Exploring an ancestor’s diaries.
It really is that time of year again. A time when lots of us look back at events over the last 12 months, be they happy or sad ones. Open a newspaper or magazine and there is a ‘New Year Quiz’ for you to check you really have been paying attention over the course of 2018. Mr ginandgenealogy is busy making a family calendar for 2019 which will contain some of his best photographic shots from the past year. Many of us can take a quick look at our calendars to jog our memories of the last 12 months, or maybe turn to our Facebook timeline for clues, but where are the old diary writers of the past? Does anybody still keep a written manual of events, feelings and details of their life? Or will we have to check our social media accounts for this information in the future, and is it enough?
As a genealogist, finding an old diary belonging to an ancestor is one of the most exciting discoveries in our family tree journey. A diary was often kept in such detail that the mood and personality of the writer can come across quite clearly in the pages. Where historical events are noted it is exciting to see how the writer reacted or what their thoughts were.
My earliest family diary is a transcript of the diary/journal of William Witchell (1797-1875) Corn Merchant of Bristol. I hope the original is still in the possession of the family somewhere but here is a copied extract where Witchell writes, quite sternly about the “Riots in Bristol!!!! 20th Oct to 1stNov 1831”:
“A mob in possession of the City for 2 days and nights; 2 sides of the Queen Square – with the exception of 2 houses – destroyed by fire by the mob including about 40 private houses, Mansion House, Excise Office, and Custom House and a considerable quantity of property plundered by the mob. Several of the mob perished in the ruins!!! 4 of the rioters were executed viz Christr Davis (carrier and wagon office keeper), Gregory (labourer), K Hayes (groom), Clark (sawyer). Upwards of 100 transportd. NB I saw them executed”.
My late father was just 18 at the end of WW2 and living in Poplar. Through the pages of his tiny diary, he documented the life of his recently widowed mother and her four children as they struggled through the last years of the war in the East End of London. In June 1944 London was being bombarded by Doodlebugs and the docks were a prime German target. Dad’s youngest brother and sister were sent out of the City for safety:
Mon 19thWoke up by a flying bomb (pilot-less plane) which have been crashing pretty close for the past 3 days. Have seen several skimming our roof. Tried another way to work while warning was on.
Tues 20th: Woken up by the roar of a doodle bugs engines. Engine stopped overhead and it exploded in Hackney Wick Stadium – nearest yet.
Fri 23rd: Doodlebugs flying around for the past few days.
Sun 25t:hWoken up by another doodlebug. Cliff and Yvonne went to Hatfield Heath to stay. Doodlebugs coming over every few minutes.
The entries my father wrote at the end of the war on VE Day and VJ Day are simple and factual but I feel emotional each time I read them:
“(May) Mon 7th. Announced that end of war is tomorrow. All the ships and hooters are sounding V signals. Click called in, went round streets watching bonfires and dancing in streets”
(July)”Tues 14th Heard ships sirens going at midnight so I got up. War over. Lit fires across the road. Bed again at 3”
It could be argued that personal diaries like this are no longer relevant. We live in a digital age where anyone can publicly write about their life, and many frequently do. Bloggers, Instagramers and Tweeters. Diaries were often meant to be private, someone’s secret place, their innermost thoughts, a space where you could write anything, knowing that only you would be able to read it all at a future date.
My father kept up his diary writing after the war and I have several books written during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. When I found the diaries my Mother was surprised because she had no idea he ever kept a diary. I don’t think she was supposed to.
Do you have an interesting story relating to an old diary? I would love to hear it, please reply using the comments box.
Photograph is of my father Dennis Lockwood (1927-2014) with his two sisters Iris and Yvonne.