Archives can reveal details about how our ancestors lived and customs and practices they took for granted which can look very strange to modern eyes! Lost ways of life can be found in all kinds of sources, the most personal of which, diaries and letters, can give an intimate portrait of individual’s daily lives as well as shedding light on their wider community. They provide a window through which we can relate to those who have gone before.
With this in mind I thought I would explore how some Wiltshire residents of the past spent their Christmas and New Year.
Francis Kilvert and Edith Olivier both have well known published diaries but the Wiltshire Record Society have also published personal diaries of everyday folk held in our collections. There is much recognisable to us in their festive moments; celebrating new beginnings, giving gifts, spending time with family, the traditional seasonal illness, country walks etc.
William Henry Tucker was born in Trowbridge in 1814 and in later life became a successful clothier. The diary (WRS Vol.62) as a whole offers a candid insight into the life of Tucker and his community during the years 1825-50.
1827 25 Dec: Went to W. Plummer’s and had a Christmas supper. Exhibited my watch to the company, and made numerous enquiries respecting my anticipated settlement in the counting house.
1827 31 Dec: This day commences a most important era. At ten o’clock I made my first entry... into Mr John Stancombe’s counting house.
1829 31 Dec The weather was extremely severe about this time. Having an afternoon’s holiday, about three o’clock my brother and myself set off towards the canal by way of Islington: we ran upon the ice... on our way home we over Mr.- a fashionable shoemaker... who told us many lies of his wonderful feats in skating. On passing down the Courts I encountered a young lady who had for some time occupied no inconsiderable share of my thoughts.
1832 25 Dec supped at E.Hs (future wife, Emily Hendy, daughter of Grocer, William Hendy – married in Oct 1935 when both aged 21)
1834 26 Dec Took a walk amid the blackness of the night through the Hennicks,... and in allusion to future prospects I made a rather pointed enquiry touching a somewhat important subject, which was satisfactorily answered by the person to whom it was addressed.
1835 25 Dec An old fashioned frosty Christmas. At Dad’s all day.
1836 25 Dec – Xmas day comes on Sunday. In the evening a tremendous snowstorm came on, which lasted all night and covered the country to a depth unknown for many years past, playing the dickens with coaches, mails. etc. etc.
1838 25 Dec – mild Christmas Day. Took a walk in Studley fields by the inn.
1838 31 Dec Finished stocktaking. Mr Hall died. Had our Christmas party and watched the year out.
1 Jan 1839 Grand fete at factory. Was not present, being in Bath occupied in my final purchases of books. Spent most of the day with Matthew Newth.
1844 25 Dec Dined, tead and supped at W.H.’s Went to church twice.
1846 1 Jan This year begins in suspense on three very important points – How will the crisis in the railway market terminate? Is R. Peel coming forward as a Corn Law repealer? Is -.
1854 he wrote of ‘comforts of the Christmas fireside, surrounded by intelligent and well-conducted children’ (despite his previous depressions over the birth of numerous girls!).
1847 31 Dec. Bill of Health: E., Lucy, Alfred and Emma have had the influenza but are partially recovered. The rest of us are well.
Francis Kilvert was a clergyman, born in Hardenhuish Lane, near Chippenham and who worked as a rural curate helping his father (rector of Langley Burrell) and as curate in the Welsh Marches, Radnorshire, and Herefordshire. His diaries, reflecting on rural life, were published 50 years following his death.
As New Year is almost upon us, I thought to take a look at how some of our previous Wiltshire inhabitants spent their New Years’ Day by taking a look at their diary entries. The authors’ backgrounds range from lords to schoolboys, schoolmasters to reverends, and how different their experiences of New Year were…
It was the plague that was the main concern at the beginning of January in 1666 when Sir Edward Bayntun of Bromham noted in his Commonplace Book on January 6th:
“Orders of the justices of the peace for Wiltshire to prevent the spread by the carriage of goods or by wandering beggars of the plague which infected London, Westminster, Southwark, and Southampton.”
New Year’s Eve offered a poignant moment in the diary of William Henry Tucker, a Trowbridge man born in 1814 who worked his way up to become a successful clothier. The entry of 31st December reads:
“Our usual party. Stood on Emma’s grave while Trinity church clock struck twelve at the close of the first half of the nineteenth century”…
As I travel from Corsham to Chippenham by bus to work at the History Centre, I often think of what past local inhabitants might make of the ‘Sainsbury’s Roundabout’, the Methuen industrial park or the sprawl of post-war housing leading into Chippenham itself. Local artists have often recorded changes to the environment in their art, not always intentionally but as a consequence of the time in which they have been working. Wiltshire’s museums contain hundreds of such drawings, sketches and paintings of the people and landscape that makes this county so special.
One such local inhabitant was Robin Tanner (1904–1988) who was born in Bristol but grew up in Kington Langley, near Chippenham. Whilst training to be a teacher at Goldsmiths College in London during the 1920s he studied etching during the evenings. This etching was to become the means by which he expressed his deep appreciation of the countryside. Later returning to Wiltshire - moving into a house at Old Chapel Field, Kington Langley, where the diarist Francis Kilvert's ancestors are buried - to earn a living as an artist, his etchings show the strong influence of Samuel Palmer, the visionary Victorian romantic painter, depicting a world of thatched ricks, hedges, gates and stiles.