Ancient Manuscript Rescued from the Parlour Fire; LOCAL HISTORY the Chance Discovery of an Ancient Manuscript Led to Changes in the World of English Literature
Byline: By CHRIS UPTON
There is a house in Shifnal, Shropshire. Disregard any similarity to a hit song by The Animals and concentrate on the house.
Ignore, too, the fact that the building is now a public house called The Oddfellows, and before that was a coaching inn called The Star Hotel. In the 18th century at least it was a house.
Shifnalians (if that is what you call them) are well aware that this property in Market Street has historical connections, and there is a blue plaque on the front to prove it.
The predecessor to the Oddfellows was the birthplace, as the plaque pronounces, of Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808), chemist and physician.
Beddoes was once at the forefront of medical research. Had he lived a bit closer to Birmingham Beddoes would almost certainly have become a member of the Lunar Society.
Talented and inquisitive, he was a friend of James Watt and married Anna Edgeworth, the daughter of another of the members, Richard Lovell Edgeworth.
Anyway, enough of Dr Beddoes for now. He's well worth a separate article on his own. Put him to the back of your mind.
The owner of the house the Beddoes were occupying was one Humphrey Pitt, local landowner and proud possessor of Priorslee Hall, now a property of the University of Wolverhampton on the edge of Telford.
The house in Shifnal represented, I guess, an alternative town house. Before he started renting it out Pitt lived there himself. And one day in 1753 he was visited by a friend.
That visit, unlikely as it may seem, turned out to be one of the seminal moments in English literature, equal to the untimely interruption by the Man of Porlock, or the time Ezra Pound was handed the draft of a poem by T. S. Eliot.
Let me introduce you to the man at the door. It is Thomas Percy, man of the cloth and an Oxford graduate. He is also a native of Shropshire, which is what brings him to this neck of the woods. Percy's birthplace, incidentally, is the finest surviving Elizabethan house in the town of Bridgnorth. But put that to the back of your mind as well.
Percy rose high in the Established Church. He received a Doctorate in Divinity from both Cambridge and Oxford, became Dean of Carlisle and, in 1782, Bishop of Dromore in Northern Ireland. It is in the transept of Dromore Cathedral which he himself built that Percy lies buried.
But is not as a churchman that Thomas Percy is best-remembered. Indeed, ecclesiastical promotion (and subsequent burial) were probably the last thing on his mind when he called on his friend, Humphrey Pitt, in 1753. Percy was then only 24-years-old or so.
So let's skip over the niceties and cut straight to the key moment. Thomas Percy, as he described the incident later, noticed a "scrubby, shabby, paper book lying dirty on the floor under a bureau in the parlour".
So little did Mr Pitt's household care for the old book that the maids had been using pages from it as firelighters. The manuscript, as far as Percy could tell, was 17th-century in date and all written in the same hand.
It would be some time before Thomas Percy could get this manuscript out of Shifnal and onto his own bookshelf' his initial task, presumably, was to prevent its gradual incineration.
But as the Percy Folio (now in the British Library), it is recognised as one of the most significant manuscripts of early English poetry, as important in its way as Beowulf or the Exeter Book. Percy himself saw that it contained unique copies of ballads and poems, some dating back as far as the 12th century. …