John Cole - Ecton’s Old Historian

‘Aunt Langdell’s’ house, where John Cole wrote his History of Ecton,
is to the right of this photograph, which dates from about 1900

Some years ago, long after moving to Ecton, I came across a little book called The History and Antiquities of Ecton, written in 1825 and published in Scarborough. I was intrigued. The author’s name, John Cole, meant nothing to me but I wanted to find out why anyone would take the trouble to write a history of a little village in Northamptonshire and have it published in a Yorkshire seaside resort. He evidently admired the village for, in his book, he described it as ‘delightfully situated on rising ground, enjoys a pure atmosphere, and has its approach for about a quarter of a mile on each side of the turnpike road, flanked with venerable elms, whose umbrageous branches overshadow a grassy plain of several yards in width, which forms a delightful place of promenade. Various pleasing presentations of the lofty tower of the Church offer themselves picturesquely to view, through the aged trees which skirt the domain.’

John Cole was born in 1792 to the daughter of a wealthy farmer in Weston Favell. He was illegitimate and when his mother died three years later he was cared for by his grandparents and then, when they died, by his aunt. This aunt had married a certain William Langdell, whose family owned a smithy and adjoining beerhouse in Ecton under the sign of the Horseshoes (now the Three Horseshoes). ‘Aunt Langdell’, as he called her, now took on the mantle of John’s surrogate mother and her newly-built cottage next to the family forge became the home to which in later years he would always return for solace or advice. The cottage still stands between the Three Horseshoes and the path to the churchyard in High Street.

By the time he finished his education John had decided on a career in books and he served a seven-year apprenticeship with William Birdsall, who had a bookbinding business and bookstore in Northampton. This was completed in 1813 when John was twenty-one whereupon he retired to Ecton to consider his future. To while away the winter hours he put together a little history of his favourite village. He described the writing of it in his diaries: ‘As soon as I was downstairs in a morning I placed myself at a long sort of table completely covered with a white cloth, and standing near the fire-place from which ‘I could discern the thresher at his task’ and overlook all the usual occupations of a farm. The angle of this fireplace formed a snug corner, where I deposited those books which I wished to consult during the day. Here I sat alike to meals as to reading.’ The farm he mentions is Rectory Farm, its great barns now converted into houses. Much of his time in Ecton was spent in historical research for his book, visiting friends in the village and wandering in the fields or around the Ecton Hall gardens. His Sundays though were sacrosanct, being devoted to contemplation, religious reading and worship twice every Sunday at St Mary Magdalene.

Soon more urgent matters had to be dealt with and the book was put aside whilst he attended to his future; in 1814 he obtained a position at a London publishing house but soon gave this up when he came into a legacy from his grandfather. With the benefit of hindsight he later wrote: ‘This was a snug little fortune upon which I might have independently lived, and am extremely sorry I ever risked it in business, for I assure myself ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’’. Without that hindsight he risked his inheritance in a number of unprofitable business ventures. In 1817 he took a bookshop in Lincoln, which he kept for only a year, and in 1819 moved to another in Hull. In between he married his sweetheart, Susannah Marshall, and the first of their six children was born the following year.

In 1821 he took over a bookshop in Scarborough and enjoyed the most stable and productive period in his writing and publishing career. This eleven-year span resulted in four place histories, at least forty-one other books and pamphlets, two collections of prints and a series of annual local guides. And two of these publications were histories of those places dearest to him – his birthplace, Weston Favell and his adopted village, Ecton.
The publication of his Ecton book came shortly after he won some money in the National Lottery. Can this be just coincidence? Whatever his stimulus the manuscript was updated and in 1825 he published on his own printing press 150 copies of his History and Antiquities of Ecton. His reason for publishing the book is explained in the preface: ‘My early connexion with the village whose history is developed in the following pages must be considered as the motive, and it is hoped will be the apology, for the publication of the succeeding sheets…’

The untimely death of his wife in 1832 prompted a return to Northampton but his subsequent life was restless and soured by poverty. A bookshop in the Market Square bankrupted him in a year. Perhaps out of desperation he took a butcher’s shop in Wellingborough but that lasted only a year before he decided to become a schoolmaster, a career that he pursued with indifferent success for the last dozen or so years of his life. He was certainly not idle in these last few years and compiled unpublished histories of his last dwelling place, Woodford, of nearby Thrapston and of Oundle, Barnwell and Twywell.

John Cole died at his Woodford home in April 1848, from a ‘decline’, as his Death Certificate put it. He was 55. Many years earlier John had mused about his final resting place to his son: ‘I should have stated that when I was at Ecton last, I pointed out to William a large elm tree immediately at the foot of my Aunt’s garden wall, under whose shade I should like my mortal remains to be deposited, when Heaven decrees that I should pay the tribute of my being; for in the tomb where my dear wife is interred I suppose there not to be room. But it matters not where my body is deposited. I am not over anxious about it. Indeed in the first volume of my Life, I have expressed a wish to be interred in the family burial place in Weston Church-yard. At one or other of these places I should certainly like my bones to repose…’
In the event he was buried at Woodford Church. A memorial plaque in the church has long gone and no headstone survives to mark the last resting place of the man who came to be known as the ‘eccentric bookseller’.

©Rodney Ingram

‘Aunt Langdell’s’ house, where John Cole wrote his History of Ecton,
is to the right of this photograph, which dates from about 1900