John Warburton
(1682-1759)

THERE is, among the Lansdowne manuscripts at the British Museum, a folio volume of no great bulk, which, if we believe the story it tells, is perhaps the most pitiful of all monuments to the vanity of antiquarian endeavour. For it embraces, or at least purports to embrace, the entire remains of that extensive collection of the imprinted drama of the earlier seventeenth century brought together, or supposed to have been brought together, about a hundred years later by John Warburton, Somerset Herald, prefaced by a long list of the treasures that have perished. The story of that disaster is one of the best known of literary anecdotes: how the zealous antiquary laboriously gathered together this unique collection of pieces by Shakespeare and others; how he handed it over for safe custody to his cook, who made use of the precious leaves for some obscure process connected with her trade, and how the owner made no further inquiry on the subject till he had devoured all but three and a half out of a total of some fifty or sixty plays. The story has been told over and over again with every kind of facetious adornment, till no history of literature is complete without it, and our national biography has to take serious account of the eccentric herald and his cook Elizabeth B. . . .

My own idea of what happened is somewhat as follows. Warburton in the course of his antiquarian researches came across a few manuscript plays and grew interested in the subject. He collected notes, probably from various sources, but chiefly from Humphrey Moseley's entries, and made out a list containing the titles of such pieces as he thought it might be possible to recover, in addition to those of the plays of which he had already become possessed. Some he actually did succeed in finding, and a few further manuscripts coming into his hands were added at the end of the list. The collection and list were then laid aside, a few manuscripts finding their way among the rest of the collection's archaeological litter, the bulk, however, within reach of the parsimonious fingers of Betsy the baker of pies. Long afterwards her master discovered his loss, and no longer in the least remembering either the extent of his collection or the nature of his list, added in a fit of not unnatural vexation the famous memorandum:

`After I had been many years collecting these MSS plays, through my own carelessness and the ignorace [sic] of my servant in whose hands I had lodged them they was unluckely burnt or put under pie bottoms, excepting the three which follows.' J.W.

If this be so, we have undoubtedly to lament the loss of a few pieces, perhaps of considerable interest, but not by any means the dramatic holocaust that has made famous the name of 'the pie-eating Somerset Herald'.

From W. W. Greg, `The Bakings of Betsy', Library, 3rd Ser. ii (1911), 225-6, 258-9.

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