The Reverend John Swete (1752-1821), born John Tripe John Swete is best remembered for his illustrated journals, and other writings and drawings, which vividly describe and delineate Devon as he knew it.
John Swete was born John Tripe on 1 July 1752 at Ashburton in Devon, the son of Nicholas Tripe, a surgeon. He was educated at Ashburton Free School and then at Eton College (1767-70, through the assistance of Sir Robert Palk). He then went up to University College, Oxford (BA 1774, MA 1777).
Having taken holy orders, he became curate at Highweek, Newton Abbot, in 1775. A year later, he moved to the parish of Kenn, Exeter, at Sir Robert Palk’s request, and settled at Oxton House, Kenton, the former home of the Martyns, his paternal grandmother’s family. In 1780, he changed his name by act of parliament (from Tripe to Swete) to become eligible for an inheritance from the mother of his godfather, Adrian John Swete.
As a result he came into the possession of Traine Manor, Modbury.
Though he was made a prebendary of Exeter Cathedral in 1781, Swete seems to have become more interested in managing his estate and in developing antiquarian and topographical interests. For instance, he excavated a number of barrows on the Haldon Ridge, west of the Exe Estuary in 1780; while, a year later, he rebuilt Oxton House.
Then, in April 1783, Swete resigned his curacy at Kenn and set out on a tour of Wales, the Lake District and Scotland. While in Matlock, Derbyshire, he met his future wife; they married on 1 January 1784, and would have fourteen children.
Between 1789 and 1800, Swete undertook the project that has made his name, recording his extensive travels in Devon in a series of illustrated journals (which were published in four volumes, 1998-2001). His other antiquarian contributions include images for the Antiquarian and Topographical Cabinet (1808) and Britton’s Beauties of England and Wales (1813). His watercolours show the influence of William Payne.
Swete also composed at least six volumes of poetry, and contributed several poems to Richard Polwhele’s Poems chiefly by Gentlemen of Devonshire and Cornwall (1792). However, from that year he entered a protracted dispute over plagiarism with Richard Polwhele. Eventually, Swete cut off all communication, and it was left to Polwhele to make amends, writing a tribute to Swete following his death on 25 October 1821 at Oxton House.
His work is represented in the collections of Devon County Record Office (Exeter).