Rev James Douglas


Rev James DouglasJames Douglas, (7 January 1753 – 11 November 1819), clerk, Vicar of Kenton, Suffolk, Rector of Middleton, Sussex, Chaplain to HRH the Prince Regent and Curate of Preston, near Brighton. Born in London, he was the third and youngest son of John Douglas (d. 1762) of St. George's, Hanover Square, an innkeeper of the Hercules Pillars(1) in Hyde Park Road, and Mary Gardiner (d. 1766).

Of nine siblings only the three boys survived. After the deaths of his parents he was brought up by his elder brother William (1745–1810) in Manchester, where James belatedly attended Manchester grammar school.

The chronology of Douglas's next few years remains obscure, but he was employed by his brother William, a cloth merchant, and was eventually sent overseas as his agent in Italy—only to be dismissed and cut off when he misappropriated some of the funds with which he had been entrusted. Desperate to support himself, he entered the Austrian Army as a cadet, and, at Vienna became acquainted with Baron Trenk. Being sent by Prince John of Liechtenstein to purchase horses(1) in England for Turkey, he jocularly observed that he thought his head grinning on the gates of Constantinople would not be a very becoming sight. He did not therefore return and exchanged the Austrian Army for the British service.

He certainly toured the Low Countries in 1773 and he may have briefly attended a military college in Flanders. In 1777 and 1778, however, he was a student at Peterhouse, Cambridge, though he did not graduate. In 1779 he accepted a commission as a lieutenant in the Leicester militia, served on the staff of Colonel Hugh Debbieg, and was put to work as an engineer fortifying Chatham Lines (1758–1807), on the Medway, adjacent to Rochester in Kent.

James Douglas was a soldier who first came across barrow clusters when, as a military engineer, he helped to remodel the defensive earthworks protecting the Medway and Chatham Docks in Kent.
James Douglas supervising the opening of a tomb
James Douglas (1753-1819)
The Barrow Diggers, c.1787
Pen and ink wash on paper.
This humerous drawing is one of the earliest depictions of barrow-digging known, and is unusual in concentrating on the diggers rather than the landscape. The clergyman with the pickaxe in the trench is probably a self portrait. Douglas was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and his Nenia Britannica, or a sepulchral history 0f Great Britain contains the earliest known illustrations of British field archaeology. Illustrated in colour as frontispiece to AR
 Many barrows were disturbed during these operations, and from them Douglas amassed a collection of Saxon relics, which he carefully recorded. He produced perhaps the earliest ground plan of an excavated tumulus known to English archaeology.

On 6 January 1780 Douglas married Margaret (1760–1820), daughter of John Oldershaw of Rochester, a surgeon. In 1781 Douglas published a two-volume translation from the French of J. A. H. Guibert entitled A General Essay on Military Tactics ‘by an Officer’. The next year he likewise issued and illustrated an anonymous Travelling Anecdotes, through Various Parts of Europe (1782), which was successful enough to require London editions in 1785 and 1786, with a Dublin one following in 1787—by which time the author's name had been added. Written primarily at Cambridge during his student years, and in an unconventional manner reminiscent of Tristram Shandy, the Anecdotes (some of them military) recalled the author's earlier experiences at Vienna and in the Low Countries, where, at Tongres especially, his antiquarian interests had been aroused.

At one point in his youth Douglas had been associated with the noted collector and antiquary Sir Ashton Lever, even assisting him in stuffing some of the birds later displayed in Lever's Leicester Square museum (1774–88). In 1783, sponsored by Lever and others, Douglas was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a learned society that meant more to him than any other. He was ordained the same year. Though Douglas would later exemplify his clerical devotion with Twelve Discourses on the Influence of the Christian Religion on Civil Society (1792), he identified himself on the title-page first as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and only second as chaplain in ordinary to the prince of Wales.

Between 1785 and 1793 Douglas wrote the two works for which he is most often remembered. The first of these, A Dissertation on the Antiquity of the Earth (1785), had been presented originally on 12 May as a paper before the Royal Society. Without having been refereed, the paper was then withdrawn (and retitled) for publication as an independent work. In its final form Douglas's Dissertation, illustrated with aquatints by himself, consisted of three inductive ‘cases’ and a lengthy appendix commenting on previous geological theories. The first case comprised a group of relics from a barrow on Chatham Hill that Douglas had had opened in 1779; the second, another group from a barrow at Kingston opened by Bryan Fawsett in 1771; and the third, fossils from the Isle of Sheppey collected by himself and Sir Joseph Banks. Though Douglas, like most men of his time, believed in the reality of the Noachian flood, the Sheppey fossils and others demonstrated independently of Genesis—for him, at least—that there had been an inhabited antediluvian world full of animals (and probably human beings) subsequently destroyed by just such a global catastrophe as the Flood.

