A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This week’s Country Matters theme has given me the perfect opportunity to dig out my copy of my favourite country diarist, Thomas Turner. He was a shopkeeper who lived in the village of East Hoathly near Lewes in Sussex in the latter half of the 18th century. The daily notes he wrote in his 20s and 30s over eleven years show me not how sleepy and primitive village life in England was at that time, but how busy and sophisticated.
There are so many layers to my passion for this diary and its writer. Thomas Turner was an able and complex though self-doubting man, with rare qualities and skills. His diary is a unique blend of report and inner reflection, mixing memoranda about his financial and commercial transactions and his parish duties, with notes of the books he read, the hospitality he gave and enjoyed, cricket games he took part in or watched, and confessional passages lamenting his character weaknesses (mostly to do with a fondness for liquor). The discovery and transmission of the diary are a fascinating archival journey. It is a revelatory account of life in that most neglected of periods, the mid 18th century. Finally, and I know there is no accounting for tastes, I have found it impossible to read the diary, with all its conventional piety, confessions of marital disharmony, weakness for the demon drink and bafflement with the behaviour of others, without learning to love its writer. Thomas Turner was a decent, conscientious young man of no little genius, who was forever hard upon himself. His diary stands as a record of someone who worked tirelessly for the good of his family and his community, with no personal ambition other than to win and keep the respect of his peers and to forge a good, comfortable and useful life in deeply rural East Hoathly.
Thomas Turner came from the ‘middling sort’. His mother kept a shop in Framfield, and he and his brothers had a good provincial education. Thomas was intended to take on the family shop in due course; while waiting for that time, he leased a village shop in nearby East Hoathly, and over the next few years became so much a part of village society there and prospered so well (though he would be the last to admit it) that he bought the shop and settled there, one of his brothers taking on the family business. The shop was the very heart of the village – the diary has records of dealing in tea, sugar, cheese, tobacco, brandy, gin (about a third the price of brandy), cotton goods and haberdashery (bought from the ‘Manchesterman’ who visited Lewes), paper, household goods in wood, crockery and metal, brooms and baskets, and gunpowder. An early entry has him cutting out a dozen ’round frocks’ (generally and erroneously called smocks) and giving them to Elizabeth Mepham with buttons and thread to make up and smock, for him then to sell. He also records the lucrative trade in collecting rags from the parish for the papermaker in Loose, Kent, which Thomas sold to him for part payment in paper to sell, part in money. Thomas was the undertaker for the village and also for Framfield, and the diary gives an insight into funeral customs of the time.
Thomas wrote a beautiful clear sloping hand. He was skilled in financial matters, and used this quite selflessly on behalf of others in the village, helping them to deal with their creditors and keep their accounts straight. He was the pivot for most of their financial transactions, dealing in cash, promissory notes and bills of exchange – also barter (he would often accept and offer goods in payment). He and his network of commercial colleagues, as far afield as London, were not only selling goods to people but setting up structures for them to use credit. They were to all intents and purposes pioneering personal banking services. He also kept a school for a while, and taught individuals to read and write and keep accounts, to help them move up the social scale.
Thomas was a great reader. He widened his knowledge of the world from periodicals whenever he could get hold of them, and this knowledge is reflected in the diary in his intense interest in the loss of Minorca and the court-martial of Admiral Byng, among other momentous events. News from the wider world often came through the church, where directives for special prayers, fasts and forms of service were sent to every parish to mark victories and disasters. Many books passed through his hands and he records his reactions to them. He enjoyed travel writing, found philosophy hard going but persevered, thought Shakespeare’s plays were well worth reading, and shared the widespread taste of the time for books on religious controversy. He displayed a radical streak in his approbation of John Wilkes and the North Briton. He and his wife read chapters of Clarissa to one another, and the ending left him overcome with emotion. He was a pious member of the Church of England (often caught unawares by the irreverence of the Rector, the Revd Mr Porter), and on days when he could not get to church he resorted to reading Archbishop Tillotson’s sermons, of which there are many. Usually his comment on the book he is reading goes little beyond paraphrase or approval, but sometimes there is just a gleam of critical insight, such as: ‘In the even Mr Tipper read to me part of a – I know not what to call it but Tristram Shandy.’ Reading was a communal as well as a solitary pleasure in his circle. As you can imagine, these records of reading are utterly fascinating to me.
