August 2017 Reviews


1. WOOD’S RADLEY COLLEGE DIARY (1855-1861) edited by Mark Spurrell  Show more → Show less ↓

(Oxfordshire Record Society vol.70 2016 lxi+327pp ISBN 978-0-9022500-83-2) £25

The purist might point out that the subject of this volume by the Oxfordshire Record Society was actually in Berkshire at the time of the diary but a great deal relates to events associated with Oxfordshire and Radley is  now very much part of the county. The editor is a former Radleian and clearly well-steeped in the history of the College, a boys’ boarding school founded in 1847. This volume is largely about two significant people, the Reverend William Sewell, founder and, at the time of the diary, warden; and William Wood, the author of the diary who was elected Sub-Warden in 1853. The editor did not have access to the original diary but to a transcript which, though detailed, is not complete, some facts having been suppressed by Wood’s daughter.

Many of today’s public schools went through turbulent times in their early years and Radley is no exception.  Much of the diary is about its debts and inadequate capital. Fellows (the teachers) were on low pay and there is plentiful evidence in the early days of rapid turnover. William Sewell was a man of contradictions—a saint and a rogue, a genius with flaws and a mix of triumph and tragedy. He clearly enjoyed his power, inspired affection despite his fear of being crossed, and could be extremely generous, but he was not a born leader. 

William Wood was a sub-warden under Sewell but in 1866, after the period covered in this volume, he became Radley’s fifth warden. The contrast with Sewell is very noticeable: the former was a conservative, Wood a liberal; the latter had the common sense that Sewell lacked, along with a much more focused approach. The introduction contains useful biographical details of the two men and their family background, and potted biographies of a string of others mentioned in the diary, including figures prominent in society such as the sons of the aristocracy and company directors. 

The first entry is for 27 July 1855. What makes the rest of the diary so fascinating is the personal account of a somewhat rarefied institution, an enclosed male world. It is replete with internal politics, snobbery and sensitivities. Much of it records constant visits to the warden to complain about something he had instituted or some unnecessary lavish expenditure. The relationship between Sewell and Wood makes this diary so fascinating.  It is difficult to see whether Sewell used deceit or was just naïve. His financial management was clearly appalling and his use of Radley for the benefit of his family was blatant. Yet he clearly had a great deal to deal with. His teachers became riled about what many would regard as trivia, sometimes leading to long formal letters or deputations. Teachers also fell out with each other, took sides and had mood swings. Arguments festered and dragged on for days. Hurt feelings are apparent on almost every page.  Disputes centred on matters such as school plays, too many holidays, or the number of guests staying.

There is much here on the nature of sermons and religious services, disappointment in examinations, indiscipline, prefects and frequent punishments. No discretion is used. Wood is most explicit about the nature and especially the failings of individuals, although he clearly felt warmth for some. Others are described as vulgar, and ‘Romans’ were clearly disliked. Rank clearly matters enormously. Meals, walks and travel (frequently by train) occupy much space. The wider world intrudes on occasions with general elections (Wood was no lover of Palmerston) and references to foreign policy (pride at success in the Crimea and India). Ill-health is a frequent topic, with many colds, accidents and a fair number of deaths and cases of serious illness. Medical treatments were extremely rudimentary.

It is perhaps surprising how little space is actually devoted to teaching, learning and the curriculum: there are very few clues as to what the boys were actually taught. But here are the internal workings of a school in its formative years and how its staff dealt with everyday difficulties. This is a fascinating read, well-supported with helpful footnotes and a bibliography. It is of obvious interest to educational historians but much more widely to those researching Victorian attitudes and values.

Tim Lomas is the current chair of the British Association for Local History. He was formerly an education inspector and adviser.

2. THE AMIABLE MRS PEACH by Celia Miller  Show more → Show less ↓

(Lasse Press 2016 xvi+214pp ISBN 9780993306907) £16

This tale of a family’s profligacy and inability to cope with the stresses they faced is skilfully narrated. The focus is on the engaging but extravagant Elizabeth (Betsy) Peach of Norwich (1748–1815), who separated from her second husband Edward Peach by civilised mutual agreement after three years of marriage. Most of the story revolves around her role as daughter, wife and mother and her desperate desire, shared by almost her entire family, to maintain a lifestyle and appearance of wealth which, despite incomes which would have proved extremely comfortable for more provident individuals, they could not support.

This work is of value to social historians interested in the class who aspired to be leisured yet would have had fewer anxieties had they emulated the worthy middling sort to whom in reality they belonged. Locked in a circle of pluralist clerics with country livings, Betsy Leathes, as she was for most of her married life, only just contrived to stay afloat. Her eldest son Edward endured bailiffs in his rectory. These were days when loans were raised from family members rather than from banks, and we witness bitter breaches over the failure to maintain repayments.

