Diary of an Unidentified Woman 1853


Olivia Perry

Last week we set students on our MA in Modern British Studies the following task: Using some of the fantastic diaries in the Cadbury Research Library, write 500 words about a nineteenth or twentieth century diary. Before this we encouraged students to immerse themselves in the work of Carolyn Steedman to reflect on the relationship between lives and stories, on subjectivity and self-fashioning, and how to read material not just for its content – as a source of knowledge about the past – but as a way of understanding the relationship between lives and stories, and the ways in which individuals made sense of the world and the place in it.

Over the next few days we have decided to share their findings. Kicking us yesterday was  Jacob Fredrickson on the Diary of William Prince Telfer. This blog comes from Olivia Perry. who writes on the diary of an unidentified woman from 1853. You can follow Olivia on Twitter if you like @livvyanarchy.  Click on our ‘Study with Us’ page for more information on the MA.

1853. A ‘Henry Penny’s’ improved patent metallic pocket-book diary is sold to an unknown person for 3s, 6d. A celebration, a new year is brought in with a bottle of champagne. The identity of this person is not known, but their activities in 1853 are documented daily. The description of the diary indicates that it was written by a woman, however, their name and gender are never told. They are believed to be a woman due to the types of activity they are involved with on a day to day basis.

The weather is a common feature varying on a scale of ‘very wet day’ to ‘beautiful day’. This could indicate the weather patterns throughout 1853 in an area of Kent near Margate. This scale may, however, not just document the particularities of the British weather, but instead is a pathetic fallacy, illustrating feelings felt towards ‘HPC’.

‘HPC’ is documented most days, including details of when he eats, where he is going and what times he comes and goes. HPC’s temperament is also highlighted throughout, his unpredictable and sometimes violent behaviour is unnerving. This behaviour may only be indicated in my interpretation of the diary, however, the writer refers to HPC as ‘shaking and moving to and fro’ and having an ‘off day’. The writer also describes HPC to ‘scold the children’ on multiple occasions. Two phrases struck me when reading the dairy entries; ‘he is a vile human’ and ‘harsh hands’. These phrases were not used in the same sentence; however, I think the diary does build up a certain picture of the way the writer understands HPC and the relationship between them.

Perhaps this diary was written by a woman who was scared of her husband and his violence towards her. The use of the word vile truly indicates the writer’s hatred for HPC, whilst harsh hands can be open to interpretation. Harsh hands could be used to describe the aesthetic nature of HPC’s hands, however, this is unlikely to be the case due to my perception of these individuals being reasonably wealthy. Harsh hands, therefore, could simply indicate the writer’s feelings towards HPC’s hands and perhaps indicates that he was, in fact hitting them. Certain domestic violence was culturally acceptable in 1853, as long as ‘the stick was thinner than a thumb’ is a common phrase that was used.

In 1853, however, legislation was brought in to punish people who beat their wives with sentencing up to 6 months. This does not, however, mean that wife beating was not a common occurrence and that this punishment actually deterred men from beating their wives. Perhaps this diary illustrates a woman documenting every move her husband makes in the hope that she can avoid this violence as much as possible?

This diary could even indicate a woman attempting to resist against the unfair treatment she has had to face, by documenting how unhappy and sometimes angry she is towards HPC. Even the fact that the diary is written in short hand, and in a small diary may be so that it would not be read, or at least not understood if it was found by HPC. This could also indicate that the whole family were able to read. The exact relationship between HPC and the writer of the diary is also uncertain, but their feelings towards HPC are not. HPC may well have been another relation to her, perhaps a sibling, and the writer may not have been a woman. HPC may in fact not be violent at all to the writer, and the relationship may be misunderstood. The writer could, in fact, be concerned about the behaviour of HPC and is, therefore, documenting his ‘symptoms’ within this diary.

At one point the writer mentions that HPC has gone ‘bathing’ and they are displeased with this. As HPC often travelled to Margate he could have bathed in the Royal Sea-Bathing Infirmary which was originally used to treat ‘scrofula’ (which was probably a form of tuberculosis). The writer was not happy about HPC’s trip to the baths and, therefore, this may point to them believing that medicine was not going to help, or that HPC was not suffering from an illness.

Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary  Sept 10 1853

I have written ‘writer’ to refer to this unknown person, however, the diary includes different hand writings. This could indicate that the diary was put together by different people, offering confusion as to whose identity is being constructed through the analysis of the writing.Children or ‘chicks’ are mentioned throughout the diary, which may have been the individual’s siblings and they may well have written parts of the diary.

Perhaps even the children wrote in the diary on the days that the individual was not able to due to HPC inflicted wounds. If one person did write this diary, maybe they wrote with their other hand for parts. This may also be due to injuries, or the person could have been left handed in a period of time when this was seen as savage and criminal and so they may have been forced to write with their right hand.

