Monday, 5 March 2012

March - the Diary of a Country Parson

This year I'm looking at some of the entries in the "The Diary of a Country Parson". This was a diary kept by an English clergyman, James Woodforde (1740-1803). Woodforde lived in Somerset and Norfolk, and kept a diary for 45 years recording all kind of ordinary incidents which paint a picture of the routines and concerns of what Ian Hislop terms "the middling folk" of 18th century rural England.

The earliest entry in the Diary (in 1762) for March is a theft, what we would term "robbery with violence", and it illustrates the severity of the sentence, and the seriousness with which such crimes were dealt with.

The offender is "Shadrach Smith", a Romany, but I have not been able to uncover any more details about this offense, for which the said Smith appears to have been hanged. However, the genealogy of the Romany families show a good many Shadrach Smiths, and it is still a name in use today.

Justice in the 18th century was very localised and personalised, with the court and trial. This reflects what we see in the diary, that this is not a Romany being stigmatised, and dealt with badly by the courts, but rather we are told "this man's son was the most principal Witness against his Father":

In this traditional system of localised, highly personalised justice the main instrument was the court and the trial. Most offenders would be known to their victims and so criminal law could take a form much closer to that of civil dispute. Crime detection and policing methods were elementary and crude (see below) Courts waited, as it were, for matters to be brought before them. The role of Justice of the Peace was to decide whether there was a 'case to answer' (1)

Central to this was the idea that crime was a particular violation by one person of another, rather than a violation of 'the criminal law'; and this also played out in what was overlooked. In the Diary, quite without condemnation, we read of the Parson paying a Smuggler for goods. This is not seen as breaking the law, but as historian Edward Thompson notes:

Certain crimes were outlawed by both codes: a wife or child murderer would be pelted and execrated on the way to Tyburn. Highwaymen and pirates belonged to popular ballads, part heroic myth, part admonition to the young. But other crimes were actively condoned by whole communities - coining poaching, the evasion of taxes (the window tax and tythes) or excise or the press gang. Smuggling communities lived in a state of constant war with authority, whose unwritten rules were understood by both sides.... On the other hand other crimes, which were easily committed and yet which struck at the livelihood of particular communities - sheep stealing or stealing cloth off the tenters in the open field - exited popular condemnation." (2)

All this was a far cry from the urban situation, where crime was rife, and it could be extremely dangerous to venture outside. As one Newspaper notes:

The Frequency of audacious Street Robberies repeated every Night in this great Metropolis, call aloud on our Magistrates to think of some Redress: for, as the Case is now, there is no Possibility of stirring from out habitations after dark, without the Hazard of a fractured Skull, or the Danger of losing that Property People are sometimes obliged to carry about them." (3)

In the country, there was a situation not unlike Jersey, where a lot of people in positions of authority knew each other, and mixed socially, so that various Judges appear in these pages at social events. And there are a good many social events - eating, drinking, playing cards, processions, music; there are the large public gatherings, and the smaller more intimate times, when cards were played, and port was drunk.

Although Woodforde enjoys dining and cards as much as the next man, it is notable that it is the Judge who wants to play cards during Holy Week, and is grumpy because Woodforde's father will not. Woodforde himself agrees with his father's attitude, although he can himself see there is probably no harm in it.

Although there are frequent mentions of taking services with prayers and preaching, we do not get much insight into Woodforde's own spirituality, how he believed, although there are some interesting indicators. He is pleased that there are to be prayers on Friday night on Good Friday, and thought the lack of them was "very wrong"; he sees his razor breaking as a lesson to take Sunday more seriously as a day to put aside weekday work, and not like any other day. And he discusses religion with a Roman Catholic, but it isn't clear if there is some dispute between them, or whether he feels he shouldn't be discussing religion in this way.

There's not much about the country and wildlife, except for an entry on toads and on fishing. Toads are 'explosive' breeders with many hundreds of sexually mature individuals from a district migrating to their chosen breeding ground, finding mates and spawning within a week or so. This was obviously one of those occasions. Woodforde's action of mass extermination seems to lack understanding of the natural world.

Incidentally, without sausages, which are a modern ingredient, this is around the same time we first find mention of "Toad in the Hole". In Captain Francis Grose's "A Provincial Glossary" (1787) there is mention of "toad in a hole" which is "meat boiled in a crust".

March - the Diary of a Country Parson

MARCH 5. Judge Willmott condemned one Shadrach Smith, a gypsy, for robbing a girl of 2 shillings and beating her in a very cruel manner; this man's son was the most principal Witness against his Father, and he it was that had him hanged, or condemned to be hanged, he insisted upon his son's witnessing against, though the Judge was much against it.


