JOHN FREEMAN MILWARD DOVASTON M.A.
(1782 - 1854)
Natural Historian & Poet
From a woodcut engraving by Thomas Bewick
John Freeman Milward DOVASTON was born on 30th December, 1782 at the Nursery, Twyford, West Felton, Shropshire. He was the only child of John DOVASTON and Ann HOPER. He was educated at Oswestry Grammar School and at Shrewsbury School under Doctor Butler, afterward Bishop of Lichfield. He won a Carswell Scholarship to Christ's Church, Oxford where he acquired the nickname 'Crazy Jack of Christ Church'. He entered the Inner Temple and was called to the bar on 12th June, 1807, the same year he gained his M.A. During his time in London he was also for some time a dramatic critic for a morning paper. But his father died the following year and finding he hated law practice he abandoned it and took up the life of a country gentleman, having succeeded to the family estate.
He was not wealthy by the standards of the time but led a comfortable life and was able to improve and extend the estate that his father had created. He had unexpectedly radical views and was a little eccentric. He disliked travelling any distance and in 1838 proclaimed that he had never been on a railway train and had no great desire to go on one! But he seems to have led an active social life, was much in demand at amateur theatricals and sat for some years on Shrewsbury Town Council. At the age of 32, he was presented with the Freedom of the Borough of Oswestry, probably on the strength of his personal popularity and the national reputation he had won with his first volume of poems. In 1842, John became concerned about the state of St. Oswald's Well on the outskirts of Oswestry. It lay at the foot of a woody bank in a field next to that used as the Grammar School playground. A little stream ran from the well to a pool below. Above and behind it was secured from falling soil or leaves by walled masonry, probably about a hundred years old, opening in front in a rounded archway, beneath which the stream flowed away.
St Oswald's Well
He wrote that 'the feeble and the infirm still believe and bathe in the well, and did more so until it was enclosed in the noisy playground. Bottles of its waters are carried to wash the eyes of those who are dim or short-sighted, or the tardy or erring legs of such as are of weak understandings. Nowadays it seems chiefly used as a wishing-well, and many are the ceremonies prescribed for attaining the heart's desire thereby. One rite is, to go to the well at midnight, and take some of the water up in the hand, and drink part of it, at the same time forming the wish in the mind. The rest of the water must then be thrown upon a particular stone at the back of the well, where the schoolboys think that King Oswald's head was buried, and where formerly a carved head wearing a crown projected from the wall'. Whilst a boy at Oswestry Grammar School this was in good preservation, but in 1842 he says 'wanton tenants have battered it to a perfect mummy. If the votary can succeed in throwing all the water left in his hand upon this stone, without touching any other spot, his wish will be fulfilled'.
John wrote numerous poems and sonnets.
"The man that's poor and prosecutes the muse,"
Said I, "alas! is like to lose his cause."
So I resolved with her to have a truce,
Quite well aware I could not learn her laws.
Though some assert that hers, like ours, have flaws
Which let her pleaders 'peach. I'm even content
To own her power and give my bickerings pause,
A liegeman to her gambol government.
For late, as sauntering through the woods I went,
She met me smiling. "Come," said I, "let's plight
Our troth again." Quoth she (with lips up-bent):
"We're not so near akin but what we might!"
So now we lead a joyous jangling life,
And kiss and quarrel--just like man and wife.
Sure, merry May, thy reign is near allied
To that of early love.--Thy subjects play
Blushing in bloom; and pranked in frolic pride
Right freshly shines thy blithe and breezy day.
In the green shade that scarce excludes the ray,
The insect hum is up; the brilliant fly
Lights on a sunny leaf and glistens gay;
While the coy blackcap warbles wildly nigh.
Quick shoots the gossamer all reddening bright
With sunny glance: the sharp-winged swallows high
Sail nimbly: and full many a flowret's eye
Looks eager on thy realm with flush delight.
Sure thou art akin to love, sweet May.--And I
Perchance could tell some other reason why.
There are who say the sonnet's meted maze
Is all too fettered for the poet's powers,
Compelled to crowd his flush and airy flowers
Like pots of tall imperials, ill at ease.
Or should some tiny thought his fancy seize,
A violet on a vase's top it towers,
And mid the mass of leaves he round it showers
Its little cap and tippet scarce can raise.
