October 31, 2014, by Lucy

Sources in focus: Diaries

Knee-deep in diaries

Many of the documents that we’ve been consulting in the archives over the last few months have been diaries, indeed Marie-Jeanne recently said that she was “knee-deep in diaries”, a feeling that I can empathise with! Some are meteorological registers – diaries specifically of the weather – but many are diaries that were not kept with this purpose in mind and these are the sources I want to explore in this blog. We have looked at business or company diaries listing appointments, town or parish diaries recording notable events in the locality, church diaries primarily recording sermons and congregation numbers, and school log books. However, the vast majority are personal diaries, written by individuals who commonly demonstrate a remarkable commitment or discipline to the practice of diary keeping. A number of diaries of this type have already featured in our blog posts: Elizabeth Nutt Harwood, Joseph Woolley, William Bulkeley, Matthew Flinders, John Harrison, and Pegge-Burnell. Many of the authors we’ve read over the last few months are farmers or the owners of landed estates, the weather playing an important role in their ability to complete day to day activities and retain physical, emotional and economic well-being. Other examples are simply written as a personal record of day to day goings on, detailing friendships, family, work, social life, personal matters, and world events, the weather being ‘background’ to other matters.

Diaries and extreme weather

The value of a number of the diaries we have already consulted has already been recognised, in terms of their use for individual biography, local history, medical history , agricultural history, and family history, in some cases resulting in their publication but not so much in terms of their value in weather and climate history. So many people appear to have recorded the daily weather alongside other matters, as, I think particularly in the past, the weather affects our daily decisions, particularly when it comes to travel, it also affects our mood, and a number of sources consulted reveal how extremely cold or hot weather proved very trying on mind and body.

Diaries are a really rich source for our project as they are ready made timelines of extreme weather events. Diaries give specific dates, and often the hours of the day, of atmospheric happenings, and in some cases, their impacts on an individual, family or community level, and their contemporary interpretation. Unlike other documents, diaries often cover a substantial time period, sometimes several decades, allowing us to build up a picture of the observer as well as the implications of a series of extreme weather events, droughts which are quickly followed by floods and storms for example. We usually, but by no means always, know the author’s name and their place of residence, which usefully provides the observations with a geo-reference.

Others are one off volumes – and I think there is a case to be made that extreme weather events can prompt the keeping of a diary – the winter of 1947 being prominent in this regard. The motivations for diary keeping are obviously as diverse as the people writing them.

There are also some intriguing stories relating to how the diaries found their way into the archive. There must inevitably be thousands more in family collections, as objects that people are reluctant to throw away.

Daunting diaries

That said, owing to the wealth of information they contain, diaries are also near the most daunting of items on our document lists, often being extremely time consuming to read and transcribe, even if the daily entries are relatively short. The writing can be tricky to decipher – as the entries were written for personal use there was no obligation to make them legible! The diary that I’ve been working on in recent weeks at Lincolnshire Archives, compiled by John Thistlewood, covers the years 1779 to 1793. I’m now nearing the end, but, partly depending on the weather (!), it can take up to a day to go through a year’s worth of entries. This is partly because I’m consulting a microfilmed copy rather than the original, but also because I’m finding it fascinating, even though the vast majority of entries contain little more than weather information! Here is a nice account of a storm accompanied by great heat from Thistlewood’s diary for 1790. Helpfully for our project, Thistlewood not only describes the weather but notes some of the impacts it had, and compares it to a memory he has of a similar event some 42 years previous:

22nd June – morning thick mist which soon disappeared, and the wind blew hot & low at SW, very bright sun, but before noon wild broken clouds began to appear in several quarters of the heavens, a smart shower fell here at noon with large drops and thunder, afternoon large frightful clouds in the E & NE, in the evening the most dreadful lightning with loud thunder which continued till 1 in the morning, a fine shower fell about 11 o’clock, the heat all this day and night almost as great as it was ever known to be in this country. Walk to Horncastle Fair in the morning, return’d in the evening greatly fatigued. *The hot day & night

N.B. the heat of this day nearly equal to the heat of June 11th 1748 but the thunder & lightning did not continue so long here, very dreadful in many other parts of England and a great deal of damage done to man, cattle and buildings. (Lincolnshire Archives, MON 31/92).

Sometimes it’s the sheer number of diaries that is daunting – the volumes by Peter Pegge Burnell cover the years 1784-1836! (Nottinghamshire Archives, DD/CW/8c/5/10-57). Other volumes can be inherently distracting from our main subject, for example those compiled by Matthew Flinders with their tales of family fortunes and gruesome medical cases featured in a previous blog. As the project is time limited, it will sometimes be the case that we look at a sample of a diary series and then decide that it’s not worth investing the time to go through the remainder. We obviously risk missing some important records but will be noting the temporal coverage of each diary we look at so that we can go back and check for accounts of weather events that we know happened on specific dates we identify elsewhere if time allows.

Secret diaries?

Although the diaries kept by companies, government bodies, schools, churches and even landed estates were a form of record keeping that could expect to be inspected by others, many personal diaries were never intended to be read by anyone else. Some are adorned with hefty locks, whilst others contain passages written in code. The following passage from William or Bill Richard’s diary made us feel somewhat guilty about reading it:

1 March 1910 – My birthday (Feb 29) and I’m 22 years old. How the time seems to fly by. Its a year since I began to keep this faithful record of my doings – right or wrong. Not one word is false though it is with regret that certain thoughts had to be written. But no one read this little book but I so I can write without fear. (Nottinghamshire Archives, DD/2641/2)

Some that we’ve consulted are deeply personal, revealing innermost thoughts and feelings. They have already proved to be both entertaining, with tales of young love and courting (complete with locks of hair and photographs) and, at times upsetting, detailing battles with alcoholism, deteriorating health, the loss of children, and of course, the end of a diary is often associated with a death.

Disciplined diary keeping

The thing that has struck me most whilst trawling through the long series of diaries we have is the dedication and discipline of diary keepers, most set aside time each day to write their entry, although there are signs in some that a collection of entries is written in a single session with the weather recorded from memory. When entries lapse it’s interesting to wonder why. I’m hoping that by bringing some of these diary entries into public view we show that those disciplined diary keepers produced a unique source for UK weather and climate history.

Posted in Archive visitsProject themesWeather extremesweather observers