Thursday 4 August 2022

A Farmer's Life: The Diary of James Higginson aged 57½ (part 1)

In 1817 you could buy a small notebook from Mr Poole of Chester for 1s/6d.  James Higginson bought one and wrote in it every day, except Sunday, from Monday 13th October 1817 until Saturday 16th January 1819.  There were most likely other notebooks before and after this one, but this little diary is all that’s left 200 years later.

James farmed land in the village of Barrow, a few miles outside Chester, and he used the notebook as a daily record of the work of the farm; the weather; weekly trips to buy and sell goods at market; snippets of local and family news; and occasional mentions of national events.  From his writings we know that it was a mixed farm with pigs, dairy cattle that produced milk for the cheese and butter his wife Mary sold at market, and some chickens.  James grew wheat and potatoes, turnips (probably for the cattle) and planted peas in his garden.

Even though writing space was limited, James didn’t just record the daily grind.  There is often a note in the margin or maybe a line given over to local events, leisure time, or words of wisdom for his future self, such as this from 3rd March 1818 when he got drunk with friends and lost a wager: ‘James go no more to Ale houses – mind’.  But like most people who have a few too many and regret it the next day, he didn’t heed his own advice!  He very honestly notes every now and then spending the evening (or the day) at the alehouse, and advice in November to ‘Drink no more wiskey’ is followed a week later with ‘got Drunk a gain. No Better nie Before.’

There were notes of things he bought – flower seeds, waistcoats and britches for himself or his sons, 2 handkerchiefs for 4 shillings and sixpence, an ‘umberbelow’ (umbrella), and a watch for his eldest son Charles.  On one occasion someone came to the house to make Mary ‘a pare of Stayes’ - who knows what Mary thought about such information being recorded for posterity!

In early December 1817 he wrote a derogatory comment on the marriage of an older acquaintance: ‘Old Mr Rite of Norley Marry’d this Week wich I thought too old for much Execution’.  In September 1818 he was very pleased to have sold his pigs for a good price, then wrote a note to remind himself ‘Never sell all your pigs a Gain – but kill one’ because he then had to buy another pig at market to feed his family!

James notes various deaths amongst his acquaintance including a Christmas day burial, and in February 1818 he sadly lost both his brother, John, and sister, Betty, within 3 weeks of each other.  Two deaths of national importance also make it into his diary, those of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince of Wales, and Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.  Princess Charlotte died after giving birth to a stillborn son and the mourning was national and profound with shops closing for 2 weeks and drapers running out of black cloth.  When she was buried on 19th November 1817 James wrote: ‘Princess Charlottey Interede at Winsor a very Deplorable day’.  A year later the death and burial of the Queen was also recorded: ‘our gracious Queen departed’ but though a notable and sad occasion, it seems to have affected him less.

He closes the notebook with record of wages paid to his farm workers and servants; a list of meat bought; bills paid to maintain his farm carts; money received from dividends and cash paid out; and a list of cows calved with some of their names – Plum, Dunham, Primrose, Little Weaver, Tydey, Nutt, Lilley, Bett, Weston and Cherry.  With every last page filled, our peek into the life of James Higginson ends and it’s time for a new notebook.

Coming soon - in part 2 of A Farmer's Life: Diary of James Higginson Aged 57½, we learn more about James, his wife Mary and some significant events of the time. 

All of these items and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester.

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