Others assert the sonnet's proper praise,
Like petalled flowers to each its due degree;
The king-cup five, the pilewort eight bright rays,
The speedwell four, the green-tipped snowdrop three:
So mid the bard's all-petalled sorts is seen
The sonnet--simple flowret of fourteen.
The Book Worm
There is a sort of busy worm,
That will the fairest books deform,
By gnawing holes throughout them.
Alike, through every leaf they go,
Yet of its merits naught they know,
Nor care they aught about them.
Their tasteless tooth will tear and taint
The Poet, Patriot, Sage or Saint,
Not sparing wit nor learning.
Now, if you’d know the reason why,
The best of reasons I’ll supply:
‘Tis Bread to the poor vermin.
To Mr John Hamilton Reynolds, Author of "Safie" and Other Poems
Reynolds, no more as erst two frolic boys
By Severn's side our school-day tricks we try,
For me now holds the love of rural joys,
Thee city pomp, light sock, and buskin high.
Yet distance dares not bid us leave to ply
The social sheet, or court our mutual muse,
For distance cannot time-tied souls untie
Nor dim the long horizon of their views.
But never let my woods their leafage lose
Till thou hast there admired ripe August glow;
Nor shall in turn my friendly foot refuse
To beat thy threshold with December's snow.
So shalt thou love my rural joys: and I
Approve thy scenic pomp, light sock, and buskin high.
Many of his sonnets and poems were based on local Shropshire & Welsh folktales. Near Oswestry is a stretch of water called Llynclys Pool. It is said to be of extraordinary depth, and its name means the ' swallowed court.' The legend concerning the pool has been preserved by John as 'The Maid of the Green Forest '.
Clerk Willin he sat at king Alaric's board,
And a cunning clerk was he;
For he'd lived in the land of Oxenford
With the sons of Grammarie.
Alaric's queen was endowed with youth and beauty, but the king was not happy. He told Clerk Willin how he first met her when he was out hunting and married her on the condition that she should be allowed to leave him one night in every seven.
Oh, take me to thy fair palace,
Oh, take me for thy queen,
And racy wine shall then be thine
As never a man has seen.
But ere I become thy wedded wife
Thou a solemn oath must make,
And let hap whate’er thou must not dare
That solemn oath to break.
Clerk Willin promised to restore peace to the king if he would give the queen to him, plus and annual tithe of cattle and wine. The king consented, and the wily clerk followed the Queen to the rocks by the Giant's Grave, where there was an ogo' or cave which was supposed to lead down to Faery. While the queen was inside the cave, he began his spells and made it irrevocable that she should be his. When the clerk's potent spells forced the queen to meet him to consummate his bargain with the king, what should he behold but a grim ogress, who told him that their spells had clashed. She explained to him how she had been the king's wife for thirty years, and how the king began to be tired of her wrinkles and old age. Then, on condition of returning to the Ogo to be an ogress one night in seven, she was given youth and beauty again, with which she attracted the king anew.
Till within his hall the flag-reeds tall
And the long green rushes grow.
The ogress continued in words which made the clerk see how completely he had been caught in his own net:
Then take thy bride to thy cloistered bed,
As by oath and spell decreed,
And nought be thy fare but the pike and the dare,
And the water in which they feed.
The clerk had succeeded in restoring peace at the king's banqueting board, but it was the peace of the dead;
For down went the king, and his palace and all,
And the waters now o'er it flow,
And already in his hall do the flag-reeds tall
And the long green rushes grow.
But the visitor will, John says, find Willin's peace relieved by the stories which the villagers have to tell of that wily clerk, of Croes-Willin, and of 'the cave called the Grim Ogo'; not to mention that when the lake is clear, they will show you the towers of the palace below, the Llynclys, which the Brython of ages gone by believed to be there.
His most famous poem is probably 'FitzGwarine', a ballad of the Welsh Border. It is based on the romance of Foulques Fitwarin and set around Whittington Castle, a picturesque mediaeval castle complete with moat. It contains the following lines which are etched on the gravestone of John DOVASTON & Ann PRICE at West Felton:
"Hard handed men my fathers were
Inured to drive the brightened share
They ran their race in lowly lot
Jus streaked the stream and were forgot."
