Oct. 2020: Mary Hardy books are “a joy to hold, read and use”

A remarkable publishing project

A comprehensive and very favourable set of book reviews has appeared in The Local Historian for October 2020. After a general overview, each of the four volumes of Mary Hardy and her World is examined in turn by three specialist reviewers.

Their consensus is that the books are “a joy to hold, read and use”. The journal’s long-standing editor Dr Alan Crosby, a prolific writer on all aspects of local history, opens by emphasising the scale and ambition of the Mary Hardy project:

This review article considers one of the most remarkable and ambitious historical publishing projects of recent years.


The portraits on the spines of Mary Hardy and her World show William and Mary Hardy and their children William jnr and Mary Ann

The Local Historian is the quarterly journal of the British Association for Local History. After three years the journal is freely available online, but during the Coronavirus pandemic all its issues are accessible, including the current one, and can be downloaded without charge.

The six-page Mary Hardy review article appeared in volume 50, number 4, for October 2020, pp. 326–31. It can be viewed in full by clicking on the title Mary Hardy and her World in the Reviews list on the journal’s website.

The overall judgment: a quality product

In his general tribute to this “extraordinary and endlessly interesting resource” Alan Crosby revels in the design and physical appearance of the books (which are printed by the superb Gomer Press, of West Wales):

They have been designed and laid out by Margaret Bird, a herculean task in its own right and one accomplished with exceptional skill . . . The books have been produced with materials of outstanding quality—superior paper, excellent reproduction of images, and exemplary technical standards—and are a joy to hold, read and use.

Volume 1 review by Dr Alan Crosby

Like many Mary Hardy reviewers Alan Crosby is struck by the richness, breadth and depth of the analysis of “the many overlapping circles which provided the framework of her world”. Before going on to describe in detail the topics covered in this volume he, like the other reviewers, highlights the usefulness of the book’s “57-page masterpiece of an index”.

He finds the work thought-provoking on such matters as multi-generational family structures, the sense of belonging to an ancestral place, marital breakdown and the role and status of women working as a team with other family members:

Rarely can a family of the ‘middling sort’ have been subject to such careful, thought-provoking and wide-ranging investigation . . . One mark of a successful historical analysis is that it prompts thoughts about parallels and contrasts in the experiences of others, and this most certainly achieves that.

Alan Crosby finds the analysis of children’s experience of education engrossing. It fills a gap in the literature, as does the presentation of the evidence on the Hardys’ relations with their 90 maidservants. Similarly the account of “the active, interventionist role of landowners in reshaping the landscape and topography” prompts and stimulates this reviewer “to add ideas to my growing list of topics to research”.

The volume is also an enjoyable read. Dr Crosby ends:

I am full of admiration for what Margaret Bird has achieved with this unique—and uniquely ambitious—project of research, analysis and publication . . . And, by the way, the book is also extremely enjoyable!

Volume 2 review by Dr Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings, a social historian and author of a number of works on the drink industry in this period, opens by paying tribute to the Diary’s “four superb companion volumes”. These “draw upon a wealth of further primary sources and secondary literature to set her [Mary Hardy’s] life in the wider economic, social, cultural and political context of this critical period in Britain’s history”.

Dr Jennings too finds that the analysis of this world fills gaps in the literature: “It has much to say on aspects of the drink industry which have received less attention.” These include the building up of a portfolio of tied houses, and their management by the brewer.

Reconstructing this process is complex, requiring careful archival work, and the results are here painstakingly presented.

The same approach is applied to explaining the system of licensing, “in particular giving what might seem to some a rather dry subject its human face”.

Burnham Market, Hoste Arms 2

One of 101 public houses supplied by the Hardys. In 1800 they sent the innkeeper from this market town inn to the debtors’ gaol in Norwich Castle. This outlet at Burnham Market lay 17 miles from the brewery, requiring a long trip with the beer wagon. Mary Hardy shows us the human face of the drink industry.

Volume 3 review by Dr Alistair Beecher

The lecturer Alistair Beecher specialises in local history, modern religious and social history and the secularisation of society—all featured in this volume. He finds the book “brings the original manuscripts to life in a powerful way for both the specialist and the general reader”.

In his review he captures the excitement for parishioners of living in this period:

Pluralism abounds in every respect through the diaries. Rectors and vicars held various livings; curates served multiple parishes; preachers visited different meeting houses and parishioners and congregations flowed between them all . . . This was a religious world of itinerancy and mobility, of fierce competition between denominations and earnest searching for Christian truth.

Like Alan Crosby, the reviewer is struck by the analysis of the role of women—in this case in relation to Sunday schools and within the two Methodist denominations led by the Countess of Huntingdon and John Wesley.

Dr Beecher presents many of the arguments put forward in the volume on local society: on such matters as the effect of living in open parishes, as did the Hardys, where there was no single powerful landlord controlling the lives of tenants, and the operations of the judicial system on the ground.

Alistair Beecher considers that the “meticulously recorded and analysed” study dispels some myths:

The central argument is that rural life in a small village in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not necessarily one of received wisdom—simple, confined, restricted and narrow—at least for the ‘middling sort’ like the diarist.

The life led by Mary Hardy, her family and acquaintances in this part of north and east Norfolk was busy, rewarding, fluid and mobile. People had broad horizons with connections and interests all over the world: events in the far-flung corners of Empire affected them, both personally and commercially, and they read avidly about them in newspapers and discussed them in shops and public houses.

Volume 4 review by Dr Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings regards this final volume as “a major contribution to the literature on transport”, covering roads, rivers and the sea; it contains “fascinating details of Norfolk’s keels and wherries”. But it also probes more widely than this:

Similarly the section on leisure pursuits engages with the literature on the subject by showing, for example, the suppression of fairs and brutal pastimes within its general elaboration of the theme of control in eighteenth-century society.

It also makes clear the fundamental point that this was a society in which work rather than pleasure dominated lives.

At times this reviewer, like Alistair Beecher for Volume 3, feels overwhelmed by the weight of detail. “The detailed sidenotes, although invaluable to the specialist, might also add to that effect.”

Nevertheless, he concludes that these volumes “are essential source books for the economic, social, cultural and political history” of this period. Like Alan Crosby he finds them “superbly produced and beautifully illustrated, a pleasure to hold and to read”.

Read more articles

Margaret Bird

Margaret Bird in 2016

The editor and author of the Mary Hardy volumes

You can read about the historian Margaret Bird on the link above

See inside…