The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman:
The Life and Times of Richard Hall, 1729-1801
by Mike Rendell
Treasures from the Past
Have you ever wished you could find a trunk somewhere that is full of diaries and papers and mementos from one of your ancestors? Remnants from the past that give you a glimpse of the person, and not just the name and dates generally found in family Bibles or ancestry.com?
Sadly, most of my ancestors weren’t the sort to write things down, so when they disappeared from the earth, most of their life experiences disappeared with them. One exception was my great-grandfather, Jess Sherry. An educator who valued words, he left a legacy of writings that are in many ways as apropos today as they were a hundred years ago.
In his lifetime Richard kept copious notebooks, diaries and journals as well as everyday ephemera of the time—newspaper cuttings, admission tickets, catalogues and so on. Apart from a dozen contemporaneously written diaries which are still extant, Richard completed numerous retrospective accounts of events which had influenced his life. These were often interspersed with details about the weather, the price of bread, recipes for making wine, inventories of his assets, and so forth. Separately he also maintained little notebooks on favoured topics—‘Observables’ (referring to what he had seen and noted, e.g. eclipses, earthquakes, violent storms and other natural phenomena), ‘Fossils’ (which he took to mean anything dug out of the ground) and ‘Receipts’ (i.e., recipes, which included medicines rather than just meals). He left behind his collection of coins, shells and fossils. He was also, from the 1750’s onwards, an avid collector of books, many of them bought from local booksellers.
Richard often wrote his thoughts and ideas—as well as copied out sermons—in manuscript books, which were then bound up. Many remain. A fastidious record-keeper, at the end of each year he would set out a list of the books which he had read—and most of these lists survive, too. Together these collections give a fascinating insight into the man and his times. Many of the items were stored in Richard’s horse-hair trunk. One of the restrospective journals is entitled ‘Family and Personal Recollections’. It begins:
I have frequently thought of writing a little history of my life interspersed with as much information as I could collect from letters and memorandum in my possession, of my family connexions. No very striking incidents, I am fully aware will be presented. Still I trust it may be attended with benefit in awakening feelings of deep humility and a lively gratitude in my own mind whilst it will afford an outline of a family history to my children they could not otherwise obtain.
What follows is a story of the life of Richard Hall—my great-great-great-great grandfather. It is based on what Richard himself wrote and collected—with some additional material from his son, who maintained the family tradition of retrospective musing and diary-keeping, and from his brother-in-law William, whose three surviving diaries give a fascinating counterpart to what was happening in the Hall family in the middle part of the eighteenth century. To this family source material has been added background information—to give a fuller picture of Richard’s life and times.
Richard’s grandfather Thomas, a gentleman farmer, managed to survive “the end of the English Civil War—the execution of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, the Restoration of Charles II, the upheavals of the reign of James II, the accession of William of Orange and the start of the Hanoverian dynasty.” But also, he was financially ruined by the notorious South Sea Bubble (see blog post here). The end result was that Thomas’s son Francis had to go to London to find work, as many did in that situation. Francis got an apprenticeship with a hosier, which, as the author puts it, was “quite a step down for a young man brought up as the son of a ‘gentleman farmer’.
An only child, Richard was brought up on Red Lion Street in Southwark. What was it like for him growing up in that rather unsavory neighborhood? Rendell sets that scene for us, using historical data that is pure gold for a historical author who might be seeking a background for a character who was in trade during that period.
How were babies treated? Words pronounced? What would Richard have learned in school? What did they eat? How did they cook? What was the postal system like? The roads? Was it necessary to have a passport to travel abroad? How much did Richard weigh? How much did things cost? Where did he go for entertainment and what curiosities garnered his interest? What did men and women wear?
In 1766, Richard, aiming for a more fashionable clientele, signed a contract to build a shop on London Bridge (“the corner London Thames Street, London Bridge). With this move, now he was able to offer fabrics as well as silk stockings. He took out fire insurance. Eventually, he took on his own son as apprentice. And his life continued, well-documented—through 1801. Even better, his descendants had the good sense not to destroy the remnants that he left.
Do you have an ancestor who left journals or writings behind to document his/her life? What sort of plans do you have to document your own life for your descendants?
About the Author
Born in Bristol, England, Mike Rendell read Law at Southampton University. After graduation he joined a Bristol law firm where he was to launch the UK s first 24/7 residential property transfer service. He contributed regular articles on property matters to legal journals and wrote a weekly legal advice column in the local press. He retired in 2003 and now lives with his wife Philippa, sometimes on the edge of Dartmoor in the South West of England, and sometimes in Spain, where he tends his garden of olives, pomegranates and citrus fruits. He has two children from a former marriage. He is currently working on a novel set in Georgian England as well as on a book to be published by Pen & Sword entitled “Sex, Scandal and Satire – in bed with the Georgians” – due out 2015/6.