Plymouth's Literary Past in the Writing of its Women

Plymouth Hoe and Smeaton's Tower
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Ian Capper -

Women Writing on the Devon Land
A – Z of Devon Women Writers & Places
Plymouth's Literary Past in the Writing of its Women

Early Plymouth Radicals

          Yes, I know I could have chosen Paignton, Pinhoe or Princetown as the parish to represent P in this A – Z of Devon’s Women Writers (up to ca. 1965). There’s a cluster of women linked with these places whose lives and writings could be included. But really, it had to be Plymouth. Or, rather, given its important place in Devon’s history and the fact that it is the second largest city in the south-west, Plymouth could not be left out. Over the years (and up until circa 1965) plenty of women writers have lived or written about Plymouth and its surrounding area. I’ve already mentioned a few in passing in previous blog posts - see
Frances Gregg, the War and The Mystic Leeway The Parker Circle of Saltram and Caroline's Garden; a Countess at Mount Edgcumbe.

         I'd like here to at least acknowledge a handful of others on this A-Z of Devon places associated with women writers of the past. 

         Back in 1654, having recently traipsed across the rough waterlogged tracks of the wild Devon moors on her way to Cornwall, notorious Fifth Monarchist prophet Anna Trapnel found herself behind bars in a Plymouth prison. Trapnel’s apparent crimes included ‘witchcraft, madness, whoredom, vagrancy, and seditious intent’, all accusations probably manufactured by Cromwell’s henchmen after she’d had the audacity to condemn the Protectorate.

          For Trapnel, newly converted visionary who was experiencing frequent and long-lasting trances, the stark moor landscape was a direct sign of God, its idiosyncratic tors ram-full of metaphorical Biblical meaning. Apparently amazed by the ruggedly bleak landscape Trapnel tramped across the moors, remarking later

'that's a far journey indeed … My thoughts were much upon the Rocks I passed by in my journey and the dangerous rocky places I rode over … now I feared not, but was very cheerfully carried on, beholding my rock, Christ, through those emblems of Rocks …[i]

The young prophetess was not in the city of Plymouth for long; she was soon hauled out and transported back to jail in London. Orlando Project has a vivid description about the context of Trapnel’s Plymouth sojourn:

At Truro she once again spoke in public (or at least in her lodgings in front of an open window) and began to pray, sing, and go into trances. She again became a centre of popular interest. People came to pull her out of bed and out of her trance, to take her before justices of the peace on suspicion of being a witch. She refused to wake, even when her eyelids were forced open to check on her state of consciousness. Thus arrested for "aspersing the government", she was brought before judges at Plymouth, notably Judge Lobb. She pleaded not guilty on God's express orders. She was interrogated, bound over in recognizances of £300, and sent back from Plymouth to London, still a prisoner. (See Orlando)

            Trapnel was down in Cornwall again the following year, in 1655. Coincidence maybe, or possibly the notoriety surrounding her preaching and consequent punishment had a spin-off; for in the same year two Plymouth born women were also charged after interrupting their church minister in the middle of a service - purportedly at ‘the steeple house’, at St Andrew’s Church; the women were taken away from the city and plonked into prison up the road, in Exeter. Though like Trapnel this pair became well-known for penning influential religious tracts, unlike her, they were Quakers. 

        The women were Priscilla Cotton and Mary Cole, who whilst in prison, from October 1655 to sometime in 1656, co-authored a short, passionate and confrontational pamphlet titled To The Priests and People of England (read extracts and about this text at Radical Christian Writings) – which is said to be the first known extended female defence of female preaching. Arguing that inspired women are duty bound to speak and that church ministers are ‘weakwomen’, their text critiques the state Church of England and challenges a wife’s duty to be subservient to both husband and the ‘head’ of church. Cotton also penned and published As I was in the Prison-House, in 1656 and A Briefe Description, 1659 and A Visitation of Love, in 1661. There are various online sources which feature these two women. 

