Anthony Trollope wrote a fine novel with this title, but the book I am devoting this post to was written a hundred years earlier. It is The Diary of a Village Shopkeeper, and was written by Thomas Turner over the period 1754 to 1765, when he was in his late twenties and early thirties. It is a fascinating account of what it was to be alive then, as an educated, upwardly mobile man who was ‘in trade’. It is not an especially reflective or analytical book — it simply sets down what he did, and that’s what makes it so fascinating to me, because of what is the same today, and what is very different.
Tom Turner (we never hear whether anyone addressed him in that short form) had a shop in East Hoathly, Sussex, a village that is still there today. It’s about 11 km from Lewes in Sussex, and in rich agricultural countryside. In his day East Hoathly had 60 or so houses and perhaps 350 people (the first census was 1811), and Tom owned the general store (he mentions no competitor). It really did sell pretty well everything, from hats and cloth to foodstuffs, nails, tobacco, brandy, hops, wool. You can find stores like this still, in isolated settlements in rural Australia.He traded in materials as well as sold them. He was able to design and write forms and petitions, wills and the like, and complained about his neighbours’ expecting him to do all this for nothing — not even paying for the paper, which would have been expensive at the time.
He ran the village school for a while, acted as the undertaker, was a conscientious churchwarden, occasionally the collector of taxes, an insurance broker (he helped to secure the insurance of a house for a woman in the village, the company being Sun Insurance!), a surveyor, and a kind of gopher for the village community — the sensible man you ask to go and find out about something. He was married, with a wife who was commonly ill and plainly vexed with her situation and presumably with him for not being able to do much about it. She died while still in her twenties. he also lost an infant son.
What is there is in all of this that is like our life now? Well, people came to visit, ‘to drink tea’ with the Turners, and play cards, and gamble (though the stakes were in pennies). There was a postman, who took your letters as well as giving you mail, and did errands for you (this is almost a hundred years before the introduction of the penny post); you paid him an agreed amount. There was a carrier, on whom Turner relied for his shop. Social interaction was important, and not at all confined to the men, though the ‘business’ of the village was conducted by the men who composed the ‘vestry’ — the parish office.
He was always worried about his business, and the failure both of people to buy as much as he would like, and to pay the money they owed him. He drank too much too often, and suffered for it both in terms of hangovers and of remorse. He loved books and reading, and listened intently to the sermons in church, which he attended regularly though not invariably. Cricket and horse-racing appear again and again as major events for the village.
And what is so different? Most strikingly, the difficulty of moving about. His family lived in another village, Framfield, about five kilometres away, and there was another one, Chiddingley, equally distant in the opposite direction. Until he bought a horse, halfway through the period, he walked there and back. He walked just about everywhere, even to Lewes, the nearest big town, and then back the same day to transact business — that’s about 22 kilometres. When he had a horse it was easier, but then the horse had to be stabled and fed whenever he went any distance. You didn’t do this in winter or when there was no moon. Turner came off his horse more than once, without serious injury.
Death was frequent and unexpected, though Mrs Turner’s demise was forecast for a long time. Children died again and again throughout his pages. A labourer was found dead in the field after one frosty night. There was not a mark on him, and it was assumed he had lain down after drinking too much, and then froze to death. Turner tells us a lot about the weather, and he noticed how wet it was and how cold. He tells us a lot about what he ate, too, which was based around meat and fish. What you didn’t finish eating on Monday you would go on eating on Tuesday and Wednesday.
There was a lot of impregnating of women who were not married, whereupon Turner and his vestry mates would try to get them ‘to swear on the father’ — that is, to get the girl to say who had done the deed. If the vestry knew, they would, failing marriage, bind him over on a bond to pay for the upkeep of the child. Sometimes fathers skipped, and the family then depended on the parish. If you came from outside the parish, and were not in gainful employment, you would be sent on your way, back to your own parish.
Charity was important, and there was a lot of collecting of small sums to help good causes. What social welfare there was came that way. Otherwise, family was crucially important. If you had visitors, and they stayed too long for cards, you might have to put them up for the night. East Hoathly doesn’t seem to have run to a pub, though there a few are mentioned in other places, like The White Hart in Lewes. News could come long after the event, and more often by word of mouth and proclamations than by a newspaper.
How much the same, how different — it is so easy to see both. But there is no way that I would prefer to have been alive in East Hoathly then, even were I to be the Duke of Newcastle, whose great house at Halland was only a couple of kilometres away from Tom Turner in East Hoathly.