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Dovaston, John, 1740-1808 (nurseryman and antiquary)



  • Existence: 1740 - 1808


John Dovaston of The Nursery, West Felton, Shropshire, was born on 25 April 1740 and pursued wide-ranging interests as an attorney, antiquarian, naturalist, astronomer, musician and planter of trees. In 1795 he was successful as the plaintiff in the case of Dovaston v. Payne, the judgement in which has had lasting significance for the law of trespass. He was the father of the naturalist and poet John Freeman Milward Dovaston (1782-1854). The following obituary notice of Dovaston appeared in 'The Gentleman's Magazine: and Historical Chronicle. For the year 1808', volume LXXVIII (London: John Nichols and Son, June 1808), pp. 563-4: 'Lately, at his elegant villa, "The Nursery," West Felton, near Oswestry, co. Salop, aged 68, John Dovaston, esq., a gentleman of learning, science and ingenuity. He was born in the year 1740, of humble though respectable parents, who lived on their small estate at West-Felton. He was taught to read by an old woman in the village, and that was the whole of his education; every other acquirement, which he afterwards possessed in so eminent a degree, was entirely his own acquisition. He was the eldest of seven children, all of whom he brought up to respectable professions, who might otherwise have drudged in servitude. From his father he received his little estate, almost swallowed up by mortgages and incumbrances, which he redeemed at a very early period of life by two voyages to the West Indies, and afterwards considerably increased by prudence and industry. Though he left scarcely any science untouched, his turn of mind was principally directed to Antiquities, Natural Philosophy, Music, Mechanism, and Planting. Of the first he has left a large collection of MSS; historical observations relating to Shropshire, and Welsh borders; on Druidical relicks, and Stonehenge, tracing many traditional vulgar errors from the remote ages of superstition. In Mechanism he has left a set of philosophical and musical instruments made by his own hands; among which are a large reflecting telescope, solar microscope, and an organ on a new principle; an electrical machine on the plan of Dr Franklin; and just before his death he projected an Orrery to shew the Satellites, on a new method. In Planting he has cloathed the country round him with forest and fruit trees; and his little villa (which from his partiality to planting he called "the Nursery") is laid out with much taste and rural elegance. He was well versed in the Hebrew, Anglo-Saxon, British [i.e., Welsh], and Latin tongues; and had some knowledge of the Greek. His reading was very extensive, and his application intense: to the very last day of his life he rose at five in the morning. He has never appeared as an Author before the publick; but the Writer of this article is informed by his son, that though he ordered that none of his works be published, his library is always open for the inspection of the curious, and any information from his MSS. at their service. He was remarkable for his plainness of dress, yet his person always appeared dignified: his mind was vigorous and his memory retentive; both of which remained unimpaired to the last hour of his life. Though the Writer of this article was warmly his friend, there is no reader who knew him but will be aware of the strictest adherence to truth; and will remember the subject of it with affection and esteem. He has left one son, just called to the Bar, from the University of Oxford.' A further account of Dovaston is given in a footnote to Charles Hulbert, 'The History and Description of the County of Salop, comprising Original Historical and Topographical Notices of the Hundreds, Towns, Parishes, and Villages, with their Dependencies, in Shropshire...', ([Charles Hulbert]: Providence Grove, near Shrewsbury, 1837), p. 222, where it is recorded that he was: 'a very singular and estimable character, and a striking proof of the successful progress of industry and ingenuity. He was born in 1740, the eldest of seven children of a wheelwright, a good-natured but imprudent man, a small freeholder, but who spent all in the ale-house, and left his little estate almost swallowed up with debts and mortgages, which his son, the late Mr. John Dovaston, afterwards redeemed and improved. He was apprenticed to his father's trade, and early evinced a powerful turn to mechanics. He was taught to read by an old woman; and long after learned to write by copying from a printed book upon a planed board, with the juice of dock leaves squeezed into a pen. He was then sent as a cow-boy to Thomas Milward, Esq. an opulent and highly reputable attorney, of Wollescott Hall, near Stourbridge; but who practised agriculture with more fondness than he did law. The clerk of this gentleman dying, the cow-boy was "degraded" (as he used to express it) to the office; and was afterwards admitted. Like his master, however, he had a rooted disgust to the practice of