From text of To the Priest and People of England

          Priscilla Cotton was born in Saltash and married a Plymouth Merchant called Arthur Cotton. As far as I can tell no one has yet established the identity of her parents, but after a quick search via Find My Past, it looks as if Priscilla’s maiden name was Martyn and that her marriage to Arthur Cotton (also traceable via Find My Past Records), took place in Plymouth, on 20 June 1646:

Marriage of Priscilla Martyn to Arthur Cole 
and below birth of their daughter Elizabeth

Mary Cole was the wife of a Plymouth merchant. She may have been Mary Head, who married a Richard Cole in Plymouth in 1643,

Record of marriage of Mary Head & Richard Cole 
see FindMyPast
or/and a relative of Nicholas Cole, who is mentioned in various sources as a distributor of Quaker texts.

          Pamphleteering women played an important part in the early Quaker movement and consequently their works are significant in terms of changing and challenging the roles of women both in that sect and in the wider community, during the years of upheaval before and during the Civil War. Because of this, the Quaker women writers have sometimes been labelled as ‘Mothers of Feminism’ (See Print Culture and the Early Quakers).

            Plymouth in those mid-century years of the C17 was a popular place for female preaching, imprisonment and subsequent writing. Given the number of women involved and the close dates, it’s possible that there may have been a network of like-minded radical women working in the south-west (and beyond), perhaps crossing the sectarian divides to achieve a common purpose. (See Print Culture). Katherine Martindale’s name sometimes appears along with that of Cole and Cotton as another woman who took part in the insurrection against the priest, in 1655 (See History of Plymouth). The following year, two more women found themselves in jail after speaking aloud after the priest’s sermon:

In 1656, two otherwise obscure Friends, Margaret Killam and Barbara Patison, addressed a “Warning from the Lord to the Teachers and People” of the city of Plymouth, England. (Why didn't the Early Quakers Celebrate Christmas?)

The women’s written protest included ‘a warning to corrupt magistrates who are persecuting the innocent and the just; witness your practices at Exeter prison’ (See The History of Plymouth from the Earliest Period to the Present Time). Some sources note that Killam’s and Pattison’s protest took place in 1655, the same year as Cole and Cotton were in trouble. Pattison and Killam were from the north of the country, but they had travelled down to Plymouth from the north of the country.

See Print Culture and The Early Quakers

      The tracts written by all these women share common features: they are typically co-authored, collaborative works, rather than single-authored; they are frequently written and issued from prison; they concern similar themes and issues. It’s easy from our own secular age to side-line these women and their works, but it seems to me that Devon – and especially Plymouth – should be proud of these radical literary foremothers, who were not afraid to stand up, speak their minds and in a day when on the whole women did not put pen to paper, make their protests last the test of time.
The Three Reynolds Sisters

          It was in the second decade of the C18, only sixty years so or after the appearance of the C17 sectarian women’s writings, that three sisters, not-to-be-ignored C18 literary women were born in Plymouth, or to be more precise, in Plympton. A trio of writers of a generically idiosyncratic bag of texts, that would, from the perspective of the C21 all be considered highly unusual texts. One was Elizabeth Reynolds Johnson, Pamphleteer, whose writings could (in some ways) be viewed as successors to those of the earlier protest tract writers. Elizabeth, who some have labelled ‘pious’ and other as ‘literary theorist’, penned a series of pamphlets, including The Explication of the Vision to Ezekiel,1781, but each of these was apparently printed anonymously. There’s a fascinating piece, which includes the story of how (as one of only two women who ever tried) Elizabeth entered her pamphlet ‘The Astronomy and Geography of the Created World, and of course the longitude', into the competition for the search for longitude, at The Elusive Ladies of the Longitude.

          Elizabeth’s older sister Mary Reynolds Palmer’s writing achievements could hardly have been more different from those of her predecessor tract writers, nevertheless Mary wrote at least one text which, though hardly well-known, has not completely disappeared from the literary radar. ‘A Dialogue in the Devonshire Dialect' was once assessed by The Dictionary of National Biography, as the ‘best piece of literature in the vernacular of Devon". The text, written in the form of a play, is an account of the county’s various characters, customs and in particular, the idiosyncratic Devon dialect. 

From A Dialogue in the 
Devonshire Dialect

    Unfortunately, as has so often happened to many women authors through the centuries, the publishing fate of Dialogue in the Devonshire Dialect was not straightforward; the publication and attribution of authorship to Mary Palmer was not automatic. Although extracts from the text appeared in periodicals during Palmer’s lifetime, the text wasn’t attributed to her and whilst a proportion of Devonshire Dialect did get printed over a century later in 1837, (see images above), even this edition hardly gave credence to its author. It took another two years before a complete edition of the original was published, edited by Palmer’s daughter, Theophila Gwatkin. I'm not yet sure if the copy available via Amazon is this full text.

