William Cole, an English clergyman and antiquarian best remembered for his long friendship with Horace Walpole, passed away 230 years ago today. Cole was curiously reluctant to put much of his learning and research into print, though he did bequeath a large collection of historical documents and his own extensive writings - including some diaries - to the British Museum.
Cole was born in the parish of Little Abington, Cambridgeshire, in 1714. He was sent to live with his maternal grandmother in Cambridge at a very early age, and then was educated at Eton. Although an unhappy schoolboy, it was at Eton that he started, what would become, a lifelong friendship with Horace Walpole. He went on to study at Cambridge, graduating in 1737, and being awarded an MA in 1740. Having inherited money, he travelled frequently on the continent (and in Scotland, too), and several times thought about retiring abroad.
In 1745, he was ordained as a priest, and took a living at Hornsey in 1749. However, he was unhappy there, and not able to leave until 1751. A little later, in 1753, he became a rector of Bletchley and remained so until 1767. After leaving Bletchley he moved to Waterbeach, near Cambridge, and then to Milton. Throughout his life, Cole indulged his passion for antiquities, becoming one of the most learned men of his generation; he bequeathed 114 folio volumes to the British Museum. He died on 16 December 1782. There is more information available at Wikipedia and the out-of-copyright Dictionary of National Biography.
Cole was curiously shy of publishing, and much of his reputation today stems from correspondence with Walpole which was preserved and published. However, Cole did also keep a diary for some years, and it was publication of this, in 1931, which enhanced Cole’s reputation, and brought him a wider public. Cole’s dary was edited by Francis Griffin Stokes and published by Constable in two volumes: The Blecheley Diary of the Rev. William Cole, 1765-67 and A Journal of my Journey to Paris in the year 1765.
The following two extracts are not taken from either of the above volumes but from the Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence with the Rev. William Cole II, edited by W S Lewis. (Quotes from which can be found in Horace Walpole: The Critical Heritage and English Historical Documents.) The original diary accounts are in the 114 volumes Cole bequeathed to the British Museum.
30 October 1762
‘Sir William Stanhope, brother to the Earl of Chesterfield, now lives in Mr Pope’s house on the banks of the Thames; you pass over his grotto, immediately under the common highway, as you come from the town of Twickenham to Mr Walpole’s house of Strawberry Hill. Next to it is the house belonging to the late Earl of Radnor, which is the last house on the Thames bank next to Strawberry Hill, a road going by the Thames-side to Kingston Bridge, being between the river and Mr Walpole’s garden, which, however, is within a furlong or two of the river, and his own meadows go quite down to the banks of it, and nothing to obstruct the view of that most beautifying fluid, which makes everything handsome that is within its influence. From the garden you discover the elegant Chinese Temple, being the last building on the bank of the Thames, and close to my Lord Radnor’s house or garden wall - though the house belonging to it is on the other side of the road, and is the last house on that side next to Strawberry Hill, and is an handsome new square building - I say, from this garden of Mr Walpole you discover the Chinese summer house in which, about last August, Mr Isaac Fernandez Nunez, a Jew, shot himself through the head, on the loss of the Hermione, a rich French ship which he had insured, and by that means ruined his fortune and family. His house and furniture were sold by auction while I was at Strawberry Hill, and I was at the sale for a few minutes.
From Mr Walpole’s garden and house you have the most beautiful and charming prospect of Richmond, with variety of fine villas and gardens on the banks of the Thames, which river alone would sufficiently recommend any situation; though when I was there last, viz., in October and the beginning of November, 1762, the excessive rains which had lately fell had so swelled the river that it caused such inundations as were never known in the memory of man; insomuch that during my stay there, two islands just before the garden were totally covered by the waters and could not be seen. The floods did infinite mischief all over England, and particularly in Essex. At Cambridge it was within six inches of the highest flood ever known or recorded there, of which a mark is cut in the wall of King’s College Senior Fellows Garden, on the river’s bank; and the waters came into the cellars of Queens’ College in such a torrent that the butler had not time to go in to stop up the vessels, they having just newly filled their cellars for the year; by which means the water got in, and spoiled all their beer.’
