By Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist
Purchased for the record office in 2008, the diary of John Donald Warren covers 27 September 1869 to 3 June 1871. It’s a fantastic little diary which required some digging from staff in order to discover a bit more about its owner.
Warren wrote the diary leading up to his 21st birthday, during which he was living in Midhurst. Born on St. George’s Day 1850 and baptised in Hampshire on the 21st of May that same year, Warren came from an interesting and somewhat elusive family.
His father, Henry Warren, a Lieutenant and Commander in the Royal Navy, was deceased by the time of the 1871 census. It may have been with his passing that the family moved to Midhurst. John Donald’s mother, Sarah, was a Nova Scotian, being born in Halifax in the 1820s. She was herself born into an armed forces family, as her father was a Captain in the King’s Royal Rifles. Sarah noted in her census entries that she was living off her own means, which most likely meant she received her husband’s pension. It must have been generous, as it allowed the family to maintain two servants, and potentially travel between Canada and Midhurst. Finding the family in census returns was certainly a challenge!
It seems John preferred to be known by his middle name as several of his census entries have him listed only as Donald. John never mentions his full name in the diary which meant we had to do some detective work to discover his identity.
The diary itself is around 200 pages long and provides a fascinating insight for middle class life in Sussex during the nineteenth century. Warren talks of his boating trips, tea parties, croquet games and trips to London. He also discusses local events in the area, notably the opening of a Catholic Church by the Duke of Norfolk. He also expressed a desire to start up a debating society in Midhurst. How successful he was in that venture is not known.
The diary stands out amongst others due to Warren’s habit of switching to Latin, Spanish or (what appears to be) an early form of shorthand for some of his more contentious topics. Interestingly, he neglects writing about his birthdays all together, and many of his days out with friends or acquaintances are kept deliberately difficult to decipher. If anyone has the skills to read early shorthand – this may be an interesting project to work on!
Interestingly, several pages also feature a red mark at the top of the page. According to notes on the fly leaf, these pages were intended to be destroyed. For whatever reason, this action was not carried out and the diary is intact.
By June 1871, Warren and his mother were preparing to travel, seemingly to Weybridge, and he draws his journal to a close.
Warren never married, dying in June 1908 at the age of 58. By then he had no given occupation, though had been a commercial clerk several years prior, and was living in Bognor. He died with over £11,000 to his name; his executor, Henry Briggs Warren, a retired naval commander, was likely a cousin or similar. He is buried at Lodsworth.
This diary remains a great source for evidencing what society was like in the 1870s in Sussex. Honest and secretive in parts, it took some real digging to find out more about this man and his family. However, much is still unknown, which is, after all, what Warren intended!