The early 19th Century must have been a fascinating time to be in Lyme Regis. The latter part of the 18th Century had seen a huge rise in interest from the gentry in visiting the seaside and bathing in the sea. In the same period, Thomas Hollis had revitalised the town and built the first promenade, additionally new turnpike roads from Axminster and Charmouth made access much easier. Lyme became a very tourist oriented place and so it has remained. Jane Austen visited Lyme and subsequently wrote Persuasion which was partially set in the town. Interestingly, 1818 was the publication date of Persuasion.
The early 19th Century was also the period when palaeontology came to the fore. Joseph Anning found the famous ichthyosaur head in 1811 and Mary Anning plied her trade selling “curies” and finding fossils that would help change the way men viewed creation. Mary’s friend and benefactor, Henry de la Beche lived in Aveline House in Broad Street. He was an avid collector of fossils and founder of the Geological Survey.
Amongst the visitors to Lyme in this period was the unknown writer of the Lymiad who wrote eight letters to a friend in Bath. Why they were written and what happened to the manuscript until the mid 20th Century is not clear though it is known that a fair copy of the manuscript was made. It is possible that this was professionally created in preparation for printing. This fair copy is now in Lyme Regis Museum having been donated by Laurence Whistler in 1978 on the occasion of his leaving the town. It had been given to his mother, Helen Turner by a friend, Ronald Fuller in 1949.
The “good copy” of the poems can be seen in the Museum’s Literary Gallery.
Whilst curator of the Museum, John Fowles became interested in the manuscript and spent time investigating its history. Along with his wife, Sarah, he persuaded John Constable (a former Professor of English at Kyoto University and Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge) to prepare the manuscript for publication.
The book was published in 2011 by Lyme Regis Museum. In its 190 pages there is a short description of Lyme Regis in the early 19th Century written by John Fowles, a general introduction by John Constable which explores clues to the authorship, the eight letters and a wealth of Editorial Notes.
The history and general introduction are very interesting and can lead one to theorise on who the anonymous author might be and the editorial notes help one’s understanding of the poem and also contain a wealth of historical information. Eg for the lines:
“No Ball, no Theatre, no Row-tow gay,
No Caraboo a merry farce to play”
We are firstly told that a “Row-tow” is a party and also that Mary Willcocks, the daughter of a cobbler, successfully passed herself off in Bath as the Princess Caraboo.
The poem itself flows well and is very readable. It gives an amusing insight into Lyme at that time, poking fun at residents and visitors alike. For example:
“But say, what bark is that, which now
Passes the Oriana’s bow?
That ‘Blood-red flag’ which gaily floats
On the full-swelling breeze, denotes
The Conrad, Sir Fopling Fossil’s pride….”
which is said to be a reference to Henry de la Beche and his penchant for sailing.
There is also this description of The Cobb:
“You rude-built Pier, where art contends
With stubborn Nature’s power, and bends
To her will the lofty rocks, displays
A work may well demand our praise.
Within that bulwark’s sheltering retreat,
A child of fortune moor’d his little fleet;
The book is a must have for anyone interested in Lyme’s history and literature; one that might very well be a collector’s item in times to come.