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John Edwards Holbrook Travel Memoir

A European travel memoir in two volumes greatly enhances the South Caroliniana Library's holdings of manuscript materials relating to nineteenth-century American physician and naturalist John Edwards Holbrook (1794-1871). Born in Beaufort, son of Silas and Mary Edwards Holbrook, James Edwards Holbrook was an 1815 graduate of Brown University and in 1818 took his M.D. degree in from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1827 he was married to Charlestonian Harriott Pinckney Rutledge. Holbrook was a founder of the Medical College of South Carolina and authored two seminal works, North American Herpetology (1842) and Ichthyology of South Carolina (1855-1860).

The travel memoir details Holbrook's two years of travel throughout Great Britain (1819-1820) and is written as a series of lengthy letters, in a literary style, addressed to his brother. The first stint of his four-year European tour was spent in visiting sites in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, with stops at numerous scientific, educational, and charitable institutions, as well as meetings with physicians, educators, politicians, and clergymen. Other portions of the account are given over to descriptions of natural scenery and phenomena and references to mineral specimens collected while en route.

Upon his arrival in Liverpool, after a fifteen-day voyage from New York, Holbrook was introduced to "the American Consul Mr. Maury a fine old gentleman of 70 who has been in the office since his appointment by Washington." "I also saw an election scene," he records, "and think John Bull has no right to ridicule the stump orators of Virginia. Here the candidate ascends a stage to harangue the `canaille'....The candidates here are not distinguished by the white garb of the Romans but they and their partisans are known by the colour of their watch chain. Even the ladies wear the ribbon in honour of their favourite, who is as you may suppose generally the youngest and handsomest of the statesmen."

The city of Manchester, Holbrook reports, was garrisoned with troops sent in to put down the threat of a strike by textile workers--"the town is now crammed with soldiers sent to keep the poor devils quiet and punish them for daring to ask more than their taskmasters are inclined to pay. The law considers it a serious offence in Journeymen &c to combine for the raising of wages, while it is so equitable as entirely to overlook the combination of their employers to keep them stationary." Leaving Manchester, Holbrook traveled northward to Lancaster, then on through the Lake District to Scotland. At Glasgow, he writes, "I had the satisfaction of hearing one of the most eloquent preachers of the age, Doctor Chalmers. His broad scotch dialect disappointed me in the commencement of his discourse...but when he was fairly begun I was more directly sensible of the power of eloquence that ever was my lot to be before."

Journeying through the Scottish highlands, Holbrook described the residents as "proud & haughty...& yet I always found sixpence in return for milk offered a very acceptable present notwithstanding ancient lineage." "The language spoken among themselves is the gaelic though many understand english," he notes. "The highlanders have generally a look of melancholy...no doubt owing to the solitude in which they live and the habitual contemplation of the most sublime scenes in nature, which are unfavourable to levity of thought and which have a tendency to call forth the sublime in sentiment. They are however fond of musick and dancing. As they are many of them shepherds they are great prognosticators of the weather, and some of them astronomers....If in their rambles they meet a companion the conversation is of the adventures of the day, a dream of horror, or a tale of a kelpie or ghost. They are brave and generous but impatient of being out done by others. They are still exceedingly attached to old customs and were very indignant at the act of parliament for the change of their dress--and some wore the breeches in derision across their shoulders."

Edinburgh, Holbrook suggests, is "inferior only to London." "The new town is confessedly the best built of any in Europe....The old town," in marked contrast, "is directly the reverse of this- Old ugly irregular and abominably filthy- It is built upon hills at whose sides the houses rise to the height even of 13 stories--which accommodates one family above another." While in Edinburgh, Holbrook visited the university and made copious notes on the professors there, as well as the city's theatre, opera, and charitable institutions.

The earlier volume concludes with the following notation--"The remainder of this tour to Newcastle I have not received--it is probably lost. S.P.H." The later volume begins with a letter, 1 December 1819, written from London but continuing the account of Holbrook's travels through Scotland. His next destination was Perth, "a manufacturing town." "The city has always been of some importance and was once the residence of the sovereigns of Scotland," he reports. "Then that flaming & furious reformer Knox advised the populace in order to exterminate the rooks, to destroy their nests; where upon his followers with blind zeal razed many of the beautiful abbeys and churches the very ruins of which excite so much admiration and regret in our day."

Political sentiments towards Americans were more acceptable in Scotland, the memoir suggests. "The Scots are more favourable to our Institutions than the english," Holbrook writes, "but I believe as much in pique to their own good government as in a love of justice or affection towards us. There has been a great ferment about Jackson whom they `hate as they do hell pains'....These britons are altogether jealous of us & this feeling they cannot hide....You well know that I came to this country...a fedralist...but the abuse that every paper teems with upon our institutions & the general hostility of the British to them, have abated much of my complacence to these islanders as political friends."

Leaving Scotland, Holbrook traveled first to Belfast, Ireland, then to Wales in search of relatives. While in Wales, he descended into a lead mine and gives a detailed account of mining operations. The Welsh people, Holbrook writes, "seem to me lively and active--having a good share of common sense--except upon the subject of pedigree or the antiquity of their country....An English labourer must have porter & meat & his family tea while a welch peasant is well contented with oatmeal bread and potatoes."

From Wales Holbrook returned to Ireland, journeying on to Dublin. "The public buildings of Dublin," he records, "surpass those of any other city in Great Britain--in the excellence and beauty of the material and the style of the workmanship." Trinity College "is the fairest feature of that city and Anatomy is the pillar of the college." The medical school's reputation, Holbrook notes, was fast overtaking that of the University of Edinburgh. Dublin society "partakes more of the french gaiety than english gravity- In fashionable life there seems an almost total extinction of ceremony....The master and mistress have deserted the head of the table and mingle with the guests." Other accounts describe the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin Society, and botanical gardens. Yet, "Amid all this splendor and magnificence," Holbrook declares, "I cannot walk without being shocked at the appearance of want and wretchedness- The streets swarm with beggars- In Ireland there are no poor laws though very generous contributions are raised for the indigent....`a crust of bread and liberty' is perhaps preferable to plenty & imprisonment."

Once again in England, Holbrook journeyed from Birmingham to London and set off on a tour with "Mr. Shoolbred of Charleston to the south of England," with stops at Oxford, Bristol, Bath, Exeter, Salisbury, the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth, Brighton, and Chicester. The second volume ends with the promise--"My next package will give you an account of London or rather of my residence in it...as it is a world by itself."

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