Writing for the record: nineteenth-century diarists
Journaling has a long history that dates back to at least the sixteenth century, and journals and diaries that survive to modern times can be invaluable tools for researchers looking to understand attitudes towards and experiences of the events they study. In some cases, diaries can even form the basis of historical study, especially for social and cultural historians. The history of journaling itself provides an interesting insight into the ways people have thought about their relationship with their communities and their history throughout the centuries.
The journals that survive from before the Renaissance in Britain were meant to serve as public journals, and historians believe this was the main form that personal record-keeping took before the Renaissance, when people began keeping travel journals and spiritual journals. Such journals were often kept in churches and other public areas, where they would have been accessible to any literate members of the community. Private journals arose from the same spirit as travel journals and spiritual journals, but unlike those earlier forms, private journals were not meant to be shared. Diary-keeping flourished in the nineteenth century, when it became a common practice across gender and class divides.
Even private journals could be written with the public in mind, however. Some people, particularly historians and antiquarians, wrote diaries that combined private recollections with accounts of public happenings, often with the view that sometime in the future, their journals would be published. William Wire (1804–57) was one such figure. Wire was the foremost scholar of the history of Colchester, Essex, in the 1840s and 1850s, and in his antiquarian studies, he used written accounts by many previous scholars of the area to shape his own work. Wire’s journal-keeping represents an awareness of the potential for public consumption of his words, and that makes it a particularly interesting source for historians.
From a physical standpoint, Wire’s journal is an interesting specimen. His main journal is a neatly copied bound volume collecting his observations from the years 1842 to 1857. That volume, which is likely the journal that Wire would have sought to publish, was not the original, however. His papers in the Essex Record Office also contain the original diary papers, originally written on loose sheets of thin, cheap paper in a much messier scrawl than the final version, which seems to have been copied out several years into the journal-keeping project. Wire was a member of the lower middle class and experienced a good deal of financial hardship throughout his adult life, which contributed to the quality of writing materials he would have been able to afford.
As an illustrative example, Wire spent over a month in 1851 attempting to purchase a ‘blank book of any size under small folio that will do to write in’ from one of his regular correspondents, Edward Acton, but in the end, when Acton offered Wire a book at 31 shillings 6 pence, Wire declined to purchase the book, writing that it was ‘too high in price for me’. Wire had several bound books in which he recorded archaeological findings, but none of them were as good a quality as the book in which he copied out his journal from the original loose sheets.
Although Wire ostensibly intended to publish his journal, he documented not only public events in Colchester, but intensely personal happenings as well. He titled his recollections ‘Journal of events transpiring in the borough of Colchester kept by William Wire’, but he did not hesitate to include events such as the death of his daughter in February 1847, writing ‘My baby died this afternoon about five minutes to three … it had been ailing from the time of its birth’.
Such personal matters were often not the focus of his attention, however. Instead, Wire tried to keep his focus on happenings around Colchester, providing historians with valuable insight into attitudes of his era. It is a common conception that nineteenth-century antiquarians and archaeologists focused on the past because they were disenchanted with industrialisation, but Wire’s writings prove that was not always the case. Wire wrote of being impressed by the technological advances that made the railways possible, and he saw the construction works as an opportunity to enhance his understanding of Colchester’s archaeology, for the laying of the railway lines unearthed many artefacts around the city, which had been an important Roman fortress. In addition to archaeological finds, Wire also documented local happenings such as deaths, fires, charity relating to the local churches, and local customs such as the Bellman (‘an office quite distinct from the Town cryer’).
Although Wire’s writings are valuable to historians now, the reasons he was never able to publish his journal or other scholarly writings during his lifetime are hinted at within his records of Colchester life. Wire was the only liberal among the conservatively-minded antiquarians that dominated Colchester’s archaeological society, and Wire was routinely dismissed from society meetings and snubbed by society members, in spite of all his efforts to involve himself in local antiquarian matters. In his journal, Wire hinted that he believed his difficulties with other antiquarians stemmed entirely from his politics, but with such assertions, historians are confronted with the limits of journals as sources. It is unclear how other members of the archaeological society actually felt about Wire, and their reasons for dismissing him were in all likelihood more complex than a liberal/conservative political divide. Wire sought to make a living from his antiquarian pursuits, a notion that would have been foreign to many members of the archaeological society, who saw antiquarianism as a gentlemanly, amateur pursuit that should not be debased by monetary exchange. Wire did not record any such ideas in his journal, and so historians are left with a very one-sided view of Colchester in Wire’s account.
Journals are a valuable source of context for many historians of the nineteenth century, when such record-keeping was common and people from across the social strata participated. The journals of such writers as William Wire provide a particularly interesting case study, however. Diaries were normally written for an ‘imagined other’; an audience the author could envision but who rarely actually had access to journal entries. Wire, on the other hand, kept his records knowing that he intended to have them published, and although he was never able to accomplish this, such intentions colour the entries that he wrote.
The physicality of his journal and the dichotomy between the cheap drafts and the neat ‘final’ version is similarly interesting for historians and provides context to Wire’s writings. Journals such as Wire’s enrich historians’ understanding of the events that took place and the milieu that surrounded them in the nineteenth century, and can be just as valuable as the records that document official history.