At the time Douglas was writing, the vast duration of geological time was entirely unrecognized. His final remarks nevertheless emphasized four important points: the fossilized animals and plants, though tropical, had lived where they were found; the climate then was much warmer than in his day; a forty-day flood (as in Genesis) would not have sufficed to transport animal remains from afar (as other theorists had contended); and the earth had some unknown power within it to fossilize organic remains. These conclusions, though not unique to himself, were of far-reaching intellectual significance.

Douglas's second major work, and no less important than the Dissertation, was Nenia Britannica, or, A sepulchural history of Great Britain from the earliest period to its general conversion to Christianity, which was published in twelve parts from May 1786 to 1793 and as a book in 1793, again with his own illustrations. Consisting primarily of archaeological reports, the book (nenia meaning ‘dirge’) aspired to be a general history of the funerary customs of ancient Britons, whether Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Roman, or Danish. Douglas therefore described excavations by himself of barrows at Chatham Lines (1779–93) and of graves at Ashford, Kent (1771 and 1783), and in Leicestershire (undated). Other portions of the book discuss some early barrow diggings on Chartham Downs, Kent, near Ashford, by Cromwell Mortimer (an early founder of the Society of Antiquaries) in 1730; miscellaneous antiquities; the opening of ditched barrows in Greenwich Park; and the contents of numerous ‘small barrows’ recognized for the first time as being Anglo-Saxon. Douglas also describes Roman graves in Britain and at Tongres in Flanders. Finally, there is a lengthy analysis of Stonehenge. His interest in funerary monuments may have been caused by his many bereavements, having lost both parents, his six sisters and two brothers. Douglas's personal copy of Nenia Britannica in the British Library includes his original drawings, twenty-six extra illustrations, and some manuscript additions. Many of the relics he described are now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. He also published several other papers on antiquarian subjects, of which ‘Two dissertations on the brass [in fact, bronze] instruments called Celts’ (1785) is the most important.

Finally, Douglas tried his hand at novels, of which there were three, though none were of permanent literary value: Fashionable Infidelity (3 vols., 1790; no surviving copy); The Maid of Kent (3 vols., 1790); and The History of Julia d'Haumont (2 vols., 1797). In addition to the illustrations for his own works, he painted some excellent portraits of his friends, both in oils and miniature, and drew a caricature of his fellow antiquary Francis Grose, at which Grose reportedly took offence; an engraving was published anonymously. He also contributed an engraving of Coston church to John Nichols's History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester.

He later took holy orders. Douglas's wandering ministry brought him livings successively in Chiddingfold, Surrey, in 1785; Litchborough, Northamptonshire, in 1787; Middleton, Sussex, in 1799; and Kenton, Suffolk, in 1803. After 1809 he lived in several further locations in Sussex, and he died of a chill at Vicarage House, Preston, near Brighton, Sussex, on 11 November 1819. He was buried in the local churchyard three days later. He was survived by his wife, who died the next year, and by three sons and one daughter.


Father: John Douglas
Mother:  Mary Gardner

Marriage 1 Margaret Oldershaw, 
  1. Unknown Douglas
  2. Edward Douglas
  3. Margaret Martha Whiteman Douglas c1782 -
  4. James Bruce Douglas, 1785 - 1786
  5. Alexander Douglas, 1785 -
  6. James Edward Moreton Douglas, 1794 -
  7. Richard William Glode Douglas

Unknown married (1) lord Daphne and (2) Marquis of Londonderry

James, JP, MD, married Mary Young Morgan. He served in the Prince's Regiment.  They has a son, Canon James John Douglas.


1.  We may assume that James' knowledge of horses is, in some way, connected with his father business.

Where Apsley House now stands, if we may accept the statement of Charles Knight, was the tavern called the "Hercules' Pillars," "the same at which the redoubted Squire Western, with his clerical satellite, is represented as taking up his abode on his arrival in London, and conveying the fair Sophia." The sign of the "Hercules' Pillars" was given to the tavern probably as marking, at that time, the extreme "west-end" of London. Its name is recorded by Wycherley, in his Plain Dealer, and is said to have been a haunt of the Marquis of Granby, and of other members of the titled classes. The character of the house in Fielding's time may be gathered from the following quotation from "Tom Jones," touching Squire Western's arrival in London:—"The squire sat down to regale himself over a bottle of wine, with his parson and the landlord of the 'Hercules' Pillars,' who, as the squire said, would make an excellent third man, and would inform them of the news of the town; for, to be sure, says he, he knows a good deal, since the horses of many of 'the quality' stand at his door."

Mr. J. H. Jesse tells us that the tavern in question stood between Apsley House and Hamilton Place, and that, on account of its situation, it was much frequented by gentlemen from the West of England. Wherever may have been the exact spot on which the house stood, it seems at best to have been a comfortable but low inn on the outskirts of the town, where gentlemen's horses and grooms were put up, and farmers and graziers resorted.



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