“Giving us a unique experience of the past”

The first book review to cover comprehensively all four volumes of Mary Hardy and her World was published in the Journal of the Aylsham Local History Society, volume 11, no. 9, for August 2020, pages 285–8. The wide-ranging review is by Maggie Vaughan-Lewis, the former Surrey County Archivist.

“A tour-de-force”; “unique”

The reviewer opens by referring to her review of the Diary volumes which appeared in the same journal in 2013. Herself a prolific Norfolk historian, Maggie Vaughan-Lewis goes on to highlight the range of the Mary Hardy commentary: “The final volumes are a tour-de-force, each having at least 700 pages of in-depth analysis with detailed side-notes and references.”

“Any one of the four would be a proud achievement by any historian,” she observes before continuing:

“The production of four, each complete in itself but showing the interconnectivity of all the themes, is not only unique but refreshingly at variance with the modern single-issue approach taken by many academics.

If I struggled against using too many superlatives before, now there is no way out.”

How the roads were used—and associated social changes

To guide her reader, the reviewer gives instances of Margaret Bird’s approach to her interconnected themes:

“The sheer scale of her work is extraordinary. Where a standard history might take a few lines to discuss turnpike roads and coaching inns, Margaret’s chapter on roads (in Volume 4) covers over 50 sides and is packed with examples of how the roads were used . . .

The side-notes carry lovely illustrations and details of coach fares, speeds, accidents and weather conditions. The main text also gives the legislative background to every aspect of transport.

But alongside is a fascinating observation on the social changes taking place (when do you use your new carriage complete with coachman? how did women travel?)”

The same volume covers the sea and shipping and “brings the busy working shore to life, with shipwrecks, press gangs, the perils of transporting beer by sea and the longer-term effects of the weather on the ports themselves”.

“Be warned!”

Margaret Bird’s style is described in the review as “very accessible”, each chapter being “a masterclass in writing”.

But there is a warning for readers of the new study: “Be warned! The ‘quick check’ for a reference will almost always lead the reader to turn the next page and the next.”

This reviewer was very taken by the chapter on maidservant turnover in Volume 1. She refers to the Hardys’ logging of 90 maids in one household over 48 years, almost all at Letheringsett Hall (pictured at the top of this page).

“Margaret was able to dissect the diary entries, separating the underlying themes, to illustrate areas of social history in far greater depth than is usual.”

“Hard work, long hours were wired into the Hardys”

The reviewer outlines the content of Volume 2, which covers every part of the Hardys’ diversified business. The family controlled every aspect of the industry themselves and closely managed all the processes.

“Hard work, long hours were wired into the Hardys and their workers; over twice as many hours were worked in a week compared to today.”

“The throng of characters” for family historians

The review concludes with a recommendation of the volumes as aids for family historians, the hundreds of local names being “indexed in great detail”. And it ends on this lively, evocative note:

“This really is a lifetime achievement, . . . giving us a unique experience of the past, through the world of Mary Hardy; we travel with, and are almost jostled by, the throng of characters in alehouses, ports, towns and breweries. The smell of malt lingers in the pages.”

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Pre-publication article

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