The spirited Elizabeth was born in Oxfordshire, where her clerical father James Reading was master of Woodstock Grammar School from 1743 to 1789. His only child had a good education at her Oxford boarding school. She wrote well and clearly, and she had a quick mind. Towards the end of her life she was more astute than many of her fellow Norwich residents and withdrew her capital from Kerrison’s Bank before it crashed. However her virtues tended to lack any anchoring. There was no Dutch model of rearing the young in this family, no close attention to bookkeeping, no instilling of order and method. The children were sent to boarding school, away from parental oversight, and a series of elopements and ill-suited love matches did not help.

There is much here for historians of family life. By her first husband, Edward Leathes, Betsy had six children, of whom four lived to maturity. With two she had to stop breast-feeding very early, yet these sturdy infants had no wet-nurses. Her son’s ensuing diet of bread and water from ten days, followed by pheasant with bread sauce, rabbit, mutton and dumplings at a few months, miraculously did not carry him off. During her years presiding chaotically over her husband’s Reedham parsonage we are left with no sense of an inner spiritual life, and the flighty Betsy felt no desire to serve actively in the parish. Instead the pair sped away seeking the social whirl. They give ammunition to those painting a gloomy picture of the Established Church before its remoulding by Evangelicals and Tractarians.

Betsy Peach’s family destroyed many of her papers, producing gaps. Dr Miller, who knows the Norfolk setting well, has pieced together an absorbing narrative from disparate elements scattered in record offices and private archives. The book has all the necessary underpinnings: endnotes, bibliography and a good index. The author’s style is a model of elegance and clarity, and the work is highly readable.

Margaret Bird is an honorary research fellow in the History department at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She brought out the full text of the eighteenth-century Norfolk diarist Mary Hardy in 2013 and is currently at work on four volumes of commentary.

3. CUMBRIA: an historical gazetteer edited by Angus J. L. Winchester Show more → Show less ↓

 (Regional Heritage Centre Lancaster University 2016 339pp ISBN 978 1 86220 330 3) paperback £9.99 +£1 postage; pdf version £7.99; book and pdf £14.99, all from The Regional Heritage Centre, Lancaster University

This new gazetteer published as part of the ongoing Victoria County History project includes every town, village and hamlet in the post-1974 county of Cumbria—a total of 348 communities, or civil parishes as they were in about 1890, in Lancashire ‘north of the sands’, part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the whole of Cumberland and Westmorland. The seven pages of maps show wards and parishes.

The editor, Angus Winchester had the daunting task of making the texts supplied by numerous contributors into  a coherent and more uniform style for publication, even though these had been written using guidelines setting out a ‘standard set of headings’ from which to ‘present a standardised  body of  information’. The 348 communities are presented in alphabetical order with the addition of a county reference where there are duplicate names (for example, there was a Bolton in both Cumberland and Westmorland. Entries include information relating to acreage, population history, land ownership, the local economy, places of worship, schools and other institutions such as libraries and reading rooms.  Inevitably, those for towns such as Barrow in Furness, Kendal or Carlisle are longer and give much more extensive details of their economic and industrial history, but the standard criteria are followed. The final pages summarise the guidelines and give examples of sources consulted. The editor acknowledges the work of the many volunteers and others who contributed to the publication of the gazetteer. Some 87 individuals and members of three local history groups gathered information from publicly available sources, such as trade directories, Ordnance Survey maps, census returns, enclosure acts, published secondary sources and the internet.

This is a fascinating book in which to browse, looking up places known or less familiar, or to use as a companion on a visit to the county. Although it does not claim to be comprehensive and the editor acknowledges that there may be omissions and some errors the reader can easily gain an overview of the history and development of communities throughout the county. Its publication in pdf format as well as in paper provides the opportunity for searching particular subjects on the computer. Further research is to be carried out into unpublished primary sources to ‘amplify but also to amend these entries’ before the long awaited Victoria County History volumes for Cumbria are finally published. This project remains ‘a long term venture stretching over many decades’ but in the meantime thanks are due to those who contributed and to Professor Winchester and his colleagues in the Regional Heritage Centre at Lancaster University. Much enjoyment and can be derived and hitherto unknown information gained from reading the entries in this welcome volume.

Margaret Shepherd is an emeritus fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. She is the author of From Hellgill to Bridge End: aspects of economic and social change in the Upper Eden Valley, 1840-95 (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2003) and Across the Oceans: emigration from Cumberland and Westmorland before 1914 (Bookcase, 2011).