Something that is clear, is that this individual was religious and much of the diary revolves around trips to the Church with the family. This is probably quite common for individuals in 1853, but only attending Church was documented and not the content of the services, or prayers. This could indicate what the diary was used for, simply to track where the person had been on that day and what the weather was like.

Times are documented rather meticulously throughout, perhaps illustrating the organised nature of the person. The diary still does, however, have a personal feel as it documents the feelings towards HPC which is a main theme of the diary. This could indicate that Church was seen more as a necessary place to attend, rather than there being a personal connection to religion.

Despite this individual being wealthy, which is likely due to the drinking of champagne, turkey and plum pudding on Christmas day, and the expensive nature of the diary, they clearly had a very volatile life style which is represented in the need to document the times in which things happen and the broken relationship with HPC.

Despite this diary being of someone who is unidentified we are therefore able to construct some interpretations of how this person experienced 1853, from the short hand notes scribbled away in their diary. A diary is often a very personal item which can show how an individual thinks, in this case in a very organised and meticulous way. This diary was probably not written to be read by others as it is written in abbreviations and, therefore, the audience was probably themself. Despite not knowing this person’s gender or name, we still have some insight into their life which in fact may not have been influenced by this knowledge and associated stereotypes or by other sources.

BRIHC Public Lectures: Spring Series

The Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures (BIRHC) is hosting a series of public lectures throughout the Spring Term. They look fantastic and open to everyone.

BRIHC is excellent and does all sorts of exciting things. You can find more about its work here, and social media folk can follow it on Twitter @theBRIHC.


The Diary of William Prince Telfer: Summer 1914


Jacob Fredrickson

Last week we set students on our MA in Modern British Studies the following task: Using some of the fantastic diaries in the Cadbury Research Library, write 500 words about a nineteenth or twentieth century diary. Before this we encouraged students to immerse themselves in the work of Carolyn Steedman to reflect on the relationship between lives and stories, on subjectivity and self-fashioning, and how to read material not just for its content – as a source of knowledge about the past – but as a way of understanding the relationship between lives and stories, and the ways in which individuals made sense of the world and the place in it.

Over the next few days we have decided to share their findings. Kicking us off is Jacob Fredrickson on the Diary of William Prince Telfer. Should you like, you can follow Jacob on Twitter @jacobTfred. Click on our ‘Study with Us’ page for more information on the MA.

Beneath all the apparent sophistication and cynicism of his work there always lay concealed this longing for ‘a beautiful strangeness’.

Dixon Scott – Review of The Works of Stanley Houghton in the Manchester Guardian, 2nd July 1914, p. 7.

Shall have to be more concise in this diary. It requires too much time at present.

The diary of William Prince Telfer, Monday 20th July 1914.

William Telfer spent 1914 writing. Daily his pen would help shape the flow of sugar that poured through S & W Beresford wholesale Grocers, as part of its journey into the imperial diets of the people of Manchester. Amidst hasty glances towards the young male colleagues who so intrigued him, Telfer would scratch a tiny imprint into the global story of an imperial capitalist system about to implode in the face of total war.

That is about as much as I can say about the work that took up so much of Telfer’s time. When he was not writing at work, he was often writing at home, into the diary that is now open beside me. Finding as much quiet as he could in the small house he shared with his parents, three brothers and a lodger, Telfer transcribed his daily life, often in the style of the books he would borrow from, or the newspapers he would read at, the Manchester Athenaeum. I have his borrower ticket too –  number 3037 – carefully placed on the front page of his scrap-book.

Reading and writing meant a lot to Telfer, but not the ordinary writing of the clerk’s office. That was demoted to a vague sentence, one I’ve learnt to skip almost unconsciously, “B. All day”. Rather the writing that Telfer cherished was the literary agility of George Bernard Shaw, the journalistic bombast of G.W Russell, or the “beautiful strangeness” of Manchester playwright Stanley Houghton. Telfer’s experience of 1914 was infused with the literature he read and the news he consumed, the archival trace of which brings this literally to view, newspaper cuttings overlapping with delicate handwriting – annotations draw me to future writing projects influenced by his favourite writers.

“When I write ‘Tales of Manchester’ I shall not do much attending to names”. I don’t know if Telfer ever completed, or even started ‘Tales of Manchester’, I – we – lose track of his thoughts by September 1914, his archival presence recedes into sign-posts of future events – military service, marriage, death, all of which inflected with the callous anonymity of institutional records. ‘Tales of Manchester’ remains a distant dream, literary futures that shape the non-literary present of Telfer’s 1914.

The literary road not taken perhaps matter for the biographer. However, I am not a biographer. The literary pretensions of Telfer, his love of reading, his dreams of living by his pen, order the thoughts and feelings that make it into his diary, and by extension shape the ways in which Telfer saw the world that he lived in at this particular historical moment.