29 October 1774
‘Very rainy day. I set out after breakfast, and went at the back of the town, through Padington, and through Hyde Park, and got to Twickenham by noon. Before dinner Mr Walpole walked with me into the garden to show me his newly erected Chapel, as he calls it, with the shrine in it from the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome, where it was erected in 1256, [. . .] It is a very curious monument of white marble, standing on twisted pillars, and inlaid with other rich marbles; [. . .] It is also mended and completed by the ingenious artist who erected the beautiful marble chimney-piece in the circular drawing room at the end of the gallery. This occupies the whole end of the chapel, the great and only window to which is filled with painted glass from Bexhill in Sussex. There are besides a strange jumble of crucifixes and profane ornaments. It is so small that half a dozen people will fill it. The front is exquisitely performed in the truest Gothic taste. [. . .]
What country this is, I was not curious to inquire. But I guess it to be Sussex, and near Chichester, where Mr Trevigar was beneficed, and as she seemed to be acquainted with the Guilford Road, whither I was going, about which she gave me instructions, as I was unacquainted with the way. He called her by the name of Mrs Day, which was, probably, her mother’s name. On her coming to town, and being informed of the story, she was instructed to apply to the Bishop, who was not disposed to lend a favourable ear to it; upon which, he drew up a letter for her, and omitted no circumstance to alarm the Bishop, who was well aware, as Mr Walpole said to me, that a bishop in his hands would meet with but little quarter; when, therefore, she was directed to add, by way of postscript, to direct his answer to her at Mr Horace Walpole’s in Arlington Street, it had its effect. And the Bishop proposed to give her the £600 or interest for that sum; and, accordingly, he contrived meanly, as Mr Walpole expressed it, to send her the interest the very day before quarter day, and by that means defrauded her of about £5, as well as I remember. This, Mr Walpole said, he was glad of, as the Bishop by so doing either cheated her, or owes her that sum to this day. Now I have related the story, as well as I can recollect it, I must needs add this caution about it. Mr Walpole is one of the most sanguine friends or enemies that I know. He has had a long pique, I well know, against the Bishop; and indeed his being a bishop is a sufficient reason for his spleen and satire. I love to hear both sides of the question. No doubt Bishop Keene had his reasons, right or wrong, for his acting in the manner he did. Mr Walpole added that he often met the Bishop, now his house is building in Dover Street, but that he always avoided looking at him and constantly held down his head. Mr Walpole best knows what occasions of goodness or shyness there may be between them. The Bishop, I allow, is as much puffed up with his dignities and fortune as any on the bench; and I believe Mr Walpole to be as likely to throw out contemptuous behaviour occasionally on those whom he supposes not to acknowledge his merit, or deserve his disregard, as any person living. They are both my friends, and I can see the blemishes in each. The Bishop was ever esteemed a most cheerful, generous, and good-tempered man. Great fortune with a wife and great dignity in the church often make the wisest men forget themselves. Mr Walpole is one of the best writers, an admirable poet, one of the most lively, ingenious, and witty persons of the age; but a great share of vanity, eagerness of adulation, as Mr Gray observed to me, a violence and warmth in party matters, and lately even to enthusiasm, abates, and take off from, many of his shining qualities. I have given the story as it was related to me, without reserves or caution whatever. I mean to take notice of it to no one; though I make no doubt but Mr Walpole, as he told it to me, has done the same to others. His zeal against churchmen and the church carries him to such lengths as is scarcely consistent with a wise and ingenuous heart.
On a secretaire, as it is called, or upright writing-stand or desk, in the breakfasting room, which commands a delicious prospect across the Thames up to Richmond Hill, is a most delicate and elegant small statue of Cupid sitting, winged, and holding up one hand, in the Seve or St Cloud manufacture, in white; and on a cartouche in front is this inscription. Cupid sits on a bank or hillock ornamented with roses.’