Bi-centenary of Sidmouth’s famous antiquary

Peter Orlando Hutchinson’s 200th anniversary of his birth remembered

AS a �50,000 cultural research project is announced, based around Sidmouth antiquary, Peter Orlando Hutchinson, Nostalgia celebrates this Victorian historian’s life in the coming weeks, publishing some of his paintings and drawings never before seen.

Peter Orlando Hutchinson was born in Winchester 200 years ago on November 17, 1810.

He came to Devon as a lad of 15 and was a sickly boy having, aged seven, contracted a chill, or possibly TB, which left him with an infected hip and subsequently a permanent limp.

On his 70th birthday in 1881, he writes in his diary – of which five hand-written volumes survive – of his earliest memories: sitting on his mother’s lap during a carriage ride in Tiverton where the family lived for a short time, and of his bouts of illness.

He described himself, aged seven, as “a poor little sick boy” and sea air, good food, and rest were prescribed the remedy.

“My unfortunate lameness prevented my going out in the world and running the race of life with other boys, but I went to day schools and had foreign teachers of languages and had tutors at home, Italian, French and dead languages, but never went to college,” he writes.

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His father, Dr Andrew Hutchinson, who married Anne Parker, fifth daughter of Admiral Sir William Parker in 1805, was, he says, an excellent French scholar, who had travelled widely.

As a young man, without a profession but just enough money to live on as a gentleman of leisure, POH turned to writing, producing a book after walking through north and south Wales one summer, but he thought it “a very childish affair” and it was not published. Neither was his five-act tragedy founded on early American history, or his History of Sidmouth.

He also writes of “one or two three-volume novels, the manuscripts of which I threw aside and know not what has become of them; and an amount of trash printed in newspapers and magazines that are only remembered to be laughed at and condemned.

But writing became an obsession and it is his diaries and sketch books that record and reflect life in Victorian Sidmouth and its environs, that people really remember POH for.

Catherine Linehan in a short biography of POH writes: “...they have brought a new chapter to Sidmouth’story: they give a vivid picture of 19th century life.

“In the Diary there are also glimpses of the true Sidmouthians, fisherfolk, farmers, agricultural workers, tradesmen and domestic servants, whose toil made possible an easy and carefree life for the Incomers.”

POH walked great distances in an effort to walk off his rheumatic and neuralgic leg pains, walking around Scotland and through Gretna Green, where he collected enough sensational stories of runaway matches that he sold the copyright of two-volumes on the subject.

Later he describes it as “A silly work, only to be ashamed of in maturer years.”

Peter began to collect data for his History of Sidmouth in the mid 1800s, and continued researches for it until 1882. He had an active social and cultural life in the town and was a man of many interests, including geology, archaeology, wood carving, music and painting.

He describes himself as living “a temperate and regular life. There is no health to anybody without that. I rarely touched wine and never smoked from choice.

A life-long batchelor, he writes: “Well, I always intended to get married some day, only I preferred doing it my own way. I wanted, not a housekeeper, but a well-educated person with tastes like my own as a congenial companion.”

Later, when he is again urged on the subject, he notes: “I said in my excuse that ladies had got so many fingers on both hands, I couldn’t find out which was the right one to put the ring on.”

POH burned the first 15 years of his diaries and the first volume of those published contains on the cover page, an almost childish ditty:

Steal not this Book for fear of shame,

For here you see the owner’s name.

And he who prigs what isn’t hisen

When he’s catched he’s sent to prison.

There is a wealth of information contained in these diaries, from his first view of Sidmouth a year after the Great Storm of 1824, which ravaged the Channel coast, swimming as a lad in deep pools in the River Sid, ball games on the Fort Field with William, son of Mr Wallis of Wallis’ Library, shooting birds in Woolbrook Glen to and his painting and sketching of landscapes and unearthed artefacts found on the beach, which we will investigate in next week’s Nostalgia.