          The youngest writer-sister of the three was Frances Reynolds, who is known more as artist than writer. However, Frances did write, and her Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Taste and the Origins of our Ideasof Beauty &c. has received considerable attention from fashion and cultural theorists. Frances also wrote poems, including A Melancholy Tale, 1790, which according to one source was inspired after 'travelling in a post chaise with a woman she met in Devonshire near the churchyard of Wear near Torrington ...' (see English Female Artists). Frances also kept a Commonplace Book (See Sir Joshua Reynolds; the Painter in Society) and wrote at least one memoir about Samuel Johnson.

          None of the sisters appear to have remained in Plymouth. Following marriage to a local solicitor called John Palmer (and Mayor of the town), in 1740, Mary Palmer moved away to GreatTorrington, probably spending the remainder of her life at Palmer House

Memorial to Mary Palmer at Great Torrington church
(now half-hidden behind the organ-pipes)
When I recently re-visited Great Torrington and its church I found Mary's memorial in the church, but if you're looking for it you'll need to look carefully behind the organ-pipes, which, rather sadly - and perhaps appropriately, given that its subject is a more or less invisible woman in history's shadow - is apparently its final resting-place.

Elizabeth married William Johnson in 1753 (see an ancestral tree here, have not checked this); the couple were married in and also settled in Torrington, where apparently, she stayed after her husband abandoned her, along with their seven children. Frances doesn’t appear to have had a permanent home-base and may occasionally have returned to Plymouth throughout her life.

Palmer House Great Torrington,
home of Mary Palmer

But, even if their life-journeys took them away from their home-town, the Reynolds sisters are fascinating to consider in light of their local Plymouth/Plympton connections. Firstly, they were all siblings of their much-more famous artist Joshua Reynolds and it is mostly through him that details of his sisters’ – and their family’s lives - become traceable. Secondly, as I’ve so often found after starting to dig around the archives, the sisters appear to have been participants in a network of contemporary interrelated literary/artistic women. 

Former Plympton Grammar School
Former Plympton Grammar School
where the Reynolds' sisters' father was Master
cc-by-sa/2.0  - ©N Chadwick -
         The sisters’ father was Rev. Samuel Reynolds, Fellow of Balliol College and Master at Plympton Grammar School. Mary born in 1716, was the eldest daughter and third child of eleven children (one source says five or six of them died in infancy). Elizabeth, born in 1721 was a couple of years older than Joshua whilst Frances, born 1729, was apparently the youngest of the siblings.

          You can find quite a lot about Samuel via online searches, but information about the Reynolds' mother is elusive. After delving into genealogical websites I was able to piece bits and pieces together. Theophila Potter came from Great Torrington, which presumably explains why several of her children returned there in adult life. However, Theophila's own parentage has been disputed. The best account I’ve come across is that in an old edition of Devon and Cornwall Notes & Queries (1913), which even then, questioned the accepted maternal ancestry of the famed Joshua. Unfortunately, all the hard work that O. A. R. Murry, (the researcher) achieved does not seem to have trickled down the time-line one hundred years later. All the other accounts of the Reynold’s family’s maternal family-tree appear to repeat the genealogy which, true or not, has become part of that family’s legend.

          Both Samuel Reynolds and Theophila were said to be religious and scholarly. However, as so often happens with many women who’ve been all but deleted from history, you have to be prepared to do a lot of extra snooping around to find out more than cursory information about the women of the family. Once you start looking at the lives of a mysteriously unknown woman’s father, husband and/or brother/s, and male acquaintance networks, then detective-like, you can soon scoop up all sorts of rich details about the woman/women-in-their-lives. Though virtually air-brushed out of history, if you’re lucky, you can piece her back together, reinvent her. In the case of the trio of Reynolds sisters, you can start to reconcile them, one with the other. 

          The sisters’ life-journeys and literary accomplishments have more or less been overshadowed by the fame of their brother who happened to end up as the most celebrated English painter of his time. Inevitably, when one’s dipping in and out of the various sources, the references to any one of the women tends to embed at least one rather derogatory judgemental comment. For example, Joshua’s assessment of his sister Frances’ paintings was that ‘they made others laugh and him cry’ (for example, see Joshua Reynolds; the Painter in Society). Ironically perhaps, Mary Elizabeth and Frances Reynolds are best found again through studying their brother’s life and contacts. 

