Treasure of the Month: John Timothy Swainson’s Summer of 1799

Swainson, one of the Society's seven founding Fellows, wrote an evocative account of his travel from London to the Lake District in 1799. Our archivist Liz McGow recounts some of his observations

Published on 27th October 2020

MS/174a: J.T. Swainson, Travel Diary – Spine and Title page with illustration
MS/174a: J.T. Swainson, Travel Diary – Spine and Title page with illustration

Having recently spent a week’s holiday in Cumbria, the travel diary of John Timothy Swainson (1756-1824) immediately sprang to mind for November’s “Treasure of the Month”.

Swainson (1756-1824), one of the seven founding Fellows of the Linnean Society, travelled from London to the Lake District in the summer of 1799, and recorded the entire journey in a diary (MS/174a). This wonderful account includes his personal observations of the places he and his friends passed as well as notes on local landmarks, people and customs.

Swainson’s style of writing is so evocative in places that the reader feels as though they are sitting in the carriage alongside him. His description of the crowded streets of Manchester, for example, is particularly powerful:

The opulence of the immense town is sufficiently indicated before we reach it by the large villas and gardens scattered so thickly in its vicinity. When we enter its streets, all the sources and supports of that opulence present themselves – various machines of the manufactories turning incessantly in the workshops, crowds of men, women and children toiling in divers departments and aggregations of habitations swarming with scrambles for a portion of the drudgery.

MS/174a: J.T. Swainson, Travel diary, Manchester and Ambleside entries
MS/174a: J.T. Swainson, Travel diary, Manchester and Ambleside entries

Reading the diary you get the impression that Swainson, originally from Lancashire, is a lover of the countryside as his descriptions of rural life are much more flattering than of the busy cities. Of Ambleside he writes:

This little market town is seated in one of the most noble spots in nature; the immensity, the richness, the variety of the surrounding scenery surpasses everything that can be conceived or said.

The beautifully written journal also has the hallmarks of today’s travel guides, as Swainson notes the number of miles between destinations, as well as his thoughts on the inns they frequent, often judged by the quality of the beds and meals. In Manchester, for instance, he devotes a whole paragraph to where they stop for breakfast:

So handsome and commodious is its architecture….one rarely sees taste displayed in the front of an Inn, but there is enough in the instance to render the Bridgewater Arms worthy of being classed among the finest buildings in Manchester.

The diary provides a vivid snapshot of England at the turn of the 18th Century and is a wonderful addition to our Collections.

Liz McGow, Archivist