The Collectors: James Douglas (1753-1819)

James Douglas was born in 1753, the youngest son of John Douglas, an innkeeper in Hyde Park Road, London. Due to the early deaths of both his parents he was brought up in Manchester by his elder brother William, where he eventually went to Manchester Grammar School. His early years are not well documented, but we know he worked for his brother, a cloth merchant, and for a short time was William's agent in Italy. He was dismissed from this post and to secure an income enlisted in the Austrian army in Vienna. Some time later, he came back to England and entered Cambridge around 1777 but never graduated. In 1779 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Leicester miltia and went to work as an engineer on Chatham Lines, near Rochester, Kent. His interests encouraged him to take part in the excavations of the Anglo-Saxon burial mounds that had been found at Chatham.

the Rev. James Douglas Rev. James Douglas

He married Margaret Oldershaw in 1780 and also started publishing his first books. He translated from the French Guiberts A General Essay on Military Tactics. He also wrote anecdotes of the time he had spent travelling around the Low Countries, which he did around 1773, and of his service in the militia.

Whilst a younger man, he had become acquainted with the antiquary Sir Ashton Lever, assisting him in stuffing some of his birds, later displayed in Lever's museum at Leicester Square. Lever was very supportive of this work and sponsored him and Douglas was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1783. He was also ordained that year. Between 1785 and 1793 Douglas wrote the two books for which is is mostly remembered. A Dissertation on the Antiquity of the Earth. His collection of fossils from the Isle of Sheppey are described, with Douglas doing the illustrations himself. Douglas's second book Nenia Britannica was published in twelve parts from 1786 to 1793. Douglas again produced the illustrations for this volume, executing not only the original drawings but also the aquatint plates. His personal copy of this book is in the British Library.

Douglas's life as a clergyman took him to Chiddingfold, Surrey, Litchborough, Northamptonshire, Middleton, Sussex and Kenton, Suffolk. He then went back to Sussex, living in several places, latterly Preston, where died of a chill in 1819. He is buried in the churchyard. His wife died the following year and he was survived by three sons and a daughter.

These objects were collected by Duncan from the tumulii (barrows) at Chatham and presented to the Museum. The barrows and finds were described by him in Nenia Britannica.

Click on the pictures of beads below to see a larger picture

string of amber beads

String of amber beads (AN1836p129, 209)

iron spearhead

Iron spearhead (1836p130, 234b)

copper alloy tweezers

Copper alloy tweezers (AN1836p130, 228)

silver ring

Silver ring (AN1836p129, 206)

string of beads

String of amethyst, glass, amber and paste beads (AN1836p129, 214)

Douglas's publications include:

  • A Dissertation on the Antiquity of the Earth, 1785
  • Nenia Britannica, or a Sepulchural History of Great Britain from the Earliest Period to its General Conversion to Christianity, 1793

Further References:

A. MacGregor and E. Bollick, 1993, (Oxford) Ashmolean Museum Summary of the Anglo-Saxon Collections (non-ferrous metal), British Archaeological Reports, British Series 230

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