This work, with 'other Rhymes, legends, incidental and humorous' was published in Shrewsbury in 1812. A second edition appeared in 1816 with numerous additions, and a third in 1825. The third edition contains among other additions, a collection of songs entitled 'British Melodies'. Twenty-six of these had been published earlier under the patronage of the Princess Charlotte of Wales, with music by Clementi, under the title of 'A Selection of British Melodies, with Symphonic Harmonies, and Accompaniments by Clifton.' 'Floribella,' a poem, followed, and 'Lectures on Natural History and National Melody' appeared in 1839.
Like his father John combined wide literary and musical interests with manual skill and an enquiring mind. He was an authority on Welsh music and in 1839 he wrote that Welsh harp music 'has more of science than that of most other nations'. He also wrote keyboard works and one of his poems, 'A Health to the Brave' was set to music by Beethoven.
A health to the brave, in fields afar
Sweet Freedom's foes assailing;
And high your choral burden bear,
Their names with honours hailing.
What meed awaits the fallen brave?
A nation's tears to dew them,
And bards the blooming flowers to weave,
And virgin hands to strew them.
But what their meed to whom return
In triumph's ear is granted?
Beside their comrade's laurel'd urn,
To see the olive planted,
To hear the good, the great, the fair,
Rich notes of rapture pealing.
That hig the choral burden bear,
Their names with honours hailing.
About 1810 John undertook an exploration of Llanymynech Hill, five miles south of Oswestry, which was once extensively mined for copper, lead and zinc. One of the entrances is called 'The Ogof' (Welsh for cave) and could be one of the earliest sites of mining in the county. Here he found Roman coins including an Antoninus & Faustina. He wrote... 'The entrance for 15 yards is high, but afterwards a person must stoop very low, and sometimes even crawl. It contains many sinuosities, sometimes but a yard, and generally about three yards wide; having many turnings and passages connected with each other; so that a ball of thread, or chalk is necessary for the facility of a return. None of the paths go more than 200 yards from the place of entry ... It is now seldom explored farther than the mouth, which is of considerable extent, dark and dismal; the entrance is overhung by the stump and branches of a Wych Elm, and great fragments have in many places fallen from the roof ... The passages are cut through the rock, which is of red limestone ... everywhere appear:-
'.........the inner vaults of the rude cavern,
Green with copper tinge, where pendant glisten,
Curled stalactites, like frozen snakes,
Where leathery crust and vegetable film,
Hoar with their fungus fringe the dripping roof'
... The water that drops in some parts of this cave, is of a petrifying quality, and forms stalactites, resembling very long icicles, which on being touch, ring with a brilliant sound; and drops of water hanging on the point of each, catch the light of the candle, and give the surrounding space a glittering illumination extremely beautiful, and in a variety of colours'.
But he had a passion for birds and insisted they should never be shot at or molested within the bounds of his estate and by the age of 40 his knowledge of birds had become very considerable. About this time he rounded off a tour of the Lake District with a special journey to Newcastle to meet Thomas Bewick, famous by then for his wood-cuts and his enormously popular 'History of British Birds'. They became friends and John sent many additions and corrections for the Fifth Edition of Thomas' book. He also obtained many orders for Thomas' works from his friends, passed on specimens and notes and even went so far as to draft the Preface for the Sixth Edition of the 'History'.
Xylographer I name thee, Bewick, taught
By thy wood-Art, that from rock, flood, and tree
Home to our hearths, all lively, light and free
In suited scene each living thing has brought,
As life elastic, animate with thought.
In his many letters to Thomas Bewick, which have since been published in book form, John describes his various methods for observing wild birds without harming them. He invented the earliest known feeding device for wild birds and called it his 'Ornithortrophe'. It consisted of a wooden trencher with a rim and small perforations to let out the rain. This was suspended by three harpsichord wires from an iron hook or ring and was designed to move along a cord stretched between two trees outside his study window. 'This I trim with food, and with a wand from within, can slide it to and fro along the line.... I have also perches about and near it, and fasten half-picked bones and flaps of mutton to the the trees.' In this way he had found a means of 'alluring even the shyer birds close to my residence, particularly in the winter months'. On one snowy day he reported he had counted as many as twenty-three species of birds on his device. He was also one of the first people in Britain to put up artificial nesting pots and boxes. In order to observe these birds without resorting to shooting them, which was more normal at the time, he made use of a small spy-glass which he called his 'Ornithoscope'.
