William Cole was not a North Bucks man by birth and upbringing. Instead that honour goes to Cambridgeshire. He was born in the parish of Little Abington on 3 August 1714, the only son of William Cole (1671-1735) and his third wife Catherine (1682-1725). In 1726 he was sent to Eton for six years to endure its often brutal regime and he returned to Cambridge in 1733 where he was admitted to Clare College. After his father’s death in 1735 he became a man of independent means and he was happy to stay at the university and explore various studies. He took his BA in 1737 and an MA in 1740. It was here that he began his lifelong interest in antiquarian studies.
He was able to travel and spent these years visiting parish churches and libraries and spent many hours making transcripts of registers and other documents. He took holy orders at the age of 30 and he did take up some positions, but they’re not compatible with his desire for a quiet scholarly life. In 1753 however, the antiquary Browne Willis offered him the living of Bletchley. Willis understood of course that Cole’s commitment to his studies ranked above his commitment to parish life, and with that understanding the two men came to an accord. Cole stayed in Bletchley for 14 years, resigning the living in 1767 in favour of Willis’s grandson. Immediately he went to a living at Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, but after a falling out with hs patron moved to Milton, just outside Cambridge in 1770. In 1774 Eton College presented him with the vicarage at Burnham in South Buckinghamshire, although he never actually moved away from his home at Milton. He died on 16 December 1782.
Cole displayed no interest in women and never married.
His Bletchley years from 1753 to 1767 are the ones that interest us. There he came into regular contact with Browne Willis and had access to his papers. Indeed he substantially revised and brought to a coherent form Willis’s History of the Newport and Cottesloe Hundreds. Curiously Cole was opposed to publication of his works, something he could have afforded had he been so inclined. He was of the opinion that his contribution lay in the collection of the information and that others could make use it in the future – as indeed they have. Coles manuscripts are to be found in the British Library
|Extract from Cole’s notes on Wolverton|
I found an example of Cole’s work in the Bodleian Library when I was researching the Wolverton Manor. He had written a full account of the history of the manor and transcribed a letter written by a man called Thomas Hearne who visited the Wolverton Manor in 1711. In this document Hearne describes the old manor house, a very large and imposing building. It was pulled down a few years after 1713 and this document is the only record we have of this building and were it not for William Cole’s patient work, that too may have disappeared.