Mary Hardy (1733–1809), the diarist

Mary Hardy lived all her life in Norfolk, on the eastern seaboard of England. She wrote her diary every day: first at Coltishall, north-east of Norwich, from 1773 to 1781; and then at Letheringsett, near the coast at Cley, from 1781 until her death in 1809.

Mary Hardy in 1785 by Huquier

The diarist Mary Hardy (1733–1809), daughter of the Whissonsett grocer, maltster and farmer Robert Raven and his wife Mary. She is seen aged 51 dressed for the “playhouse”—actually a barn or outbuilding behind the White Lion at Holt, cleared for the travelling players  [Cozens-Hardy Collection]

Mary Hardy’s family

Mary Hardy was the wife of a farmer, maltster, brewer and miller. From a family of shopkeepers and small farmers, she was born at Whissonsett in central Norfolk, between the towns of Fakenham and East Dereham.

In 1765 she married a Yorkshireman, William Hardy (1732–1811), who had been posted to Norfolk as an excise officer. They probably met when he was stationed at East Dereham (now Dereham) and had her father’s Whissonsett maltings under his survey.

They had three children: Raven (1767–87), William (1770–1842) and Mary Ann (1773–1864). Raven died of tuberculosis aged nineteen.

The shaping time

Central to the diarist’s make-up was her yearning to be among her Whissonsett family, very many of whom lie in the churchyard there. Her father Robert Raven (1706–78) gave a handsome brass candelabrum to the church in 1771, by which time he was farming at Whissonsett Hall. Fourteenth-century heraldic glass in the church’s west window is seen at the banner.

Mary Hardy’s mother died in 1751; her elder sister Phillis married in 1757. The diarist thus had many years keeping house for her father. She also helped to raise her younger brothers Nathaniel and Robert, born in 1735 and 1739; Rose Ann had died in 1738 when very young.

This shaping time may explain her striking levels of competence, her methodical nature and her gritty resilience. She kept going while she had to, as when helping through the night to bring her friends’ babies into the world. But she suffered from anxiety. Severe, debilitating headaches would follow periods of intense stress.

Inheritance by the youngest son

Their son William  greatly expanded the family business after his father’s retirement in 1797. Raven had been destined for the Law until his untimely death. In Mary Hardy’s extended family, and more generally, the system of male primogeniture (inheritance by the eldest son) was not adopted.

Instead the youngest son was groomed to take over the principal family property and business. Thus young William had from a very early age been intended for malting and brewing. He did not succeed to his father’s Letheringsett business because Raven had died.

Daughters were given equal consideration. Mary Ann started school at Coltishall just after her second birthday. And she was granted £7000 as a marriage portion. Partible inheritance, where the family wealth is shared among all the children, male and female, was in force as well as male ultimogeniture.

Mary Ann’s dowry was protected under her marriage settlement in 1805. As a result her only child William Hardy Cozens (1806–95), later Cozens-Hardy, seen at his Diamond Wedding, inherited his father’s prosperous farm at Sprowston outside Norwich. His half-sister and half-brother from his father Jeremiah’s first marriage had to make their own way elsewhere.

Mary Ann Cozens, née Hardy

Mary Ann Cozens (1773-1864), née Hardy. The diary opens on 28 November 1773 with the end of Mary Hardy’s lying-in after her daughter’s birth on 3 November. Mary Ann was a devoted daughter. She kept in close touch with her parents and brother even after moving 22 miles away on her marriage in 1805  [Cozens-Hardy Collection]

Forceful women

Mary Hardy introduces us to women as forceful as herself, conscious of their equal status not only in marriage but in the business environment. Her own property, inherited from her mother who made a manorial will while married, was cited as security for the loan which enabled William Hardy to venture into farming and brewing at Coltishall in 1772.

Her contribution to the joint endeavour that was her marriage is reflected in the name chosen for the wherry, the Norfolk sailing vessel, built by the Hardys in 1776: William and Mary.

Mary Hardy’s significance

She was far from being a bystander, a member of the scribbling classes who commented during their tours on the pursuits of those they observed. She provides us with firm evidence, for she writes as a practitioner—an active member of a working family. We learn what they all did.

Mary Hardy presents us with a panorama of work in the countryside and, to a lesser extent, the market town. She logs the activities not just of the family circle but of the workforce. The toll on the men—and the horses—was immense, requiring versatility and long hours.

A unique source

Some of Mary Hardy’s wide-ranging coverage is unique. Through her wherry log she is our sole source in the eighteenth century on the sailings and cargoes of a Norfolk wherry. She also tells us about the keels which plied the Broads and about which there is little documentary evidence.

Only through her can we track the energising effect on the laity of early Church of England Evangelicals in her rural area.

Mary Hardy is one of few women to record the early spread of Methodism among women in cottage meeting houses. As a keen sermon taster she introduced others to Methodism and Church of England Evangelicalism.

Her lasting physical legacy, apart from the massive ledgers forming her manuscript diary, was to enthuse her children to adopt Methodism. Both William Hardy junior and Mary Ann Cozens went on to establish purpose-built chapels.

There is more about her life and significance on the Diary pages, where she is also pictured aged 64, and under Our Readers.

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Pre-publication article

Rowan Mantell highlights some intriguing features of Mary Hardy’s record:  250-year-old diary