44 Benjamin Donn 1765


An important map for anyone interested in Devon maps must be the large-scale map produced by Benjamin Donn. In 1759 the Royal Society of Arts, then known as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, offered an annual award of £100 for the best original 1 inch to 1 mile county survey. Donn and Isaac Taylors (Dorset) submitted entries but Donn was the first successful applicant with a twelve sheet map of Devonshire, engraved by Thomas Jefferys and published in 1765.

Professor Ravenhill has written a very complete account of the events leading up to Donn’s success.1 Although Donn completed the first large-scale map of Devon, Joel Gascoyne from Hull who completed a map of Cornwall in 1699 planned to survey Devon shortly after this date but a lack of subscribers put paid to his plans. Surprisingly, forty years later it was a Cornishman, Thomas Martyn, who had already resurveyed Cornwall and published his map in 1748, who planned to survey and map Devon and presented proposals in 1750. Professor Ravenhill recounts that he very probably began the survey but unfortunately died at Ashburton on Christmas Day, 1751. It was Donn’s acquaintanceship with another Cornishman, William Borlase, a founder member of the RSA that led to the latter’s acceptance of Donn’s proposal to map Devonshire when it was submitted to the society in 1759. Donn completed his map but then faced a Herculean task in extracting the said reward from the Royal Society. In 1787 Richard Cowl planned an up-dated map of Devon but died when he was thrown from his horse and his map was never completed. Cowl surveyed Plymouth in 1778, his map being published by William Faden in 1780.

Donn’s map is graticuled, has a vignette title, inset plans of Exeter, Plymouth, Stoke Town and Plymouth Dock, and an inset map of Lundy. The full title on the title page is A Map of the County of Devon ... with the indexes of the Parishes, Seats &c. for the readier finding them on the Large Map. London Printed for the Author and Sold by the Booksellers of Devon, by Mr Johnston, in Ludgate Street; Mr Baldwin in Paternoster Row; and the Print-sellers of LondonThe map is dedicated to John Baring of Mount-Radford, an emigré who made his fortune through the Exeter cloth industry (and whose son founded the Baring Bank), and Mathew Lee of Ebford near Exeter. Donn is the first to identify the island in Bigbury Bay by the names Bur Island or Borough Island. Since Saxton most larger maps had referred to it as St. Michaels or St. Michaels Rock in reference to the chapel.2 Accompanying the bound book of the 12-sheet map was a general index map of the county (see next entry 45). Some copies were printed on vellum and some of these hand-coloured.3

A Devonian, Donn was a well-known mathematician, writing several articles and letters for the Gentleman´s Magazine, as well as completing his Mathematical Essays between 1756-58. He married Mary Anne Wilcocks on 8th October, 1759. He was a surveyor and teacher of mathematics in Bideford before moving to Bristol. Also interested in tidal flows he published sets of figures for the S W of England. Donn continued his interest in mapping (despite his experiences with the Royal Society) and produced a map of the area 11 miles round Bristol (1769) and a map of Bath (1790). Together with his son, Donn published A Map of the Western Circuit of England.4 This was executed circa 1774 at a scale of a quarter of an inch to the mile.

In 1799 William Faden issued a reduced copy of Donn’s map engraved by Benjamin Baker on one sheet (62). In 1965, to celebrate the bicentenary of Donn’s map, a facsimile was produced by the Devon and Cornwall Record Society together with the University of Exeter: this also has a foreword by Professor Ravenhill.

Total dimensions 1800 x 1860 mm.     Statute Miles 691/2 nearly to a Degree (8 = 202 mm).

and Geographical or Sea Miles 60 to a Degree (1 = 203 mm).

A MAP of the COUNTY of DEVON, with the CITY and COUNTY of EXETER, Delineated from an Actual Survey by BENJAMIN DONN. Engraved by Thos Jefferys, Geographer to His MAJESTY. Imprint: Entered in the Hall Book of the Company of Stationers and Published according to Act of Parliament January 1st. 1765. (CeOS).5

1. 1765 A Map of the County of Devon  
    London. B Donn. 1765. BL, B, C, BCL, DevA.

[1] W Ravenhill; The South West in the Eighteenth-Century Re-mapping of England; in Maps and History in South-West England; Ed. Barker, K and Kain, R; University Exeter Press; 1991.

[2] Kit Batten; The St. Michael’s Mount of Devonshire; in IMCoS JOURNAL; Issue 62; Autumn 1995.

[3] A full set on vellum was sold at Bonham’s, Knightsbridge on 23rd May 1995 for £2990.

[4] Containing the Counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wilts, & Hants and measuring 830 x 1340 mm. It was dedicated to the Earl of Salisbury (and others) and included inset views of Plymouth and Portsmouth.