East Hoathly makes a night of it

Marilyn Butler

  • The Diary of Thomas Turner 1754-1765 edited by David Vaisey
    Oxford, 386 pp, £17.50, November 1984, ISBN 0 19 211782 3
  • John Clare’s Autobiographical Writings edited by Eric Robinson
    Oxford, 185 pp, £7.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 19 211774 2
  • John Clare: The Journals, Essays, and the Journey from Essex edited by Anne Tibble
    Carcanet, 139 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 85635 344 2
  • The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare edited by Margaret Grainger
    Oxford, 397 pp, £35.00, January 1984, ISBN 0 19 818517 0
  • John Clare and the Folk Tradition by George Deacon
    Sinclair Browne, 397 pp, £15.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 86300 008 8

Every so often, formal early literature permits us a glimpse into the life of the non-literate common people going about their daily business. There’s the snatch of conversation in Henry IV, Part I when a couple of carriers grumble about the inn at Rochester, the worst on the road for fleas: ‘Why, they will allow us ne’er a jorden, and then we leak in your chimney; and your chamber-lie breeds fleas like a loach.’ While this is a touch of homely wisdom which anyone might have overheard in daily life, its appearance in literature is rare enough to earn a special adjective: ‘Shakespearean’. We have got used to the notion that the working lives, talk and attitudes of the vast majority of the population in past times belong to what Peter Laslett calls, hauntingly, the world we have lost.

The Diary of Thomas Turner claims notice as a sustained insider’s account of how ordinary people lived from day to day in a pre-industrial English village. On Thursday 27 December 1756 two of Turner’s neighbours, Thomas Fuller and William Piper, arrived uninvited and stayed smoking and drinking (‘sponging,’ their host records bitterly) until they began to quarrel,

because Tho. Fuller told that which in my opinion was really true, viz., Master Piper, being lavish of his professions of kindness, and how much he loved his dear neighbour, which at last occasioned Tho. Fuller to tell him that he could never recollect any favour or kindness he ever showed him. But he did remember that once ... he wanted to borrow about £4 from him for a few days, but the poor old man would not let him have it, though he ... could have spared it; and told him of many such-like mean actions, which made the poor old man at last so angry that he cried and bellowed about like a great calf.

But it’s not long before we discover that the Fullers could be as sharp over money as Will Piper. Next June Joseph Fuller was entrusted by Turner with the task of beating down a man who wanted nine guineas for a horse, but Joseph bought the animal himself, and barefacedly informed Turner that the price was now £11.

Turner kept his diary for 11 years from his mid-twenties, while he was the mercer – keeper of the general store – of the Sussex village of East Hoathly. His parents were shopkeepers in nearby Framfield, and the only two of Thomas’s sons to reach maturity also went into trade as mercers. Though Turner frequently complains to his diary of hard times, he was in fact doing well enough to be able to buy his shop in 1766. No wonder, since he emerges from the diary as one of the most enterprising and efficient members of the community, who was not only the village undertaker but its part-time schoolmaster, scribe and financial and legal adviser, as well as serving the parish year by year as churchwarden, overseer of the poor, or surveyor of the highways.

Much of the interest of the diary arises from Turner’s doings on behalf of the parish. When he was overseer of the poor, for example, it was his job to question a pregnant unmarried woman to find out who the father was, and then, if she talked, to interview the man in the hope of getting him to take on his responsibilities, as opposed to adding to the parish’s. Unfortunately Turner doesn’t record these interviews in detail, or quote the interviewees at all; some of his readers are going to wish that his literary tastes had been formed less by Young’s Night Thoughts and Sherlock’s Sermons, more by Defoe, Smollett and the prints of Hogarth. But if he doesn’t equal Pepys or Boswell in vitality and curiosity, Turner has a powerful advantage over either of them, or indeed over perhaps any published English diarist – the panoramic view his official position gave him of his neighbours’ social behaviour. Unaided, Turner’s diary might not be quite a classic, but it becomes one in the hands of its exemplary editor David Vaisey, who has trimmed it to not much more than a third of its original length, and richly supplemented its information about the village’s inhabitants and about Turner’s family and business. In this way he quietly helps to substantiate the observation he makes in his excellent introduction: that the value of the diary does not lie in its characters and scenes, but in its power to put flesh on the dry bones of parish records.

Though the principal characters in East Hoathly’s many bastardy cases don’t speak directly, their actions speak for them, especially the brisk Turner’s. Exceptional efforts were called for late in 1757, when the pregnant Mary Vinal, already the mother of one illegitimate child, swore that the father of her next was one Richard Parkes, ‘husbandman of the parish of Ringmer’. On 25 October Turner set off at 2 a.m. for Ringmer, accompanied by two colleagues from East Hoathly, one of whom, a prosperous farmer called Jeremiah French, was known to Turner as a scourge of paupers and a depresser of wages – though Vaisey goes further, and shows that for several years French had been systematically evading payment of the poor rate. The delegation from East Hoathly roused the parish officials of Ringmer, and by 5.40 a.m. located Parkes, as he waited for breakfast at a nearby farmhouse. After getting his agreement to marry Vinal, Turner and one fellow parishioner proceeded with the groom to Lewes to get the licence, while French hurried back for the bride.

We got to Lewes about 7. 15 and breakfasted at The White Horse and took out a licence, I being a bondsman for the poor creature. We came back just by 11 o’clock when we immediately repaired to church and Mr Porter married them in Mr French’s, the clerk’s, and my presence, I being what is commonly called ‘father’.

The knot tied, Turner and another parish employee escorted the bridegroom on foot to Uckfield to get Parkes to ‘swear his parish’, which proved to be Hellingly: whereupon a messenger had to be sent back to remove the bride there. Turner was engaged non-stop in this business from two in the morning till nine at night, at a cost to the parish of £2 19s 6d, but he reckoned it a good day’s work for East Hoathly. The clear profit to the parish may have been less than it looks. Parkes and Vinal had already begun proceedings to marry, and in fact on 23 October had the banns called a second time, when a woman in the congregation forbade them.

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