Recently discovered diary throws light on Georgian life in Richmond

Co-authors Jane Hatcher and Bob Woodings are pictured with their new book based on a recently discovered mystery diary. Photo: Guy Carpenter

A recently discovered diary – written by an unknown Richmond woman – has thrown new light onto everyday life in Georgian times.

Published this month, Life in Georgian Richmond, North Yorkshire: A Diary and Its Secrets is the work of two scholars Jane Hatcher and Bob Woodings and has all the intrigue of a historical ‘whodunit’.

No one is sure who wrote it, how old they were or even exactly where they lived but the pages are full of daily accounts of what the diarist does with her time and what she sees around her.

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Covering the short period from July 1764 to January 1766, the entries describe horse racing, dances in the local assembly rooms, visits by the local militia, watching plays by visiting actors and details of every day activities such as shopping and tea drinking with friends.

“What makes the entries so fascinating is the fact that they show exactly what it must have been like living in the mid Georgian period in a bustling and fashionable town in Northern England, chronicling what people did and how they behaved,” said Bob Woodings.

The diary was clearly written as a record of the author’s life and times and contains all sorts of carefully made observations. This is where it differs from a conventional journal from the period, about business or household activities or the state of one’s spiritual being, and is an early example of a new form of journal writing that advocated self-expression.

“This sort of document gives a unique insight not only into daily routines and events but also the intimate thoughts and aspirations of someone who was trying to understand herself and those around her. It is hard to think of any ‘parallel’ find, which gives such deep understanding of mid-Georgian daily life,” said Bob Woodings.

“The fact that it was written by a woman is also intriguing as not only does it contrast the gender roles of that time and place, but it also makes clear the changing expectations of men and women across the generations, with some illuminating differences between the diarist and her own mother, ” he added.

Front cover of the diary.

Of particular interest is detailed material on the new fashion for educating girls.

The diarist describes the setting up in Richmond of a school for young ladies and writes about how she tutors pupils by having them to her rooms to learn the etiquette of Georgian tea drinking and the art of conversation.

This fascinating document first came to light in 1988 when it was bought from an antiquarian’s catalogue by the late Richmond historian Peter Wenham. Although he transcribed its contents, the many dilemmas it posed caused him to put it to one side.

Almost two decades later, it was rediscovered by the renowned North Yorkshire historian Jane Hatcher, who together with Bob Woodings – a retired senior academic and publisher – attempted to piece together the evidence that it offers and put it into a historical context.

“It is rather like following an elaborate set of clues in an Agatha Christie novel,” said Jane Hatcher.

“There are all sorts of characters and different locations mentioned amongst its pages – many of which can be verified by studying parish records, wills, legal papers and other documents from the period.

First page of the diary.

“However, despite knowing all this detail, the diarist’s identity still escapes us – although we do make a good guess at who she might be at the end of the book. This makes the work even more intriguing: the more you know, the more questions you want to ask!”

Indeed many other mysteries are contained within the diary’s pages. What was the burgeoning political intrigue that was about to undermine the old order of the town and what were the business and even amorous objectives of those taking advantage of the rapidly improving transport facilities?

As well as the diary text itself, the book contains a number of mini-presentations that put the writing into a social context, together with maps and illustrations.

For example, there are sections on the races, shops and shopkeepers, gardening and letter writing in the 1760s, as well as information on the people who feature in the entries.

Many of these characters can easily be identified, such as the writer’s four cousins (aged between 25 and 32) who were the daughters of the Rector of Winston, Rev John Emerson, together with some old Richmond families such as Close, Nicholls and Readshaw.

This makes the diary essential reading for anyone with an interest in local history, as well as those who want to find out more about this critical time in English history, when great social and political changes were afoot.

Life in Georgian Richmond, North Yorkshire: A Diary and Its Secrets is published by Pen and Sword and will be available in bookshops from 18 April.

There will also be a book signing at The Castle Hill Bookshop in Richmond between 11am and 1pm on Saturday, April 21.

EXTRACTS FROM THE DIARY

Taking tea

This does not refer to the casual ‘cuppa’ of today, for in the 1760s tea was still a very expensive commodity and the diarist’s regular practice of ‘taking tea’ with her women friends was a special ritual that could last anything from one to three hours and occurred up to four times a week. It afforded the women to engage freely in conversation and is evidence of a growing age of leisure within certain sectors of society.

One of the first entries in the diary is Wednesday 25 July 1764: “Very dull day, Mrs Panton, Mrs and Miss Mawer drank tea with us. A girl of Nelson’s buried.”

Shopping

The diarist and her friends clearly enjoyed the shops and almost ten per cent of the diary entries refer directly to, or allude to, shopping – usually a pastime shared with friends. In the mid-1760s Richmond, a very up-to-date and relatively large and prosperous town, had shops which people from other places envied. Indeed, often the diarist would go shopping for items requested by her relatives at Winston.

26 March 1765: “Wind with some Showers of rain, in the Morn Miss Mawer and I walk’d down Street to Miss Wrather’s. They are sel(l)ing up thear goods at prime cost, we got some ribbands.”

Social activities

The diary is an invaluable source of information about the many Georgian leisure pursuits fashionable at a time when the town was becoming a leading provincial centre. The diary contains accounts of assemblies, horse races and plays.

4 September 1764: “Miss Bell Emerson, Miss Fanny Emerson, Miss Robinson and I down street cald upon Mrs Simpson. Miss Fanny Emerson upon the Moor in Mr Witham’s coach. The 50L won by Mr Alcock’s roan mare Blackbird. Miss Emersons and I at the Assembly, all danc’d. Miss Bell Emerson, and Mr Hill, Miss Fanny and Mr Robinson, Mr Anderson and Me, we came home a little after 12 o’Clock.”

The Military

The Richmond area has had important military associations since the Iron Age and the militia had a huge impact on the town in the 1760s. The diarist refers frequently to the soldiers and of most interest to her were the young officers attending the musters of the North York Militia held regularly in the town.

11 October 1764: “Miss Bell and I walk’d up to Dr. Pringle’s to se Mrs James and Mrs Pye. Miss Mawer, Miss Bell and I went upon the field to see the Militia Exercise. After we got home it came upon very heavy rain. Dr. Pringle, Mrs James and Miss Pye drank tea with us…”

Gardening

The diarist clearly had a garden, which she tended, but whether it was her own or one she looked after in exchange for produce is unknown. Whichever, she spent time in it regularly, always noting how long she was on the task, which was never more than two hours. Most of the entries relate to the harvesting of soft fruit, including strawberries, gooseberries and currants, from which she made jelly.

14 August 1765: “In the garden an hour, Cold Wind. Mr and Mrs Wilson drankTea with us. Mrs Hutchinson at the Hall buried at Cat(teric)k. In the Eve I had Miss Carr and Miss Hogg in the garden to eat Goosbeers.”