Besides inventing gadgets, John also carried out numerous scientific experiments on behaviour. He tried growing mistletoe on various different sorts of trees; he enclosed a piece of grassland in order to make observations on hares; he attempted to record bird songs by writing them down in musical notation, but found the task impossible, deciding that only cuckoos and blackbirds emitted recognisable notes. He once caught a pair of swallows and their young in an angler's landing-net and fastened rings round their necks made from very fine cello wire. When four of them returned the next year, this gave him the proof he wanted that migrant birds return to build their nests in the same place. But his ultimate ornithological achievement was to stumble upon the phenomenon of bird territory. In the winter of 1830-31 as a result of carefully observing the behaviour of robins at his bird-table, he realised that each bird had it's own territory which it fiercely guarded. He later extended this by catching robins in a special trap cage at the trenchers and marking them. 'I have made repeated trials. I keep supended trenchers on which I feed birds; and sometimes I mark them; and have even noticed that birds visiting that at the east window of my book room will not visit that by the south window of my dining-room, nor the contrary'.
But John's experiments were overlooked during his lifetime because of his lack of published works. The few papers that were published were written in a popular vein, some of them under the pseudonym of 'Von Osdat'. They appeared in the 'Magazine of Natural History', which, when it first appeared in May 1828, was aimed at young people.
ERRORS IN NATURAL HISTORY
(From Chit-chat, in the Magazine of Natural History, by Dovaston and Von Osdat)
Dovaston: Ray tells a humourous story, that, after the patiently exploring commissioners, at the end of their long examinations, deliberately confessed their utter ignorance to account for the Goodwin Sands, an old man gravely asserted Tenterden steeple to be the cause.
Von Osdat: Tenterden steeple!
Dovaston: Ay; Tenterden steeple: for that those sands first appeared the year it was erected.
Von Osdat: And the slightest interview with the mass of mankind, any hour, will prove the race of Tenterden philosophers to be far from extinct.
Dovaston: Particularly with regard to facts relative to natural history: and this is the more lamentable, and perhaps the more surprising, when we consider its unlimited adaptability to all capacities, ages, sexes, and ranks; and, moreover, the absolute necessity of many parts of it to their intellectual existence.
Von Osdat: There is in our village, a slater, very fond of keeping bees. These useful insects, he says, at breeding-time sweat prodigiously; and each lays four eggs at the bottom of each cell: soon after which, he has observed the combs to become full of maggots, which must be carefully destroyed by smoke! When any one of his numerous family is buried, as the corpse passes out of the house, he carefully loosens every hive, and lifts it up; otherwise, he says, the bees would all die!
Dovaston: The superstitions about bees are numberless.
Von Osdat: And yet this poor fellow believes himself inspired with 'grace abounding;' and readily undertakes to 'spound', as he calls it, any verse read to him, however remotely insulated from the context.
Dovaston: But what would you think of a gentleman I have the pleasure of visiting in the higher ranks, and whose conversation is really a happiness to me, who talks of little young bees? ...and really believes that they grow! He smiled at me compassionately when I told him that insects never grew when in the perfect state; but, like Minerva from the brain of Jove, issue full-armed with sharpest weapons, and corslets of burnished green, purple, and gold, in panoply complete: yet is this gentleman a man of genius, wit, and very extensive knowledge.
Von Osdat: Not in bees.
Dovaston: He was not aware of the numerous species of British bees; and that several, of a small intrepid sort, will enter the hives, and prey on the treasures of their more industrious congeners.
Von Osdat: Reasoning from analogy does not do in natural history.
Dovaston: No; for who, without observation, or the information of others, ever by analogical reasoning could reconcile the enormous difference of size and colour, in the sexes of some of the humble bees?...or ever discover that in some species there are even females of two sizes?
Von Osdat: But these never grow.
Dovaston: Certainly not. Bees, however, hatched in very old cells, will be somewhat smaller: as each maggot leaves a skin behind which, though thinner than the finest silk, layer after layer, contracts the cells, and somewhat compresses the future bee.
Von Osdat: No ignorance is so contemptible as that of what is hourly before our eyes. I do not so much wonder at the fellow who inquired if America was a very large town, as at him who, finding the froth of the Cicada spumaria L. on almost every blade in his garden, wondered where were all the cuckoos that produced it.
Dovaston: They call it cuckoo-spit, from its plentiful appearance about the arrival of that bird.
