Agnes Witts's diaries
PUBLISHED: 09:26 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013
Agnes Witts's diaries cover a 37-year period detailing everything from her zest for life to the stigma of her husband bankruptcy
'I always say, keep a diary and some day it'll keep you'
Mae West (Every Day's a Holiday - 1937 film)
No doubt Agnes Witts would have been delighted to think that the diaries in which she so meticulously recorded the everyday details over thirty-seven years of her life would 'keep her' in the financial sense implied by the legendary Mae West. But, even if the diaries had been published during Agnes's lifetime they would have had little commercial value: firstly, only a privileged minority of eighteenth century people were educated enough to read and, secondly, a cursory glance through the entries give the impression that they are a daily record of the weather and a catalogue of visits and visitors, letters written and letters received. But therein lies the skill and dedicated professionalism of their editor and publisher, Alan Sutton, who has produced the first of the series of this Cotswold lady's complete diaries as a fascinating insight into the life and background of her already famous diarist son's work, The Complete Diary of a Cotswold Parson.
Agnes Witts came from the well-to-do, well-connected Travell family, whose considerable income had come from a successful business in linen drapery, with a genealogical tree hung around with a Viscount or two, a Duke and the odd Lord and Knights of the Realm. In 1775 Agnes married Edward Witts, who had inherited the family wool-stapling business in Chipping Norton, and shared his love of travel to the detriment of his attendance to their financial affairs, although he carried out his social responsibilities as a country gentleman, and civic duties as a justice of the peace, a deputy lieutenant for Oxfordshire and, in 1779, high sheriff of the county. Agnes makes frequent references to her 'attending to the accompts', and her diary entries begin in 1788 a couple of years before their own financial problems start to emerge. She does not specify the state of the accounts in her diary; her more intimate concerns and emotions were reserved for her letters, few of which survive, but between the matter of fact lines of her entries a picture emerges of an extraordinary woman, whose zest for life and its pleasures and her relationship with her family and friends makes compulsive reading.
Agnes Witts is not, perhaps, the role model for our twenty-first century lady facing financial constraints and uncertainties - hers was a world away from today's and the failing family fortunes were theirs alone, not, as now, so interdependent on the global economy. But, she lived and loved and had her being as a devoted wife and mother, although it is patently obvious from her writings that her eldest son, Francis (who was later to become the Cotswold parson of Upper Slaughter) was her favourite, referring to him as 'my sweet' or 'my dearest Francis', while George and Edward are often just recorded as 'the boys'. The Reverend Francis Witts was obviously greatly influenced by his mother and her meticulous keeping of a diary - and he started as a diarist at the age of twelve. Spanning some sixty years of his life, the Diary of a Cotswold Parson runs to some two million words and is being published in ten volumes. His mother's, consistent in style and continuity, even to the physical size and format of her diaries, have produced five volumes.
The first volume opens on a hot April day in 1788 when the family were living at Swerford Park in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. Two years later Agnes records: 1790 Tuesday Ap 27th: I was much engaged all Day with attending the packing up of all the Green house Plants, which with the Gardiner were to go to Bownham House the next Day.
It was August before the family finally left Swerford, only to find that workmen were still at Bownham House, which they rented from John Cooper, a wealthy clothier. On a visit to Rodborough church she 'thought our rented Pew a very comfortable one and liked the reading and manner of the Clergyman'. Before settling into Bownham, Mr and Mrs Witts were sampling the delights and diversions of Cheltenham, 'taking the waters', tea drinking meetings, balls and card parties.
Agnes records the card games she so obviously enjoyed - whist, cribbage, casino, back gammon, 'odd three-handed Loo', Ving'tun, and crown whist (which was a five-shilling whist, a considerable sum of money in 1790 when equated with the wages of an agricultural worker of a mere ten shillings a week), often this favourite pastime kept them up until one and two in the morning. It seems it was only domestic affairs that fatigued Agnes, such as when she had to 'receive the first instructions from the Man that had come down from London to put up the Steam Machine in the kitchen.' Agnes obviously wanted to keep up with the times as she mentions having visited the Raymond Barkers at Fairford Park 'principaly to take a view of the new invented Steaming Machine they had put up in their Kitchen'.
The Witts family still lived the lifestyle of gentry and Agnes soon assumed the role of the Lady of Rodborough moving in an ever widening well-connected social circle, wining and dining at some of the best family tables round and about the Stroud valleys, attending Burford Races, revelling in the varied pursuits of Regency Cheltenham and attending to her own appearance as she records that year, 'very busy all Morning in a blond purification'. Alan Sutton's carefully researched footnotes explain that blonde was the fashionable hair colour at the time. Agnes does admit to 'seeking bargains' at the local shops, but her entries relating to her 'sweet Francis' going to Elmore Court School, rather than one of the expensive private schools in London do not indicate that it was because of their reduced circumstances. His every return to Elmore, although it was within a short driving distance from home, is recorded with great drama. 1790 Wensday Nov 3d: Mr Witts Francis and I set out between 12 and one to carry him as far as Quedgley Green on his way to Elmore where he was met by a servant and Horse; parted from him with unfeign'd regret, but he always behaves like a Hero. Francis Witts grew up to be a bit of a snob according to many of his diary entries, a trait that he no doubt inherited from his mother as she reveals in this remark: Sunday Nov 7th: Went to Rodbro' Church, Mrs Tanner our Neighbour dined here, her Son prevented, a very sensible well behaved Woman of her rank.
The full extent of their financial position was obviously finally brought home to Agnes in 'a melancholy Letter' which she received from her husband in March 1793 as her reaction is penned a few days later. Tuesday Mar 5th: An intire Day of hard rain from Morn to night, dismal to a great degree, tho but too consonant to my own feelings as I was low and miserable and in the afternoon so ill with Hysterics that I was obliged to send to an apothecary. Mar 8th: A severe cold day for the time of year being violent high N: east wind; the Day past very manfully by the recapitulation of many dismal events from Mr Witts's detail of his London businesses which terminated far worse than I expected and gave me little powers of supporting myself, walk'd miserably about with him in the Morning, and was very ill all the evening with Hysterics.
After indulging in another couple of days of hysterics - which were fashionable anyway - Agnes regained her social equilibrium in a form of self denial, and 'tea'd and danced and played cards as she and her husband made plans to escape the stigma and restraints of bankruptcy in the Cotswolds; and the first volume of her published diary ends as the family were en route for their exile in Edinburgh. It is in her husband's correspondence to his sister, Lady Lyttelton, the crucial letter being in the Introduction to the volume, that we are given the bald facts for the 'move to Scotland where economy and Education go hand in hand - the Charter House and Merchant Taylors must therefore give way to the necessity, the deprivation of Trade makes necessary, tho it will allow us the society we should have lost ... we have not yet fixed what Servant attends my wife.'
It will be interesting for future social historians to look back to this year to see how ladies of Rodborough and elsewhere viewed and coped with our present economic situation!
The Complete Diary of a Cotswold Lady, Volume One: The Lady of Rodborough - Agnes Witts is published by Amberley Publishing