The Local Historians: 4 George Lipscomb

There is some continuity between the 18th century historians I have so far discussed. Browne Willis was undoubtedly the pioneer in North Bucks and had the energy and financial resources to dedicated to his obsession. He left a vast amount of material in the hands of his protege William Cole who was able to organise his mentors work after his death, although he published little in his own lifetime. That work was left to future scholars.

Edward Cooke was another collector and gatherer and he died at the age of 52 before he could publish his work. This was left to his friend and contemporary George Lipscomb. Lipscomb was an assiduous writer and it is to him that we owe the publication of his monumental four-volume History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham. The last volume was published in 1847, a year after Lipscomb’s death.

He was born in 1773 at Quainton, the son of James and Mary Lipscomb. James Lipscomb was a Royal Navy surgeon and George followed his father in that profession. He studied and practised at Bartholemew’s Hospital in London and was awarded an MD degree by Marischal College in Aberdeen in 1806.

His family had Hampshire connections and in 1794 he became a lieutenant in the Hampshire Militia and in 1798 a captain in the Warwickshire volunteer infantry. It appears that during this period he was practising medicine at Warwick and then Birmingham and later at Coleshill.

Sometime before 1819 he moved to Whitchurch in Buckinghamshire and stayed there until 1832. Thereafter he lived in London until his death 9 November 1846.

One talent that Lipscomb lacked was the ability to manage money. He should have been comfortably off but in 1805 he declared bankruptcy, although he did come to an arrangement with his creditors. It must be assumed that his wife’s wealthy family (he married in 1803) came to the rescue.

He appears to have been less than fully engaged in the practice of medicine, as he was certainly a prolific author. The DNB has this to say about his literary output:

As an author, Lipscomb displayed a wide range of interests. In addition to medical writings on subjects including asthma, hydrophobia, and vaccination, of which he was a staunch opponent, he published five topographical works between 1799 and 1823, one of which, A Journey into South Wales (1802), contains a section on Buckinghamshire. He wrote three novels published between 1809 and 1812, two of them anonymously and one under the pseudonym John English. He contributed numerous articles to the Gentleman’s Magazine, usually signed Viator, and various essays on subjects connected with political economy, statistics, and general literature to the Literary Panorama and other periodicals. He suggested in an essay the plan of the Society for the Encouragement of Agricultural Industry. In 1832 Lipscomb delivered in London a series of lectures on cholera, which he afterwards published in the form of a treatise, accompanied by his correspondence on the subject with Lord Melbourne. Lipscomb also published sermons, edited the Clerical Guide for 1821, and composed hymns and anthems for charity schools.

His friendship with Edward Cooke was certainly the spur to taking on such a challenge as writing the History of Buckinghamshire. After Cooke died in 1824 Lipscomb  set about compiling the History without any understanding of the eventual cost. Book printing in the 19th century was labour intensive and very costly. His enthusiasm may have been in part motivated by believing the he was to inherit Cooke’s estate, but the will was challenged and the estate was tied up for many years in chancery. The decision, finally handed down in 183, went against him, and, according to his own account, Lipscomb had already spent £2000 on the project. Lipscomb resorted to mortgaging his house at Whitchurch for £1000 in 1831 in order to get the first volume published. The first volume was sold using the conventional practise of seeking subscribers, who would pay in advance and receive a copy once printed. I gather that Lipscomb was not very assiduous in promoting his work and the first volume showed a loss after printing costs. It was decided to publish the first volume in two parts and Part I went to press in 1831 and its relative lack of success meant that Part II only reached the press in 1838.

His wife died in 1834 and they had no children, so her fortune, which had sustained Lipscomb for 30 years reverted to her family. He was broke and as a consequence of not being able to pay his debts he spent some time in the Fleet prison in London for non-payment of debts. It is said that he completed his final volume while in the Fleet. Presumably someone came to the rescue for his debts and he was later released.

The publication was still not selling well, but Lipscomb persisted and with the support of his printers the work eventually found its way into print. Volume II followed in two parts in 1841 and 1842. Volume III was published in two parts, both in 1843, as was the first part of Volume IV. The last part of Volume IV was printed during Lipscomb’s last days and published in 1847.

Lipscomb’s History is not always accurate, but for its time is remarkably comprehensive. Nothing quite so ambitious had preceded it and it stands as a landmark in County history studies. Oliver Ratcliffe plagiarised it extensively for his History of the Newport Hundreds published in 1900 and much material was used for the Victoria County History.