‘Purity and Danger’: the newly-discovered Diaries of William Telfer, 1912-1914

In this week’s second MBS blog, Archivist Dr Helen Fisher shares more fantastic material from the University’s Cadbury Research Library. Helen can be found on twitter at @HelenxFisher.

Helen Fisher

Helen Fisher

A recently discovered collection held at the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections has turned out to be an exciting find, with great potential for research into the social and cultural life of a Manchester clerk in period immediately leading up to the First World War.

Purchased from a rare book and manuscript dealer in 2005, the collection consists of four diaries and a scrapbook kept by William Prince Telfer, born in 1893, and living at Grafton Street, Rusholme, with his parents and younger brothers. The diaries cover the period January 1913 to September 1914, and there are detailed entries for each day. The scrapbook contains press cuttings dating from 1915 and 1916. Telfer worked as a clerk at Berisfords wholesale grocers, in Manchester, and spent much of his free time involved in activities run by the 6th Manchester Scout troop. He was a member of the Old Scouts Association and editor of the troop’s monthly magazine, writing detailed diary entries about his involvement with his Scout troop and friendships with other group members.


Reading was Telfer’s other major leisure interest. The diaries are full of references to books he read, which were either borrowed from local libraries or purchased. He was particularly interested in contemporary fiction, but also read plays, poetry, and biographies, as well as some books on history, and art. Entries are interspersed with press cuttings, often consisting of book, theatre and art exhibition reviews – Telfer watched plays as well as reading published scripts – as well as Scouting, women’s suffrage, and issues connected with the social purity movement. From August 1914, there are also articles about the early stages of the First World War in France and Belgium.

Telfer was clearly influenced by his reading, and often expressed his thoughts about the books he read. His diaries also contain evidence of his thoughts about religion, morality, and politics, and his concerns about whether to volunteer for service in the First World War. He had a keen interest in journalism, and wanted to become a writer, occasionally mentioning his frustrations about his job as a clerk, and about living at home with his parents.

The diaries are rich in detail about Telfer’s shifting friendships with others in his Scout troop, and also with work colleagues, often seen in the context of his concerns about ‘purity’. He seems to have seen himself as a mentor to younger friends and work colleagues, and many entries contain observations about their moral and sexual attitudes and behaviour which he saw as dangerous. This was often centred on conversation about masturbation and sexual activity, though he also reports incidents involving sexual contact. Though Telfer apparently disapproves, he was also clearly intrigued by this behaviour, and other evidence in the diaries suggests that he was interested in, and perhaps attracted to, men.

The diaries are now catalogued online with full description of their content and a brief biography of William Telfer http://calmview.bham.ac.uk (Finding Number MS202)


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