March 20, 2014, by Georgina
Getting into the archive – Pies, snowball fights and blazing chimney pots? Must be the diary of a Victorian lady
Elizabeth Nutt Harwood
I spent a fulfilling day in Nottinghamshire Archives last week. Among the documents I requested was the diary of one Elizabeth Nutt Harwood of Beeston Meadow, Nottinghamshire. This covers a period from 1838 to 1842 and is rich in detail about the daily life of this educated young woman and her well established farming and inn keeping family. Born on November 10th 1818, she began her diary in January 1838, at the age of 20, and through her writings it is possible to catch glimpses of Nottinghamshire life at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign….. and the way in which weather seems to have pervaded many aspects of this.
Elizabeth’s diary affords a remarkable insight into her day to day activities. She frequently accompanied her father, Richard, to local lectures on politics, geology and astronomy, but she was also seemingly, a great pie maker! Her diary begins thus: “Jan 1 – Very fine & mild day. Busy making meat pyes [sic]” and there are many similar references throughout the four years that her diary covers.
Elizabeth’s weather recording
Perhaps more newsworthy local and national events are also charted with respect to weather. We learn, for example, that the day Queen Victoria was married to Albert – Feb 11, 1840 was “stormy”, but that this was the third day of such storms, with hail, and this storminess followed a flood on the Trent on February 6.
Flooding was in fact an all too familiar occurrence in Beeston Rylands (or Beeston Meadows as it was often referred to). The February 6 event was in fact but one of six flood events Elizabeth discusses in some detail between 1838 and 1842 and Elizabeth keeps a close watch on rising river levels throughout this period. But other parameteorological events are also recorded. She notes, for example, four occasions when the Nottingham-Beeston canal froze over (and the opportunities this afforded for skating!)
One of the more dramatic events Elizabeth charts in her diary is also weather related. On January 7, 1839 she wrote:
“A rough wind indeed blew .some dreadful gusts of wind about 7 o clock, our taproom chimney caught fire .. it had been burning some time before we found it out.. we had a large fire in the grate at the time …Father got some blankets wet and pushed them up so far as he could and let them be up till after dinner when he took them down it began to burn again they put the large ladder up and a boatman poured some water down it which put the fire out, we were very glad and so much afraid of the stacks and stables etc. catching fire…it blew the straw stack and a waggon load of straw over. We have heard of a great deal of damage done by the wind”.
The first half of 1839 in fact seems to have been marked by unusual weather, with Elizabeth noting that on May 14 it was “very cold in the afternoon there was a snowstorm. It is rather uncommon to have snow in May it was two or three inches thick and I snowballed the servants… the flowers looked very beautiful peeping from under the snow.”
Elizabeth’s diary comes to a close at the end of 1842 but it has since been published in full as a Victorian Lady’s Diary, edited by Margaret Cooper. Elizabeth would marry her cousin Tom Nutt in May in 1843 (becoming Elizabeth Nutt Nutt!) and they would have three children, though one, very sadly passed away at only 11 days old. She would succumb to tuberculosis in 1852 at the age of 36 and her grave stands in Beeston church cemetery today, though we are struggling to find the precise spot!
There are many such diarists whose attention to detail and interest in day to day weather, as well as more extreme events, provides us, as contemporary observers of the past, with very valuable material. This is a rich legacy indeed and one we are enjoying exploring.
Additional information from: Exploring Beeston’s history: aspects of the local and family history of a Midlands town http://www.beeston-notts.co.uk/harwood.shtml