“A world of constant upheaval”

In his reflective book review Emeritus Professor Richard G. Wilson describes Mary Hardy’s world as one of constant upheaval. She offers an invaluable counterpoise to portrayals of 18th-century rural life as stable, constant and unchanging. It was the opposite. It was in flux.

Formerly Director of the Centre of East Anglian Studies at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Professor Wilson writes in the Parson Woodforde Society Quarterly Journal, vol. 46, no. 4 (Winter 2013), pages 21–6. His 5½-page review can only be summarised here.

Debt and uncertainty

A renowned business and brewery historian, 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.”

“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.”

You can read more from this review on the Diary website.

More about the diary of the Revd James Woodforde, who was writing at the same time and in the same county as Mary Hardy, can be found on the website of the Parson Woodforde Society.