed in the colloquial names of its unenclosed fields and other lands, through the intermediate layering of subaltern politics, law and government, ecclesiastical as well as lay, to the course of national and international events.

   This 2010 edition seeks to present that continuum, as John Cannon experienced and recorded it, as comprehensively as possible in printed form.


   It would have been impossible without the help and guidance of John Cannon’s direct descendant Adrian Pearse and of the many others who perpetuate the communities which Cannon knew.