Sidmouth antiquary’s diaries explored

Nostalgia delves into POH’s fascinating Victorian diaries

“I HAVE been more than 30 years compiling these volumes. Do me the favour not to thumb them, or dirty them, or dog’s ear them, or break the backs of them by opening them too widely. I was 11 years, i.e. from 1870 to 1881 transcibing my notes into these five volumes.”

So asksPeter Orlando Hutchinson of readers of his handwritten Diaries – a copy of which rests with Sidmouth Library.

Geological, botanical and archaeological information was meticulously recorded by Sidmouth’s antiquary, born 200 years ago this month, during his many country and beach walks, and thanks to his sketches and paintings, we can see how the landscape has changed over the years.

This is one reason why a �50,000 three-year cultural research project, based on his work, has just been announced, and why Nostalgia celebrates Sidmouth’s Victorian historian again this week.

Catherine Linehan records in her short biography of POH: “…he noted any changes by land enclosure or coastal erosion, and reported the finding or any rare flower or fern.

“He drew plans, sections and illustrations for the History of the Town, Parish and Manor of Sidmouth (unpublished) and Diary entries.

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“In the coloured sketches there are pictures of houses, local events, wrecked ships and stranded whales.

“The Diary also contains many newspaper cuttings, and some private letters considered of interest, making a miscellany of records.”

Jeremy Butler has drawn together many illustrations and diary entries in his book Peter Orlando Hutchinson’s Travels in Victorian Devon from 1846-1870.

This week sees the launch of his latest POH book, published by Halsgrove, called Peter Orlando Hutchinson’s Diary of A Devon Antiquary covering 1871-1894 and Jeremy will be at Sidmouth Museum to sign copies of his new book at 6pm on Friday, December 3, when the museum opens from 2pm to 8pm, to coincide with late night Christmas shopping.

POH’s Preface to his diaries recalls his first impression of Sidmouth when he arrived with his parents in January 1825, a few months after the great storm of the previous November.

“My earliest recollection of the place is that all the sea front of the town was a blank desolation of sand and gravel, the waves having rushed in to all the houses on that side, beating the doors and windows and carrying the shingle along with them.

“As I grew to manhood I began to take interest in the antecedents of the parish, and subsequently to commit to paper such circumstances as seem worthy of record.”

This led him to the Register of Bishops of the Diocese in Exeter, then to Government Record Office in London “to look over the contents of the Sidmouth parish chest, and the documents belonging to Feoffes of the Poor Lands.”

Of his diaries he says: “All these notes were thrown together into a chronological order and connected arrangement and this constituted the first draft.”

It was his third draft that he has left for future historians and Sidmouth residents to read and enjoy.

Catherine Linehan writes: “Among his many activities, Peter spent whole days on foot or by carriage in exploring the neighbourhood. A frequent companion was Mr N S Heineken, a retired Unitarian Minister. With a pocketful of sandwiches, or a hamper of provisions and tools, they visited, measured, sketched and mapped the hillforts, earthworks, tumuli, churches and ancient monuments within a 20 mile radius.

“Long contented outings followed by discussions on these and other events, local political and the scientific and cultural advances of the time; are all carefully recorded.”

POH also wrote about his collections, both of paintings, etchings and china, as well as various curiosities.

Catherine notes: “Peter with his morbid interest in the unpleasant, stored away oddities such as a shark’s jaw, a pig with eight legs, a kitten with two faces, Australian aboriginal skulls, a boa constrictor’s skin…”

He was even known to startle guests with blood-stained swords taken in the Indian Mutiny.

*Next week we look at POH’s obsession with Sidmouth Parish Church and the building of his home, The Old Chancel.