Reprinted from Newsletter 108, dated 2003 August

BBC researcher illuminates John Cannon’s Glastonbury

Adrian Pearse

Helen Weinstein, a BBC producer and research fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, provided fascinating insights in her talk on May 23 into the life of John Cannon, a familiar figure in the Glastonbury of the 1730s and 1740s.

John Cannon was born at West Lydford in 1684; his father was a small farmer. Given a very basic schooling in the church porch, he rapidly mastered reading and writing and developed a passion for books — eventually resulting in the production of his own memoirs, but often throughout his life either a means for self-improvement or the cause of financial hardship.

A very old drawing of the south, east, and north sides of a building, laid out left to right as if unfolded. Grey and red are used for stone and brick, and green for the roof material. On the ground floor many arched entrances are visible, plus some rectangular doors. On the upper level are many windows. The roof looks to be very tall. Below the drawing are many lines of calligraphic handwriting, whose contents are difficult to make out.
Cannon’s sketch and handwriting: “A large market house built by William Strode Esquire out of ye ruins of a large vault in ye Abbey…” He had a schoolroom in this building, which stood in the middle of Magdalene Street.

Family problems meant that at age 13 he was sent to work in the fields as a shepherd and ploughboy for £3 a year, but he continued to educate himself and when aged 21 in 1705 qualified as an excise officer, which brought him £50 per annum and 13 comfortable years, marriage, children and postings around southern England. Extravagant book purchases led to his getting into debt and his subsequent dismissal.

After a failed attempt to establish himself as a maltster in Bridgwater he returned to Lydford in 1723. He taught himself the skills of a scrivener [which the dictionary defines as scribe, copyist or drafter of documents; a notary], and in the early 1730s was appointed Charity School Master for St John’s parish at Glastonbury at £6 per annum, a post which he retained until shortly before his disappearance and presumed death in 1743.

As well as his teaching duties, Cannon provided legal and accountancy services for the town and district, earning perhaps another £50 a year by this means. His family continued to live at Lydford, while he lodged in the town. He had an office over the porch in St John’s and a schoolroom in the Market House, which stood opposite the present Town Hall.

While in Glastonbury he produced his elaborately handwritten memoir designed in emulation of volumes he had read. His memoir was itself a transcription and augmentation from three earlier versions, each of which had outgrown the volumes in which they were inscribed. The work contains his family history, descriptions, illustrations and historical sections on places where he had lived, as well as news items copied from newspapers and books, together with copies of his legal and business paperwork. Written in an elegant hand in homemade brown and green ink, it is a rare and astonishing survival, not just of his own life, but also in the rich detail it provides of the locality.

Glastonbury features prominently — Cannon recognised the historical importance of the Abbey ruins, and is dismayed at their steady destruction, often using gunpowder, to provide building materials. He resides at various hostelries and other premises in the town and provides details of its shops and personalities. Parish meetings he describes as lengthy and quarrelsome, and on one occasion mentions that the Overseer struck the Mayor with a candlestick.

John Cannon’s tragedy was that he did not get on with people — having risen from the level of his peers, he was useful to, but never joined, his social superiors. Economic depression in Glastonbury in the 1740s resulted in the loss of his teaching post. Soon afterwards, the memoir ends and he disappears from the written record. Somehow his work was preserved through the centuries that followed and is now available to an appreciative audience. The manuscript, owned by the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, is kept at the county archives in Taunton.

Helen Weinstein’s book on John Cannon is to be published next year and an ambitious website is in the works. Meanwhile her main work on Radio 4 is Documents (Thursday nights starting late summer) and, with Kate Adie, Women in War (this autumn).

Excerpts from the Cannon memoirs

1704: 20 years old — bellringing, courting and cupboard love

And now I being arrived to about twenty years began to think of other concerns amidst our recreations for as we went abroad we must needs be acquainted with some femals to Enlarge our pleasure & rouse our spirits for most of my companions now had entered into the schools of Venus & began to cast amorous glances on the Country Lasses which they met with in their rambles.

One instance of this kind I cannot omit for once on a Sabbath day, we Ringers concluded to go to Balstonborrough Church, not so much out of Zeal to hear a sermon as for Ringing. And in order thereto, I being now minded to be more spruce than my companions and willing to maintain an old custom in that country (of wearing first of all a new pair of boots and Spurs after being brought home from the Cordwainer), I put on my boots & spurs & so went with my fellows to this church although not less than 2 miles distance. But I must condemn myself of pride or affectation of showing my finery about the legs.

After sermon was over, we had the liberty of the bells for a peal or two after which we went into the Clerks and spent about 8d a piece then took our walk friendly together as usual, but coming to a hamlet called Southwood, our company divided after a few arguments to fix our resolutions to Continue together until we were come to our respective habitations, … but more on account of the young woman, our friendly host his daughter, who was a clean, tite girl & had some share of beauty & handling her tongue.

1707: Cannon leaves home for Reading to train as an officer of the Excise and describes the breakup of his bellringing group and the death of Nathaniel Withers

The morning approaching for my departure which now was more troublesome and sorrowfull to my parents, friends, and acquaintance than hitherto yet had been manifest nothing but sobbing and tears appeared with them but more especially my sweetheart Mary to whom we again renewed promises of fidelity which was to be expresst in constant letters which also we engaged to be frequent in & So sealing our parting with a multitude of briny kisses, I took my leave of them all as also of my native place for a time. …

Thus was our long untied knot of Ringers entirely broke & dispersed which had continued in a true perfect band of amity and unfeigned friendship many years as have been already related. For Nathaniel Withers died a little before this my departure having contracted a violent strain of bruise in ringing at East Pennard the 4th bell by himself, it having been a custom for 5 of us to ring the said bells singly notwithstanding the pondrosity of them that it was commonly 8 mens labour to ring them. At the same time, I could ring the tenor with great ease.