That is not to say that he always saw the world like this. The heavy, violent ink blots censoring sentence after sentence, indicate the presence of another Telfer who returns to alter the shape and meaning of this diary. The self-censorship that appears highlights the temporal disjuncture of the diary. Past, present and future Telfers jump out at me, vying for my affection, in the hope that I – the historian – will present their version of William Telfer.

Predictably, I was drawn to these blotches first. The inevitable step for the arrogant historian who seeks to uncover a hidden, an inaccessible past. In doing so I ignored the pages upon pages of daily life that Telfer had left – his walks, incessant, around Chorlton-on-Medlock and Moss Side, his almost daily trips to the scout hut, ‘The Wigwam’ – too old to scout, Telfer found solace in the homo-social world of the Old Scout Association – his familial arguments, his strained friendships, his strange and contradictory opinions on politics, war and social change. All this receded and blurred as my attention – my excitement – was towards that which I couldn’t see.

However, the more I read, the more the blotches turned my attention to what was still there, hidden in plain sight. Telfer seemed to admire the male form, especially young male bodies. A cutting from July of boys enjoying the sun by jumping in the canal is accompanied with the caption, “I would like to have seen them”. As young Clerks enter Telfer’s office, the diary stops and takes three or four lines to describe the boy stood before us.

It is here where the blotches appear startlingly, and the boys vanish into unwritten desires now lost. These blotches present a visible indication of past desires that Telfer doesn’t want me to see. I could try and name these, but the boundaries between admiration and attraction are so blurred as to highlight the very fiction of the categories between bonds of friendship and something more sexual. Indeed, I don’t think 1914 Telfer had any conception of a coherent difference between friendship and attraction, something older Telfer imposes onto the diary through his nervous editing.

However, Telfer does invest heavily into his friendships, and I don’t think I impose too much to say that this often boils over into infatuation. During the summer of 1914, Telfer grew fond of George Maude, whose small thumbnail picture is carefully placed into July’s entries. I couldn’t help but feel for Telfer as he walks back and forth down the street where he thinks Maude is, the description of the walls inflected with Telfer’s frustration and unrequited feelings;


to get a glimpse of the back

windows of 36. It was futile

I only saw black, dirty

ugly squalid walls.

I wanted to grab hold of Telfer’s hand, feeling I was stood with him on the bottom step towards the basement of Beresford’s, where he catches a glimpse of Maude, “swaying”, “grappling” and “panting” with another young clerk. But the sympathy I felt I know comes from me, not from the diary. I am reminded of my own unrequited feelings, gut wrenching moments at parties and nightclubs of seeing someone else, in the words of Telfer, “struggling” in the spot where I want to be.

Telfer’s diary never states these feelings, I am inferring from his walks, his glances, his attention to detail in recounting the incident in the basement urinal. But as I do I am also investing myself into these moments. As I recount them here, the basement blurs into the nightclub, the walk to spot Maude overlaps with my own ‘accidental’ strolls. Without naming these desires, I am left to infer, a project where I am on show as much as Telfer. Telfer’s own ossified desires remain unintelligible, a “beautiful strangeness”, not absent yet not quite readable.



MBS 2017: Themes and Schemes

This blog explains some of the ideas set out within our British Studies in a Broken World call for papers. We want the MBS conference to provide a forum for sharing the diverse research taking place on Modern Britain in its widest context. As our previous conference – Rethinking Modern British Studies  – demonstrated the field is too interesting, plural and diverse to be reduced to tightly conceived thematic concerns. We are hopeful that our 2017 conference will once again demonstrate this to be the case. However, we have also proposed a few areas where we might come into conversation for plenary discussion sessions.


Before outlining these we want to reiterate our committment to supporting new research and new researchers. Following the precedent established in 2015, we will reserve 100 free places for PGR students, and ECRs on temporary or fractional contracts.

Last time round, the success of the conference depends on providing a forum that was collaborative and open to emerging scholars. We wish to recreate this once more. In keeping with such a plan, we encourage panels which represent colleagues from all career stages and hope that potential contributors will make use of our blog to find panels and panellists. As with 2015, the conference will be opened by a PGR session, building on the interests and ideas of our PGR community, details of which will follow over the next few weeks.

Framed around the critical reflection on modern British history published as a collaborative working paper on ‘Cultures of Democracy’ by members of the Centre for Modern British Studies, out previous event – MBS 2015 – drew together around three hundred historians from across the world to explore an apparent fragmentation of the discipline, the uneven relationship between historical sub-disciplines, and the ways in which scholars working on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries might be brought into conversation.

Some of the excitement about this event was captured on our blog but it also spilt into further events outside Birmingham and there was to those that notices, a cacophony of social media noise during that event itself.


