Francis Douce was a man of habit. For many years he spent his summer holiday in Box Hill, near Dorking, enjoying what he called ‘the paradise of England’. But in 1795, he was advised to travel to Ramsgate for health reasons. At the time of Douce’s visit, Ramsgate was undergoing major building works: only one year earlier, the architect Samuel Wyatt had been appointed Surveyor and Civil Engineer to the harbour and the lighthouse that he designed in the Neoclassical style -‘the prettiest of Wyatt’s lighthouse designs’, according to J. M. Robinson- had just been completed.
On 4 September, Douce wrote to a friend, the travel writer Richard Twiss (1747-1821), from the seaside town:
I was impelled to come to this place by no other motive than the use of its warm salt water baths which I was advised to try for my complaint, the irritation I told you of. I was completely disgusted before I had been here three days in the course of which I saw […] several faces which I would have travelled to the other extremity of the kingdom to have avoided.
Douce did not seem to be having a very good time:
The most remarkable thing here is the pier […] -the other places of resort are the assembly rooms, coffee rooms and as they call them here the libraries which in the evening are filled with people who come to do every thing but read. Instead we are all idlers of the first class and I am as compleat a one as any body for I cannot read at home for the noise -to walk out is not pleasant as the country is too open to be rural and you are either exposed to a burning sun or to be wet through if it rains both which pleasures I have enjoyed.
He complained of the price of fish:
Ramsgate [has now] become truly disagreeable, much of the same kind as […] any other of those […] places which exhaust the capital of their worst inhabitants during the summer months. Every necessary of life is exhorbitantly dear from the vast population and boundless extravagance of the frequenteers of these places. Even fish is dear and you are asked 5 shillings a pair for soles when above 10 inches long.
Of the scarcity of interesting specimens of natural history:
Frequent walks by the seaside have afforded me very little amusement in insects or other branches of natural history […] -the only marine insect I have yet seen is the omiscus, nor have I yet taken any land insect that seems curious or uncommon -the flies I cannot lay hold of for want of a proper apparatus. The shells are neither rare or numerous & generally too much injured by the sea water to be worth preserving.
And of the sailors:
The Russian fleet was at anchor off this coast when I first came down but as I heard that both men and ships were covered with lice I did not chuse to go on board them -indeed I have no relish for sea ships or sailors and saw in my way here in the dockyard at Chesham as much of shipping as will content me for a great while.
He concluded, in characteristic Doucean style:
I have not found a reasonable creature in this place nor is there a single person with whom I can hold any conversation. I shall return home the middle of next week.