an attorney; which he soon gave up to his second brother; whom, with the other children, on the death of his parents, he brought up. He now turned his attention to planting, and converted his little estate into a Nursery, which name it still bears. This trade was then very profitable, and he sold trees to a very considerable amount; as well as planted his own little property. He was also eminently successful in two voyages he made to the West Indies, to settle an arbitration amicably, and prevent litigation. Here he received great kindness from Lord Lyttelton, the then governor of Jamaica [1761-1766], and was always gratefully attached to that nobleman. On his return he resumed his planting, and built a house in his Nursery, even the bricks whereof he made with his own hands. This house is full of small rooms, each of which he erected from time to time, as he could get in a little money. He now took to collect books, and studied many languages, particularly the Hebrew, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxon, in which he made great progress, with very little and feeble assistance. The Sciences opened their light to him, which he followed with ardent success: particularly Astronomy, Optics, and Music: and he has left a large collection of philosophic and musical instruments constructed entirely with his own hands; among which are a long refracting, and two large reflecting telescopes; solar, lucernal, and many other microscopes; air-pump, copious electrical apparatus; a pair of manuscript globes, &c. and a noble organ of fourteen stops, being the fourth he built. A large collection of manuscripts and Druidical and Roman Antiquities, and Arboriculture; with a library of about 5,000 volumes. Of his taste and judgment in planting, his trees are living testimonies, in value, curiosity, and beauty; and all who visit them lament he had not a larger field for the display of his talent in ornamental gardening and rural decorations: when he has done so much and so well on so small and merely a flat situation. In his youth he was a close friend of the poet Shenstone, to whose memory he was always much attached; and from whom he probably caught his early ideas in elegantly disposing of grounds. His reading was very extensive, and his application intense; his mind vigorous, and memory retentive; both of which remained unimpaired to the last hour of his useful and cheerful life. He was remarkable for the plainness of his dress, yet his person always appeared dignified and clean; and his manners were courteous, gentlemanly, and even graceful. He was fond of a cheerful glass, remarkably communicative and sociable, full of facetious anecdotes and songs, which he had a singularly agreeable manner of imparting. To the very last day of his life he rose at five; it being one of his maxims always to get the start of the sun. He died at midnight, 31st March, 1808, in his sixty-eighth year. Though he lived to a fair age, and had almost constant health and good spirits, it was the opinion of his medical friends, that his excessive and laborious application of mind and body brought on a somewhat premature decay. It was his invariable rule to pay ready money; and though at his death, his income scarcely exceeded two hundred a-year, he fancied himself rich, and felt that he was a happy man. On his death-bed he spoke to his son these remarkable words: "Jack, I believe in my soul, it has pleased God to prosper all my undertakings: my lad, be honest, and you will be independant: be liberal, and you will be esteemed: deserve God's blessing, and you will be happy!"'

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:


'Court Hand Restored, or, The Student's Assistant in Reading Old Deeds Charters etc.', 1776

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Add.8206
Scope and Contents

Palaeographical manual, substantially a manuscript copy with enlargements of the book of the same title by Andrew Wright of the Inner Temple. With a note on the front free end-paper by A. N. L. Munby, dated 3 Jul 1973. Has bookplate of John Dovaston's son, John Freeman Milward Dovaston

Dates: 1776
Conditions Governing Access: From the Fonds: Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

John Dovaston: 'Poems by W. Shenstone Esqr and Others'

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Add.8289
Scope and Contents A collection of poems and prose by William Shenstone, Henry Jones and others, written in the hand of John Dovaston and with illustrations by him. Most of the texts are apparently from printed sources, from which there are many deviations. Contents: Front pastedown: Nursery Library bookplate of John Freeman Milward Dovaston, printed in brown ink [i-ii] blank [iii r] ownership inscription, date (1765), note of price paid, 'M:S Poems by William Shenstone Esqr and Others', epigraph "So we thro'...
Dates: 1765-1779 (a later terminal date is possible)
Conditions Governing Access: Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

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