We hope that the 2017 conference builds upon our previous conference in three ways.

First, there is an evident demand (expressed at the first conference and on subsequent reflections on social media) for a regular forum for intellectual exchange between scholars working on modern Britain from across fields and disciplines.

Second, we hope to broaden out the often challenging discussions that took place in 2015. Responding to ongoing conversations among scholars in the field.

Third, the intersecting crises prompted by the referendum on European Union membership have made the public status of the historian and the nature of British history more pressing issues than ever.

At the same time, we also insist on thinking critically about the wider implications of historically-minded work and the place of history and historians to intellectual and public life. We will address these concerns through three plenary sessions to stimulate further discussion.

  1. Fluid Presents, Turbulent Pasts: What does it mean to study the British past in a moment when Britain itself is in flux? The consequences of the European Union Referendum encourage us to think about where Britain is, where it was and what it has been. The results and the subsequent fall-out from the Referendum suggest the pressing need to pay even greater attention histories of inequality, power, regional difference, as well as the global economy, and encourage us to be precise about how such categories manifested in culture and society and the consequences. What implications do recent events have for historical categories and chronologies that have been taken for granted? 


    The marked disagreement between voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland and England and Wales suggests the potential for serious challenges to the status of the Union and the existence of the United Kingdom. In this sense, the conference will foreground what might be the growing significance of four-nations’ approaches to the modern history of Britain. While Britain’s historical relationship with Europe was debated in the run up to the Referendum, this was done in a crude manner, and remains an subject lightly explored in particular within the late twentieth century historiography of Britain. This is particularly marked when compared to the deluge of work framed around discussion of the Atlantic relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. Have historians working around the nation-state been complicit in isolating Britain from Europe?

    The ways in which debates around the EU referendum have been framed through an engagement with Britain’s imperial past mean that it is equally apparent that scholars must keep thinking about race, empire and decolonization as well as seeking to understand how the nation relates to the global and transnational. One plenary session will address the freighted question of what it means to do British studies at a moment when the idea of Britain itself is being called into question, and exploring what historical practices and modes of analysis — whether global, comparative, colonial, post-colonial, transnational, four-nations, local, or urban — we might usefully deploy to help contextualize the present. What kinds of histories should be stimulated from the conjuncture in which we work?

  2. Crossing Disciplines, Creating Studies: The conference also invites speakers to interrogate the notion of ‘studies’ within Modern British Studies and the relationship between history and other adjacent disciplines. How might we bring British history into closer conversation with related disciplines in the humanities and social sciences? As the work of many scholars

    Channelling our work into different historical silos carries intellectual and political costs. As satisfying as it is to celebrate the strengths of our particular field, in remaining within those confines we evade the challenges posed by engaging with scholars working in different ways on different topics. To facilitate this conversation, we have invited  scholars working outside of history departments on aspects of economics, culture, society, and politics in modern Britain.

  3. Public Histories, Engaged Historians: Building on these themes, the conference might provide a focus for ongoing yet increasingly important discussions on the value of historical research in the public sphere. David Armitage and Jo Guldi’s recent The History Manifesto may have been divisive in approach and uneven in argumentation and content, but it did increase the tempo of a debate about the authority of historians and historically-minded scholarship in public debate.


    In the context of the suspicion of ‘expertise’ in political and media discourse and the continued reforms directed towards the Higher Education sector, our interests as historians intersect with a more general interest in the roles of the University as civic institutions. A plenary session will bring together a variety of voices to reflect on historians’ relationship with the public.

    We suggest these areas as points where we might all come into conversation, but we do not suggest that they structure all submissions – how could they? We look forward to hosting you all this summer, please get in touch if you have any queries or comments

Looking for panels or panellists? MBS 2017

As the Call for Papers for the British Studies in a Broken World set out, we asked for  proposals offering ninety-minute panels or roundtables related to the conference’s themes or showcasing emerging new research across the field.

Despite some difficulties with this format and some arguments amongst us about what would be best, we felt, based on our experience of the 2015 conference, that it encouraged coherence within panels and helped conversations take place across individual papers and projects.

We are keen, however, to encourage those who are interested in giving papers or organizing panels a forum to discuss this and find possible collaborators. Last time round our forums did not prove particularly popular, so this year we just want those interested to use the comment section on this page to find people.

For those who wish to present a paper – briefly  explain your interests (max 50 words) and offer some key words for panel organizers. For those who have a panel and are looking for papers, please outline your panel idea (max 50 words) and give an indication of those involved so far.

We encourage diverse panels featuring colleagues from a range of career stages and featuring those representing different institutions.

This is an experiment. We hope it will help people create coherent, interesting panels. Be nice.

Comments will be moderated before they appear, but we will try to update them as often as we can.