MARCH 4. . . . After dinner I returned to Ansford where I supped, spent the evening and laid. On my return home I called upon Mr. Andrew Russ at Clanville, and spent the remaining part of the afternoon with him, Mr. Dod a Baker and a Roman Catholick, Mr. Thomas and Seth Burge. Mr. Dod and myself touched a little upon Religion, which I own was not right at all.

For going thro' Avord Turnpike paid 0. 0. 1

MARCH 25. . . . I received this morning of Elizabeth Clothier my mother's maid, the sum of ten pounds, to keep for her, and I shall give her ten shillings per annum, which is at the rate of five per centum for the use of it; I do it purely to encourage her to be careful, and to make her saving. . . .

MARCH 27. . . . I christened two children (Twins) of Robin Francis's this afternoon at Ansford Church for my Father by the names of Joseph and Mary, being born on Lady Day last. . . .


MARCH 1. . . . Great dinners etc., given to-day at the George Inn and the Angel by Sir Charles Tynte's and Mr. Cox's friends, viz. by Lord Ilchester, Lord Berkeley of Bruton and Mr. Mildmay, but neither were there. There were a great multitude of all sorts, gentle and simple. Mr. Cox himself was there. Bells ringing etc., and a great procession through Town with Musick playing and guns firing. They all came up in the afternoon as far as Justice Creeds, and Mr. Cox himself being there, we [the Diarist was dining with Justice Creed] both went out and spoke to him, and we both went back with him, with the Procession down to the George Inn, where we drank success to him, and was there for an hour in the large room with the multitude till Mr. Cox made a very handsome, sensible and genteel speech, and then he withdrew as did we immediately. Brother John dined and spent the evening with the multitude.

MARCH 2. . . . Esq. Farr went and drank one bottle of Port with me at the Lower House this afternoon.

MARCH 15. Justice Creed made me a visit this morning, and my Brother gave him a song, whilst James Clarke performed on his Base Viol. . . .

MARCH 17. . . . Great rejoicings this day at C. Cary, on account of Mr. Trevylyan's declining standing the Poll for this County of Somersett after so much hurry and disturbance. So that Sir Charles Tynte and Mr. Cox are to be our members. May they make great and worthy Representatives. . . .

MARCH 29. . . . My Father would not play cards, it being Passion Week and the Justice [ Creed, who was visiting there] was not very pleased.

N.B. No cards this week at Parsonage which I think is not amiss, though there might be no harm.


MARCH 12. I read Prayers and preached this morning at Ansford Church. I read prayers and preached this afternoon at C. Cary Church.

Mem: As I was going to shave myself this morning as usual on Sundays, my razor broke in my hand as I was setting it on the strop without any violence. May it be always a warning to me not to shave on the Lord's Day or do any other work to profane it pro futuro.


MARCH 18 My Servants Will and Suky went to a Puppett Show this evening at Morton and kept me up till after 1 o'clock.

MARCH 23 I read Prayers and preached this morning at Weston. I gave notice this morning at Church that there would be Prayers on Friday night being Good Friday -- there used to be none that day, which I think was very wrong.

MARCH 25. . . . My great Pond full of large toads, I never saw such a quantity in my life and so large, was most of the morning in killing of them, I daresay I killed one hundred, which made no shew of being missed, in the evening more again than there were, I suppose there are thousands of them there, and no froggs. . . .

MARCH 26. . . . Went a fishing with Nets down to the river to-day, but had little or no sport, caught 2 brace of Pike, one fine Perch, some Gudgeons and a few flat Fish -- I sent the men before I went, and I found them at Attlebridge, and it made me quite angry to find them there, so angry that I left them immediately and ordered them of, and then my nephew and self took a ride to Witchingham and saw the Parsonage House there and Church. The Church is a very neat one and in good repair, the House not bad, tho' better than I thought it to be.

As we returned we found the Fishers at Leonard Bridge trying there for fish, and there we stayed with them till 5 o'clock and then returned home to dinner. For some Beer for them at the Inn there pd. 0. 1. 0 Harry Dunnell, Ben, Will, Allen and Barney and Tom Carr were the Fishermen and they all returned and dined at my House. . . gave them 0. 2. 0 I let the Fishermen have a Bottle of Rum to carry with them. We returned quite tired and hungry and much fatigued. .

MARCH 29. . . . Andrews the Smuggler brought me this night about 11o'clock a bagg of Hyson Tea 6 Pd weight. He frightened us a little by whistling under the Parlour Window just as we were going to bed. I gave him some Geneva and paid him for the tea at 10/6 per Pd. 3. 3. 0

(2) Thompson, Edward. (1968) The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
(3) Whitehall Evening Post, 17 Jan 1749

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