Project Donn

Mapping Devon's manor houses and their landscapes
Map ExtractsSites visited

About the Project

Since 2006 the DRA’s archaeological team has been researching and reporting on the history, significance and development of Devon’s manor houses and their landscapes. In identifying sites to study, the team makes use of a remarkable map of the county, published in 1765 by Benjamin Donn and from whom the project takes its name.

Donn’s prize winning map of Devon was produced at a scale of an inch to a mile, and was the first comprehensive map of the county. The accuracy of the survey impressed his peers, and he was awarded £100 by the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (later the Royal Society for the Arts, or RSA).

Many of the symbols that Donn invented to identify the various features and sites that he recorded have become standardised in subsequent surveys. To the modern historian the map is essential for an understanding of the social and economic geography of the county during the mid-eighteenth century, owing to its depiction of more than 650 “gentry seats”.

The premise of our project is that in the later 18th century high-status houses, like those shown on the map, were unlikely to have been constructed on green-field sites; instead we work from the hypothesis that they occupy long-established occupation sites and as such may preserve evidence from the later medieval period or possibly earlier.

By visiting these remarkable sites, and studying the standing structures and their environs, the DRA is able to track the evolution of domestic occupation and architecture in Devon over the centuries, and thus ensure that this vital and fascinating information is preserved for future generations. During the first phase of the project nearly 900 sites were identified for detailed study by our team, and to date approximately 150 of these have been recorded.

Map Extracts

Benjamin Donn (or Donne) was born in Bideford in 1729 and spent much of his early adult life in the town as a teacher of mathematics and natural philosophy of Newtonian principles at the Mathematical School run by his father. Donn soon developed an interest in surveying and astronomy, and from 1749 to 1756 was a regular contributor to the Gentleman’s Diary edited by J. Badder and T. Peat. In 1768 he was elected librarian at the Bristol Library, and later established his own private mathematical academy in Bristol near St. Michael’s Church. Benjamin Donn died in 1798 but his cartographic and mathematical achievements earned him lasting fame.

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Where we are

Devon Rural Archive, Shilstone, Modbury, Devon, PL21 0TW

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