Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Plot, Robert

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PLOT, ROBERT (1640–1696), antiquary, was the only son of Robert Plot of Sutton Baron, afterwards known as Sutton Barne, in Borden, Kent, a property which had been acquired by his grandfather, the descendant of an old Kentish family. His mother was Rebecca, daughter of Thomas Patenden or Pedenden of Borden. Robert Plot the elder died at Sutton Barne on 20 April 1669, aged 63, and was buried in Borden church, where a mural monument, with a long Latin inscription, was erected by his son.

The antiquary, who was baptised at Borden on 13 Dec. 1640, was educated at the free school at Wye, and matriculated at Oxford from Magdalen Hall on 2 July 1658. Josiah Pullen [q. v.] was his college tutor. He graduated B.A. in 1661, M.A. in 1664, and B.C.L. and D.C.L. in 1671. About 1676 he left Magdalen Hall, and entered as a commoner at University College, where he was at the expense of placing the statue of King Alfred over the portal in High Street. Plot had already directed his attention to the systematic study of natural history and antiquities in 1670, when he issued, in a single sheet folio, ‘Enquiries to be propounded … in my Travels through England and Wales,’ ranging his queries under seven heads: ‘Heavens and Air,’ ‘Waters,’ ‘Earths,’ ‘Stones,’ ‘Metals,’ ‘Plants,’ and ‘Husbandry.’ He seems at first to have had a design to anticipate Pennant, and recorded his intention of making a ‘philosophical tour’ throughout England and Wales in a letter to Dr. Fell, which is printed in the editions of Leland's ‘Itinerary’ subsequent to 1710. Finding it necessary to restrict his scheme, he ultimately published, in 1677, ‘The Natural History of Oxfordshire. Being an Essay towards the Natural History of England,’ Oxford, 4to; licensed 1676, and dedicated to Charles II. The work, which is illustrated by a map and sixteen beautiful plates by Burghers, each with a separate dedication, is drawn up upon a plan which is thus described by the author: first, ‘animals, plants, and the universal furniture of the world;’ secondly, nature's ‘extravagancies and defects, occasioned either by the exuberancy of matter or obstinacy of impediments, as in monsters; and then, lastly, as she is restrained, forced, fashioned, or determined by artificial operations.’ A second edition, with additions, and an account of the author by his stepson, J[ohn] B[urman], appeared at Oxford in 1705, fol. When the Duke of York visited Oxford with the Princess Anne, in the spring of 1683, Plot's ‘Natural History’ was presented to him as a leaving gift, together with Anthony à Wood's ‘History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford.’ It was frequently quoted as an authority until the close of the eighteenth century, and in the accounts which he gave of rare plants, due regard being had to the time in which he wrote, ‘Plot has not been excelled,’ says Pulteney, ‘by any subsequent writer.’ As a consequence of the reputation made by his book, Plot was, in 1682, made secretary to the Royal Society, of which he had been elected fellow on 6 Dec. 1677, and edited the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ from No. 143 to No. 166 inclusive. In March 1683, when ‘twelve cartloads of Tredeskyn's (Tradescant's) rarities came from London’ to form the nucleus of Ashmole's museum, Plot was appointed first custos, and in the following May he explained some of the exhibits, which he had in the meantime skilfully arranged, to the Duke of York. In the same year he was appointed professor of chemistry at Oxford, and the pressure of university duties compelled him to resign his secretaryship to the Royal Society in November 1684, William Musgrave [q. v.] being appointed in his stead. About the same time he published his ‘De Origine Fontium tentamen philosophicum. In prælectione habita coram societate philosophica nuper Oxonii instituta ad scientiam naturalem promovendam,’ Oxford (1684), 8vo. In 1684, too, Plot presented, to receive the degree of D.C.L. from Oxford University, one of his staunchest patrons, Henry Howard, seventh duke of Norfolk [q. v.] The latter, in his capacity of earl marshal, made Plot his secretary or ‘register’ in 1687. Meanwhile, Plot had, at the invitation of Walter Chetwynd of Ingestry, visited Staffordshire with a view of describing the ‘natural, topical, political, and mechanical history’ of that county. In 1686 he produced ‘The Natural History of Staffordshire,’ Oxford, 4to, which was dedicated to James II. The plates were again executed by Burghers. This work is more attractively written than its forerunner, while it gives ampler proof of Plot's credulity. For many years afterwards it was a boast among the Staffordshire squires, to whom he addressed his inquiries, how readily they had ‘humbugged old Plot.’ Dr. Johnson, however, was needlessly sceptical when he refused to believe Plot's account of a river flowing underground in Staffordshire. The book served to confirm Plot's reputation. Dr. Charlett wished him to undertake an edition of Pliny's ‘Natural History.’ He himself talked of producing a ‘Natural History of London and Middlesex,’ but he ultimately rested on his laurels. Plot was unsuccessful in an effort to obtain the wardenship of All Souls', but was consoled in 1688 by the office of historiographer-royal. In February 1695 a new post was created for him at the Heralds' Office as Mowbray herald extraordinary, and two days later, on 7 Feb., he was constituted registrar of the court of honour. About 1695 he retired to his property at Sutton Barne, which he greatly improved.

