A Journey into the Past: Exploring Historic Diaries

By Jenny Mason, Senior Archivist

Last week we asked if you might consider keeping a diary of your experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and how it is affecting you – recording your experiences, thoughts and feelings. We thought this would be an appropriate time to share some of the hundreds of diaries we hold at the Record Office which provide a fascinating insight into the inner lives of people of the past.

For many people diaries are a way of keeping a record of their daily lives and for the historian (and archivist) these are some of the most fascinating documents. Whilst ordinary life might not always seem very exciting, to a researcher diaries recording people’s day to day lives provide a widow to the past and make them powerful and important documents.

Diary of Ralph Ellis, June-September 1915 (Add Mss 25003)

People often choose to keep diaries at times of crisis and WSRO has a number of examples, including diaries from the First and Second World Wars, which record people’s experiences of conflict in moving detail.

Ralph Ellis, an artist from Arundel, kept an illustrated diary whilst he was serving in the trenches in the First World War. The five volumes that Ellis wrote provide a powerful and compelling account of what life was like for an ordinary soldier in the frontline. In them he includes sketches of his comrades, local landmarks, and sometimes of ordinary life continuing as war raged. His accompanying text records in stark detail the reality of life in the trenches.

Chichester resident, William Burch, kept a diary which covers the whole of the Second World War, starting just days before the outbreak of war and finishing with the announcement of VE Day. Burch writes about life on the Home Front, and particularly rationing: ‘We get ONE egg per month, per person. We aren’t grumbling – much’. He also records more traumatic events, such as the April 1943 air raid on Chichester. Of this he writes ‘…it was HELL…the din was awful…I was told that Teddy was not at all frightened, I willingly confess I was!’.

Diary compiled by girls from the Worthing High School for Girls as an account of their evacuation to New Ollerton, March-July 1941 (E/218/19/64)

Whilst we usually think of diaries as something private, kept only by one person, they can also be collective endeavours, such as this one which was kept by pupils from Worthing High School for Girls when they were evacuated to New Ollerton, Nottinghamshire. The pupils wrote poems and songs, drew illustrations, and wrote accounts of their experiences, including a night in an air raid shelter.

More usually diaries are kept as way of recording ordinary life, for the writer to put down their thoughts and feelings about their experiences, perhaps with the intention of looking back on them in later years.

Diary of George Dixon Elmer of Petworth, 1846 (AM 1277/1)

A wonderful example are the diaries kept by George Dixon Elmer, a drapers assistant living in Petworth. We have two of his diaries, dating from 1846 and 1847 in which he shares thoughts and concerns which will be familiar to people today. In these entries he records his visits to the library – it becomes clear this is a pretext to allow him to see the woman he has fallen in love with.

Diaries of Sophia Trower (nee Baker), 1793-1857 (Add Mss 7462-7514)

Whilst often we only have one or two volumes from a diarist which offer a brief snapshot of their lives, some people kept diaries spanning decades. Sophia Trower (nee Baker) seems to have started to keep a diary from age 10 after receiving one from her mother as a gift. She continued to keep a diary until 1857, shortly before her death. There are 53 volumes in total – one for nearly every year of her life from the age of 10. In them Sophia records evenings out to dine, trips to London, books she read, and marriages, births and deaths among her acquaintances. They offer an interesting insight into the life of an upper middle class woman in the late 18th and early 19th century.

We’ve only been able to feature a tiny proportion of the diaries that we hold but there are many, many more at WSRO, spanning over 300 years and written by people from a range of very different backgrounds. From agricultural diaries to travel journals, we have them all! Please take a look at our online catalogue to find other examples and visit the Record Office to see them when we reopen.

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