He served in the whole range of parish offices, being variously churchwarden, overseer of the poor, surveyor of highways, tax collector, sometimes all at once. He documents the financial transactions to do with his duties to collect and remit land and window tax. The diary also gives an insight into the complexity of the poor laws, and the massive burden on parish officers when dealing with the relief of the poor and the certification of those entitled to relief, moving on vagrants, ascertaining the paternity of illegitimate children and demanding the father’s support for the child either by marrying the mother or indemnifying the parish. All this was taken on by him and his colleagues without complaint, and with surprisingly little moral judgement. The treatment of the poor was harsh and intrusive, but Thomas Turner seems to have dealt with his cases without excessive prurience or censure. It was just part of life, and anyone in Turner’s class could suffer the sort of catastrophe that could pitch them into poverty and relief. It is something to note just how much travelling Turner undertook – not just on his own business, but on parish business, to surrounding villages, to Lewes, and as far afield as London and Tunbridge Wells. He walked and he rode; when his own horse pitched him off and refused to take him, he borrowed another. He was dogged in making sure that everything was done as it should be, while carefully noting his expenses in the business, and castigating himself for having accepted hospitality on the way and arriving home drunk (again).
Sometimes these parish matters spiked into drama, as with the case of poor Elizabeth Elless, unmarried and pregnant, who died of a sudden and mysterious illness within days of being due to give birth. There was a strong suspicion that the father was the feckless married Peter Adams, and the suspicion to go with it that he might have murdered her. So, as her condition was a concern of the parish, the parish officers had to take the momentous decision to order a postmortem, which Thomas documents with curiosity and precision. The evidence that she and her child might have been poisoned was inconclusive, and Peter Adams continued his feckless ways in the parish for years to come. Every case was dealt with according to the circumstances, and then life returned to the status quo. It is a fascinating insight into the pre-Victorian mindset.
The diary is also a portrait of an unhappy marriage. Thomas married Margaret (‘Peggy’) Slater of Hartfield, when he was 24 and she was 21, just a few months before he started this diary. He had an interesting relationship with his in-laws: his mother-in-law was utterly contemptuous of him and lost no opportunity to slander him, but his father-in-law (‘my father Slater’) was one of his closest friends and supporters. One can only guess at how happy that marriage was too. Peggy was soon pregnant, but their only child, a son Peter, died at five months old. It is not possible to know what ailed Peggy, but from the earliest days of the marriage she suffered from chronic ill-health. Thomas constantly expresses bafflement at how to please her and agonies of helplessness at her suffering. Peggy’s final illness was excruciating, and lasted for several months before she died in 1761, aged just 27. Thomas’s grief and remorse were made worse by painful gossip that he had conspired with her doctors to have an operation performed without her consent that hastened her death, unfounded in fact, but spread with malicious relish by Peggy’s mother. Who needs Twitter? This was the talk of the villages around Lewes, and caused him great pain. Within a few months the talk had subsided, and it did not seem to wound his reputation materially, so I assume the truth of the matter was generally known.
Thomas stayed single, lamenting his Peggy in terms that are at some variance with his thoughts when she was alive, until in 1764 we start to hear less about Peggy and more about the lovely Molly Hicks. He married her in 1765, and the last entry in the dairy as we know it recorded his wedding, with the final line ‘Well, here let us drop the subject and begin a new one.’ Which, as far as we know, he never did. Molly and Thomas had seven children, of whom five survived, including some strapping sons who took on his business after he died in 1793. I think he may have been too busy building a new life as a family man, and I should like to think, too contented, to write any more searching and self-flagellating diary entries.
The diary is of interest to scholars in a number of specialist fields. The manuscript found its way largely intact from Turner’s descendants to the Sussex Archaeological Society, and some extracts were published in the mid-19th century as an article in their Collections. The aim of the article was to show how primitive and backward life was in deepest darkest Sussex a century earlier. I find this ironical because the main message I take from the diary is how intricate and sophisticated the structures of parish society were at that time, and how much effort, skill and knowledge went into trying to make them work for the common good. ‘Secluded and uncivilized’ were the words used of that part of Sussex – yet Thomas Turner’s world stretched as far as London in one direction and Brighthelmstone (Brighton) in the other. There is a detailed essay by its first 20th century editor of the history of the manuscript, now along with other Turner papers in the library of Yale University. There, Dean K Worcester worked on editing the diary, and Harold Melcher extracted from it the records of Turner’s reading. As well as the bibliographical interest and the contribution to social history, the records in the diary of early cricket matches are of interest to scholars of the game. In the 1980s, David Vaisey, Bodley’s Librarian, made a new edition of selected passages with excellent scholarly apparatus, published by OUP. Later, a revised edition was published locally, and that is the edition I have.
I could go on and on [you already have – Ed.] about the delights to be found in this diary. Reading diaries can be repetitive, but if I am in sympathy with the diarist I find it easy to become completely absorbed. Getting to know and love the diarist also helps – guilty as charged. Sadly, it is out of print (Why? Why?). Fortunately, there are secondhand copies to be found on Amazon and Abe at reasonable cost. But it is time for a revival of interest in this wonderful record of a way of life and a unique voice.
Thomas Turner. The Diary of Thomas Turner 1754-1765. Edited by David Vaisey. East Hoathly: CTR Publishing, 1994. 386pp
Previous edition: Oxford: OUP, 1985.