Plot died of the stone at Sutton Barne, on 30 April 1696, and was buried in Borden church, where his widow erected a monument with a Latin inscription. Plot married, on 21 Aug. 1690, Rebecca, widow of Henry Burman, and second daughter of Ralph Sherwood (1625–1705), citizen and grocer of London. She and her sister subsequently erected a monument to their father in Borden church. Plot left two sons, Robert and Ralph Sherwood. The elder was improvident, wasted his patrimony, was reduced at one period to work as a labourer in Sheerness dockyard, and died in a state of dependence in March 1751.

Plot, who is said to have been a bon vivant, was a witty man and knew how to render his stores of learning attractive to a wide circle of readers. He shared the tory predilections of the two contemporary Oxford antiquaries, Anthony à Wood and Thomas Hearne, but, unlike them, he was by disposition a time-server. His acquisitiveness was such as to disgust some of his fellow-antiquaries, and Edward Lhuyd [q. v.], Plot's assistant, and afterwards (1690) his successor as custos of the Ashmolean, credits him with as ‘bad morals as ever’ characterised a master of arts (cf. however Nichols, Illustr. of Lit. ix. 547). He had some acquaintance with most of the learned men of his day, and was intimate both with Samuel Pepys and with John Evelyn. To the latter he applied in 1682 for some autobiographical notes on behalf of the author of the ‘Athenæ Oxonienses.’ A portrait of Plot, which was formerly in the possession of the family, is now at All Souls' College. His portrait was also included in the view of Magdalen Hall engraved by Vertue for the ‘Oxford Almanac’ in 1749.

The following is a list of Plot's chief contributions to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of the Royal Society: 1. ‘The Formation of Salt and Sand from Brine’ (Phil. Trans. xiii. 96). 2. ‘A Discourse of Sepulchral Lamps of the Ancients’ (xiv. 806). 3. ‘The History of the Weather at Oxford in 1684’ (xv. 930). 4. ‘Account of some Incombustible Cloth’ (ib. p. 1051). 5. ‘Discourse concerning the most seasonable Time of felling Timber, written at the request of Samuel Pepys, Esq., Secretary of the Admiralty’ (xvii. 455). This work is referred to more than once by Pepys in his letters. 6. ‘Observations on the Substance called Black Lead’ (xx. 183). 7. ‘A Catalogue of Electrical Bodies’ (ib. p. 384; Maty, General Index to Phil. Trans. 1787, p. 735).

A list of his writings in manuscript, drawn up shortly before his death, is printed by Wood (Athenæ Oxon., ed. Bliss. iv. 775). Of these, the following only appear to have been printed: 1. ‘A Defence of the Jurisdiction of the Earl Marshall's Court in the Vacancy of a Constable,’ printed in Hearne's ‘Curious Discourses,’ 1771, ii. 250. 2. ‘A Letter to the Earl of Arlington concerning Thetford,’ printed in Hearne's ‘Antiquities of Glastonbury,’ 1722, p. 225. 3. ‘An Account of some Antiquities in the County of Kent,’ printed in Nichols's ‘Bibliotheca Topographica,’ vol. i. A copy of Plot's ‘History of Staffordshire’ in the British Museum Library contains several manuscript notes by the author.

[Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iv. 772–9; Noble's College of Arms, 1804, p. 326; Erdeswick's Survey of Staffordshire, 1844, p. liii; Hasted's Kent, ii. 565; Aubrey's Bodleian Letters, 1813, i. 74; Letters of Eminent Literary Men (Camden Soc.); Pulteney's Progress of Botany, i. 351; Gent. Mag. 1795, ii. 897, 996, 1089; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ix. 202, 408, 547, 775, 781, and Lit. Illustr. iii. 234, 644, iv. 224, 645, 654, vi. 668; Biogr. Brit.; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Granger's Biogr. Hist. of England, iv. 85; Archæologia Cantiana, ix. 60 n.; Nicolson's Engl. Hist. Libr. 1776, p. 17; Wood's Life and Times (Oxford Hist. Soc.), vols. i. ii. and iii. passim; Hearne's Collections, ed. Doble (Oxf. Hist. Soc.), vols. i. ii. and iii. passim; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. i. 230, 292; Wheatley and Cunningham's London, ii. 406; Thomson's Hist. of the Royal Soc. App.; Evelyn's Diary, 1852 ii. 99, 164, iii. 264, 321, 335; Chambers's Book of Days, i. 553; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 94; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Bodleian Libr. Cat.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.