Von Osdat: That is reasoning from analogy.
Dovaston: And yet I see not why the bird should be given to spitting; unless, indeed, he came from America.
Von Osdat: The vulgar, too, not only delight in wonders inexplicable, but have a rabid propensity to pry into futurity.
Dovaston: I believe that propensity is far from being confined to the vulgar.
Von Osdat: True; but not in so ridiculous a way: as they prophesy the future price of wheat from the number of lenticular knobs (containing the sporules) in the bottom of a cup of the fungus Nidularia.
Dovaston: The weather may be foretold with considerable certainty, for a short time, from many hygrometric plants, and the atmospheric influence on animals.
Von Osdat: And from 'Cloudology', by the changing of primary clouds into compound; and these resolving themselves into nimbi, for rain; or gathering into cumuli, for fair weather. This is like to become a very useful and pleasing science.
Dovaston: It is wonders of this kind, and forewarnings of this nature, that natural history offers to the contemplative mind: in the place of superstitious follies, and unavailing predictions, such as the foretelling of luck from the number or chattering of magpies; and the wonder how red clover changes itself into grass, as many a farmer at this moment believes.
Von Osdat: Linnaeus himself was a bit of a prophet; as, indeed, thus well he might; for experience and observation amount almost to the power of vatacination. In his 'Academic Amenities' he says, "Deus, O.M. et Natura nihil frustra creaverit. Posteros tamen tot inventuros fore utilitates ex muscis arguor, quot ex reliquis vegetabilibus."
Dovaston: English it, Von Osdat; thou'rt a scholar.
Von Osdat: "God and Nature have made nothing in vain. Posterity may discover as much in mosses, as of utility in other herbs."
Dovaston: And, truly, so they may: one lichen is already used as a blessed medicine in asthma; and another to thicken milk, as a nutritive posset. And who, enjoying the rich productions of our present state of horticulture, can recur without wonder to the tables of our ancestors? They knew absolutely nothing of vegetables in a culinary sense; and as for their application in medicine, they had no power unless gathered under planetary influence, "sliver'd in the moon's eclipse."
Von Osdat: When Mercury was culminating, or Mars and Venus had got into the ninth house.
Dovaston: 'Tis curious to reflect, that at the vast baronial feasts, in the days of the Plantagenets and Tudors, where we read of such onslaught of beeves, muttons, hogs, fowl and fish, the courtly knights and beauteous dames had no other vegetable save bread - not even a potato!
Von Osdat: "They carved at the meal with their gloves of steel, And drank the red wine through the helmet barr'd."
Dovaston: And when the cloth was drawn--
Von Osdat: Cloth!
Dovaston: They had scarce an apple to give zest to their wine.
Von Osdat: We read of roasted crabs; and mayhap they had baked acorns and pignuts.
Dovaston: Ha! ha! ha! Caliban's dainties. Now we have wholesome vegetables almost for nothing, and pine-apples for a trifle. Thanks to Mr. Knight - push the bottle - here's to his health in a bumper.
Von Osdat: Who, walking on Chester walls in those days, and seeing the Brassica oleracea, where it grows in abundance, would have supposed that from it would spring cabbages as big as drums, and cauliflowers as florid as a bishop's wig?
Dovaston: Or cautiously 'chaumbering' an acrid sloe, imagine it to be the parent of a green gage?
Von Osdat: This is the Education of Vegetables.
Dovaston: The March of Increment!
John never married and died on the 8th August, 1854. He had originally wished to be buried in the grounds of the Nursery. His tombstone had already been carved and set up, needing only the date of death to be added. But near the time of his death he changed his mind and was buried in the churchyard at West Felton. He bequeathed the Estate to his cousin, also John, son of William & Sarah DOVASTON of West Felton.
It has now been realised that some of the practices and experiments John undertook with birds were well ahead of their time. He features in the 'Dictionary of National Biography' on the strength of his reputation as a minor Romantic poet but it could be argued that he has a far worthier claim to be included for his contributions to early 19th Century ornithology.
I was able to find much of the above information freely available on the Internet but the Ornithological information was taken from a paper published in 1967 entitled 'J F M DOVASTON, an Overlooked Pioneer of Field Ornithology' by D E Allen. This was copied for me at the Public Library in Oswestry.
Margaret DOVASTON - Artist
Home Page Email