“A wonderful view of an upwardly mobile ‘middling family'”

Emeritus Professor Richard G. Wilson is the former Director of the Centre of East Anglian Studies at the University of East Anglia and an internationally renowned brewery and business historian.

His detailed book review of the Diary volumes is published in the Parson Woodforde Society Quarterly Journal, vol. 46, no. 4 (Winter 2013), pages 21–6. These form only brief excerpts from the 5½-page article.

“A notable addition to the long roll-call of English diaries”

Richard Wilson repeatedly pays tribute to the value of the diary texts:

“All half a million words of them are edited and published by Margaret Bird. It is a most remarkable venture, the outcome of a quarter of a century’s intense and enthusiastic labour. They are a notable addition to the long roll-call of English diaries, one of the great joys of our historical record.”

“A first-rate database”

Professor Wilson agrees with the editor’s judgment that the diary is not in itself inviting to read:

“Mary Hardy, a busy woman, writes without much colour, conversations are not recorded, ideas not discussed. Yet they are a first-rate database.

And across 36 years the diarist provides a wonderful view of an upwardly mobile ‘middling family’ immersed in making their way at the outset of England’s real surge to extended prosperity and European dominance.”

An element of surprise

The review brings out one of the great values of the diary—which may come as a surprise, given its authorship by the unknown wife of an equally obscure farmer and brewer. It records at personal and village level the great changes sweeping across the country:

“Perhaps surprisingly from the heart of rural Norfolk they [the diaries] provide a revealing insight into the powerful forces at work in accelerating economic and social change.

If commentators such as Virginia Woolf have perceived the Norfolk of Parson Woodforde’s diaries as almost comotose, impervious to the great forces of industrialisation, population growth and war, the almost exactly contemporaneous ones of Mary Hardy quickly dispel that view.

Essentially, she records a world of work and of advancement. Even in religious matters, still central in people’s lives, the unsettling impact of Methodism and Dissent is an ever-present theme in the diaries.”

Debt and uncertainty

Professor Wilson gives some interesting comparisons between Mary Hardy and the famous eighteenth-century diarist, the Revd James Woodforde, who was writing at the same time only a few miles away. You can read about his life on the website of the Parson Woodforde Society.

He describes Mary Hardy’s world as one of constant upheaval. She offers an invaluable counterpoise to portrayals of eighteenth-century rural life as stable, constant and unchanging. It was the opposite. It was in flux.

Richard Wilson seizes on the pressures facing farmers and manufacturers like the Hardys:

“If brewers, maltsters and farmers made an increasingly good living in these years of marked advances in agricultural prices, their world was one of constant upheaval. No occupation had a higher turnover than that of publicans.

Debt was a never-ending occurrence, recourse to the law to recover them commonplace. And farming as much as brewing was an uncertain, endless occupation.”

“A testing economic environment”

He continues: “Unsurprisingly, to keep afloat in such a testing economic environment, the Hardys give the impression that in business matters they were tough to the core.”

They prospered through hard work and sound judgment:

“When their son . . . took over in 1797 his father handed over assets valued at £16,274. This impressive capitalisation, accrued from seventeen years of family effort, markedly expanded in the decade of sharply rising prices which followed.”

“Its chronicle of their social round”

“But the diary is much more than the record of the Hardys’ brewing and farming activities. Its chronicle of their social round provides equally important insights. It allows us to pinpoint exactly the differences between the genteel world of the gentry and clergy, as recorded in such marvellous detail by Parson Woodforde, and that of the ‘middling sort’.”

Richard Wilson writes of the diarist’s family: “Their social and domestic life was not a retired one.” They were at the centre of “a constant flow of publicans and business associates as well as a wide network of friends and a tribe of relations”.

As befitted a working family, the Hardys entertained their guests for “dinner at noon (not the mid-afternoon hour of the gentry and clergy) or tea after six o’clock when the long day’s work was done”.

“A unique source”

As a business historian Professor Wilson pays tribute to the diary of Mary Hardy’s teenage nephew Henry Raven, which is intercut with hers in the third of the Diary volumes:

“He was apprenticed to his uncle as a trainee brewer in 1794 . . . It is a unique source for the training of an eighteenth-century country brewer.”

“Reader-friendly” . . . “a goldmine for genealogists”

Like all the other reviewers, Richard Wilson is struck by the attractive presentation of the material:

“The four volumes are most attractively produced. The reader-friendly marginal notes are extensive and always illuminating. The voluminous indices to each volume are superb. Together with helpful family trees and numerous appendices they are a goldmine for genealogists as well as allowing readers of the diary to make complete sense of a succinct text.

Almost every page is enlivened by an illustration.”

“A most remarkable achievement”

The review ends by looking forward eagerly to the publication of the four volumes of commentary and analysis, Mary Hardy and her World: “They will also be a fitting conclusion to what is already a most remarkable achievement.”