Parson Woodforde: Country Diarist

James Woodforde by his nephew Samuel Woodforde. James Woodforde (1740–1803) was an English clergyman who was nearly an exact contemporary of Jane Austen's father, George Austen (1731–1805). Best known as the author of The Diary of a Country Parson, his personal recollections of life as clergyman in the Georgian countryside give a valuable glimpse into what the Austen household might have been like. James Woodforde was born at the Parsonage, Ansford, Somerset, England on 27 June 1740. In adulthood he led an uneventful, unambitious life as a clergyman of the Church of England: a life unremarkable but for one thing — for nearly 45 years he kept a diary recording an existence the very ordinariness of which provides a unique insight into the everyday routines and concerns of 18th century rural England. The sixth child of the Reverend Samuel Woodforde, rector of Ansford and vicar of Castle Cary, and his wife Jane Collins, James was one of four brothers (one of whom died in infancy) and the only one to attend public school — Winchester College, and university — Oxford. He was admitted to Winchester as a scholar in 1752 and enrolled at Oriel College, Oxford in 1758, migrating to New College in the following year. His diary begins with the entry for 21 May 1759: "Made a Scholar of New College". Woodforde was ordained and graduated BA in 1763, became MA in 1767 and BD in 1775. He appears to have been a competent but uninspired student and the portrait he provides of Oxford during his two periods of residence as scholar and fellow (from 1758–1763 and from 1773–1776) only confirm Edward Gibbon's famously damning opinion that it was a place where the dons' "dull and deep potations excuse the brisk intemperance of youth". The diary is a rich source of information on university life in eighteenth-century Oxford. Upon leaving the university in 1763, Woodforde returned to Somerset where he worked as a curate, mostly for his father, for ten years. From October 1763 to January 1764 he was the curate at Thurloxton. This period of his life, under-represented in Beresford's abridged edition of the Diary, is thickly peopled with memorable characters from all strata of society, many of them immortalised with nicknames — Peter 'Cherry Ripe' Coles, 'Mumper' Clarke, 'Riddle' Tucker. The extended Woodforde family, including James's frequently drunken brothers, figure prominently in these Somerset years.
All Saints' Church, Weston Longville in 2001.
On his father's death in 1771, James failed to succeed to his parishes and, likewise, failed to win, or rather retain, the heart of Betsy White — "a mere Jilt". He returned to Oxford where he became sub-warden of his college and a pro-proctor of the university. He was unsuccessful in his application to become headmaster of Bedford School, but in 1773, he was presented to the living of Weston Longville in Norfolk, one of the best in the gift of the college being worth £400 a year. He took up residence at Weston in May 1776. Despite the wrench of leaving family and friends, he quickly settled down to a comfortable bachelor existence. He thought Norwich "the fairest City in England by far" and always enjoyed a trip to the "sweet beach" at Yarmouth. He was soon joined by his niece Nancy who, as housekeeper and companion, was with him until he died. In Norfolk, his social life was more limited, but he enjoyed the fellowship of the local clergy who took it in turns to entertain one another to dinner — "our Rotation Club". Because he always recorded what was provided for dinner, which very occasionally was an elaborate banquet, he is often wrongly characterised as a glutton. Among the gentry in the eighteenth century, it was a matter of pride to provide a variety of dishes. Because Woodforde recorded them all, does not mean that he ate from them all. Allegedly advised to do so by his father, Woodforde also provides a meticulous record of his accounts. The daily entries are also accompanied by weather notes. The diary also provides a wonderfully full account of the small community in which the diarist lived — of the births and deaths, comings and goings, illnesses and annual celebrations. The diary not only covers 'the Squire and his Relations', but also the rector's servants, the farmers and labourers, carpenter and innkeeper, parish-clerk and many others. As a churchman, Woodforde himself was conscientious by the standards of his time, charitable and pious without being sanctimonious and again typical of his day, deeply suspicious of enthusiasm. The value of the diary to the historian lies in the wealth of primary source material it provides, while the general reader can bring from it the authentic flavour of 18th-century English country life. A display about his life and writings is available in the Castle Cary and District Museum in Somerset. The five-volume edition of the diary has one flaw: it is only a selection, and, unaware of how popular it would prove — with Virginia Woolf, Max Beerbohm and Siegfried Sassoon among many thousands more — Beresford selected his first volume from nearly half of the entire Diary. The subsequent volumes, each covering between four and six years, are more complete. A definitive edition has been published by the Parson Woodforde Society . The MS Diary, consisting of 72 notebooks and 100 loose sheets, is deposited in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Whilst Woodforde's sermon style has been characterised by the leading authority as "formal, competent, thorough and scholarly with a wide vocabulary", his diary-writing style is simple, straightforward, informal and even homely. The following extracts give something of their flavour:
11 Jan. 1763 - Went on the River again this Morning a skating, and I have improved in the out Stroke a good deal, I was on the Ice from 12 this Morning , 'till 5 this Afternoon; and I gave a Fellow for putting on my Skates , and sometimes altering then - 0 : 0 : 2. 13 Nov. 1769 - We had News this Morning of Mr Wilkes gaining his Point against Lord Halifax and 400 Pounds Damages given him. Cary & Ansford Bells rung most part of the Day on the Occasion. 14 April 1775 - We breakfasted, dined, suppd & slept at Norwich. We took a Walk over the city in the morning & we both agreed it was the fairest City in England by far. 1 Jan. 1778 - This morning very early about 1. o'clock a most dreadful Storm of Wind with Hail & Snow happened here and the Wind did not quite abait till the Evening. - A little before 2. o'clock I got up, my bedstead rocking under me, and never in my Life that I know of , did I remember the Wind so high or of so long continuance — I expected every Moment that some Part or other of my House must have been blown down, but blessed be God the whole stood, only a few Tiles displaced...My Chancel received great Damage as did my Barn — the Leads from my Chancel were almost all blown up with some Parts of the Roof — the North West Window blown in & smashed all to pieces. 25 Dec. 1786 - It being Christmas Day, I had the following old men dine at my House on roast beef & plumb Pudding and after Dinner half a Pint of strong ale and a shilling to each to cary home to their Wives — Richd Buck, Thos Cushing, Thos Cary, Thos Carr, Nathaniel Heavers, John Buckman, and my Clerk Js Smith. 25 Jan. 1795 - We breakfasted, dined &c. again at home. The frost this Morning more severe than Yesterday. It froze the Chamber Pots above Stairs.
The Revd James Woodforde was one of several Woodforde diarists. His niece Nancy, and his nephew Bill's three daughters all kept diaries, as did a number of his predecessors. Others were painters, including his nephew Samuel Woodforde RA. Hence, a remarkably detailed account of his family exists, and is now documented online.

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