Joshua Kirby was one of a dozen children of John Kirby (c. 1690 – 1753) and Alice (Brown) Kirby (ca. 1685—1766). Not much is known about Kirby’s father’s background. He is supposed to have been a schoolmaster at some point, and when Kirby was growing up was a miller in Wickham Market, Suffolk. More importantly for Joshua Kirby’s future development was his father’s sideline as a topographer, drawing up plans of estates for the local gentry. This business took him around the county and developed his contacts with the wealthier members of society.
John Kirby by Gainsborough
In the 1730s, John Kirby made a survey of the whole of Suffolk, which resulted in a large-scale map of the county (at a scale of 1″ to a mile), and accompanying book, the Suffolk Traveller, describing all the towns and important places of the county together with the distances by road between each place.
The map, engraved on four large plates, cost 10 shillings, and the book came free with the map. To help cover the costs of the survey and production of the book and map, which took several years, Kirby raised money by subscription, building a large network of agents who could take in subscriptions for him. A subscriber put half the money down, and paid the balance on receipt of the map and book. Another device Kirby used to gain interest and subscriptions was to engrave the coats of arms of local nobility and gentry on the map – eventually he had over 120 arms depicted.
The contacts John Kirby made in Suffolk, and the technique of raising money though subscription, were subsequently used by Joshua Kirby in furthering his own career.