       Re Mary Palmer, Wikipedia commenting on Joshua, her younger, famous brother, informs us that his eldest sister was:
seven years his senior, author of Devonshire Dialogue, whose fondness for drawing is said to have had much influence on him when a boy. In 1740 she provided £60, half of the premium paid to Thomas Hudson the portrait-painter, for Joshua's pupilage, and nine years later advanced money for his expenses in Italy. (Wikipedia)
       Another source notes that Joshua commented that he had copied drawings of two of his sisters who ‘had a turn for art’. You can find Joshua’s portraits of his sisters and if you look at Plymouth Museum Galleries Archive you can find about the background to the Reynolds family via their postings about Joshua. Frances, the youngest sister (who unlike her sisters did not marry), apparently lived with her brother for many years. She is sometimes referred to as ‘the other Reynolds’, probably because of her closeness to Joshua and also perhaps because (apparently) unlike Mary and Elizabeth, she is directly associated with painting. You’ll more likely find more immediate information about her than her two sisters – probably again, due to her long-time proximity to Joshua.

         One enlightening sourcebook I stumbled upon is The Johnson Circle; a Group Portrait, by Lyle Larson, an eye-opener when it comes to establishing the gender family dynamics between the distinguished artist and his three sisters:

He treated them with much the same indifference he treated Frances. His behaviour seems all the more strange considering his obligations to them, because they had funded his trip to Italy when he was a young man, so that he could study the Renaissance masters (The Johnson Circle).

          Regarding the Reynolds’ sisters’ swirls of social and cultural networks, so far, with an hour or so of internet browsing, I’ve touched upon the following:

          Through her husband’s mother, Mary Palmer and her sisters would have been acquainted with Hannah More. Frances painted Hannah's portrait. 

          Writer Samuel Johnson was in immediate contact with the Reynolds family, as was his companion, the welsh poet Anna Williams. 

          Poet Elizabeth Carter was probably in the social/literary networks of the Reynold’s family.

          The famous ‘Queen of the Blues’ Bluestocking Mrs Elizabeth Montague is said to have been a friend of Frances Reynolds and Frances dedicated her Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Taste and the Origins of our Ideas of Beauty &c. to her. There are a series of letters exchanged between the two women.[ii]

          It is likely perhaps that Frances’ two sisters also participated in meetings and activities of the Bluestockings, one of whose other famous woman members was Fanny Burney, who (because she was a close contact of Mary Palmer’s husband’s mother) is known to have been a visitor at the Reynold’s house in Plymouth, in 1779.

          There is a wonderful self-portrait (by Frances Reynolds) of the three Reynolds sisters, which I’d love to reproduce here but for obvious copyright reasons cannot. You can see it on the source listed below[iii] and it may be available somewhere else on the internet. Sleuths needed! To me the existence of this portrait illustrates the affinity of an easy sororal bond between the sisters. Methinks there is much for future researchers to dive into here. There might even have been another Reynolds’ sister who wrote. Someone’s Ph.D. perhaps? 

          In this A-Z I could just as appropriately have included this piece about the Reynolds sisters under T, for Torrington (or G, for Great Torrington), as they all appear to have centred the focus of their lives there, back in the maternal lands of their mother and grandmother, rather than back in Plymouth. However, I felt it better to take them back home, to the place at the heart of their births and textual origins...
          … And now, resurfacing after immersion in Reynolds' sisters paraphernalia, I am suddenly aware that I've long exceeded the blog-post word limit which blog experts advocate. Oh well, the other Plymouth women writers will need to wait until the next time around ...

[i]Anna Trapnel's Report and Plea: or a Narrative of her Journey from London into Cornwall (1654)
See Hilary Hinds, God's Englishwomen: Seventeenth-century Radical Sectarian Writing and Feminist Criticism (MUP, 1996), 127.[ii] A Blue-Stocking Friendship: The Letters of Elizabeth Montagu and Frances Reynolds in the Princeton Collection. The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. 41, No. 3 (SPRING 1980), pp. 173-207 (35 pages)
[iii] Ibid.


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