The Diary of a Georgian Shopkeeper by Thomas Turner (1754-1765)

It’s unclear why Thomas Turner (1729-1793) – shopkeeper, churchwarden and overseer to the Parish Vestry, aka a semi-Big Cheese – decided to keep a diary at the age of 25, and why he abandoned it upon marrying his second wife eleven years later. I wondered if he, in a brief 18th century equivalent (given Georgian life expectancy) of our more indulgent 21st century midlife crises, was prompted by frustrations similar to those that threaded through my mind as I recently (whisper it) turned 40, when my desire to reflect on how the past ‘half-life’ has really rolled out was hindered by my inability to remember much, and to remember anything objectively. At least a diary facilitates some fact-checking when we question whether we have lived our lives as fully as possible, served some useful purpose to others, and started on the anti-ageing regime soon enough. (Answer is yes to the latter, as far as sun block is concerned. My frown mark, though, is evidence of 35 years of overthinking, and I am not sure there is Botox enough in Bromley to remedy that.)

Turner’s account of Sussex life in East Hoathly is in some ways predictable: consider the religious fervour (‘would they…return unto the Lord their God…then the prospect of death would be but as a translation from a life of misery to an eternal state of happiness’), patriotism (‘Oh, what a pleasure it is to every true Briton, to see with what success it pleases Almighty God to bless his majestie’s arms’), and references to the ‘industrious and honest poor’, for example.

Yet Turner makes surprising admissions which recast the lens through which I believed our ancestors viewed their world: in particular, his reflections on the injustices of society (the ‘melancholy affair’ of the suicide of a single pregnant woman was especially poignant), and the repeated examples of his own and his neighbours’ grief, demonstrate how our forebears were not entirely hardened to life’s then inequity and fragility:

What a moving spectacle it was to see an industrious and sober man, the only support of his family, followed to the grave by his widow and fatherless infants, whose tears and lamentations bespoke their inward and sincere grief!

Most of all, I didn’t expect to like Mr Turner as much as I did. A fair man in his execution of his local duties as overseer to the parish vestry (‘…in my opinion justice with humanity should first be executed, and then let mercy and benevolence open their extended wings, and close the scene’), he has a sensible wariness of those who seek increased local power (‘if shewing of power tend only to oppress the honest and industrious poor…happy is the man that hath the least of it’), and a low opinion of those who wriggle their way out of their societal obligations (‘I look upon that man…that endeavours to evade the payment of his just share of taxes, to be robbing every other member of the community that contributes his quota’). I suspected he would nod understandingly at me spending a rare childfree day in bed reading his book, given his appreciation of solitude (‘what a small pleasure it is to be in such a concourse of people!’) and advocacy of reading, that included a detailed commentary of those books he had devoured (‘I have oftentimes…been at too great expense in buying books, and spending rather too much time in reading’). Finally, his constant regret at overdrinking (most memorably after an incident in which he was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night by his neighbours and made to dance in his wife’s petticoats, ‘without shoes and stockings, until they had emptied the bottle of wine and also a bottle of my beer’, before finally leaving him in peace the following afternoon) convinced me that there was more than a shared surname that suggested we could be kin. I think we may have enjoyed a quart of ale. If the pubs were bloomin’ open.

As a present for my 40th, a dear friend gifted me a beautiful five year diary resplendent with a very sophisticated handmade fountain pen. Given my inconsistent diary entries over the past thirty-odd years have ranged from ‘I used to love Jason Donovan, but now I love Joe from New Kids On The Block, and as I’m only ten I don’t know what to do with these feelings’, to ‘Rufus did this cute thing today! Fxck the patriarchy’, I’m not sure my newly-revived evening scribbles will ever form a meaningful historical record of the (ever dramatic! Not) life and times of a London civil servant. But if it was Turner’s fair treatment of people that stuck in my mind when reading his diary, despite the book porn and petticoat-wearing drinking episodes, then that’s surely a sign of the measure that people truly judge us against, and against which we should judge ourselves. If Thomas Turner ever looked back through his diary to review his life, I believe he should have felt proud in that respect. And perhaps in a few years time, if I keep up my evening scribbles, my new diary will allow me to look back objectively, and feel the same.

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