The Diary

The Revd James Woodforde's diary gives unique insight into life in rural eighteenth-century England. It first became widely known when John Beresford edited the diary in five volumes 1924–31.

His manuscript notebooks

Woodforde began to write the diary at the age of nineteen with the news of his New College scholarship at Oxford University. After the first few irregular weeks it settled down to an entry a day.

The entries, brief at first, tended to grow longer and more detailed as he matured. In 1775 he took to adding weather notes on the interleaved blotting paper between each page of his manuscript book. The first of these records the sighting of a 'fine rainbow'.

Roughly the first half of the diary is contained in 48 paperback notebooks. Woodforde tells the reader where he bought them, and how much they cost. They were cheap enough at about 2d each: in 1758, while at Oxford, Woodforde, paid 4 shillings for 48 booklets.

The exercise books must have been made of a good quality rag paper, since they outlasted more than two centuries well. In 1776 Woodforde started to enter his record in hardback notebooks, the dimensions of which are scarcely bigger but containing a greater number of pages and so lasting him longer. In the end he filled 25 hardback volumes.

The diary entry for 31 January 1776 records:

Paid this morning to Hood the bookbinder for 13 blank writing books, half bound – £0 13s 6d.

During his long illness in 1797 Woodforde recorded his entries on 100 loose sheets of paper.

James Woodforde's manuscript diaries in hardback and paperback notebooks and loose sheets at the Bodleian Library, OxfordJames Woodforde wrote his diary in 48 small paperback notebooks, 25 hardback books and on 100 loose sheets of paper. One notebook is missing, for 1790–91 [MSS. Eng. misc. ff. 101–163, 165–173 (the books) and Eng. misc. e. 465 (the loose sheaves); courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford]

James Woodforde's manuscript diary entries 1–5 March 1779. This left-hand page contains his weather observationsJames Woodforde's manuscript diary entries for 1–5 March 1779 in his notebook held since 1959 in the Bodleian. This left-hand page contains his weather observations [MS. Eng. misc. f. 152; courtesy the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford]

James Woodforde's manuscript diary entries 1–5 March 1779. This right-hand page contains his daily record of eventsJames Woodforde's diary entries for 1–5 March 1779. This right-hand page contains his meticulous daily record of events in a notebook 160 mm high [MS. Eng. misc. f. 152; courtesy the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford]

Very little of this huge mass of diary material has been damaged, vandalised or otherwise lost to the reader. After the diary had been prepared for publication in the 1920s one of Woodforde's hardback notebooks was lost, covering the period 6 March 1790 to 21 March 1791. What it contained can be read only as selected entries in printed editions. Otherwise the diary is intact.

(Adapted in part from James Woodforde: Parson and diarist by Roy Winstanley (The Larks Press, 1996). Additional material is provided by Roy Winstanley's in-depth study Parson Woodforde: The life and times of a country diarist (Morrow & Co., 1996).)

The published diary

A complete transcription has been published in seventeen volumes with scholarly introductions, notes and other supporting material by the Parson Woodforde Society. Unlike Beresford's edition, which is abridged and transposed into modern English, the society's unabridged edition retains the diarist's original spelling, punctuation and line-breaks, and is faithful to his style of writing. Individual volumes can be bought direct from the Society; we are the sole suppliers.

Woodforde's first editor worked on the manuscript diary while the notebooks and loose sheaves were still in private hands. His general practitioner Dr R.E.H. Woodforde, a descendant of the diarist's elder brother Heighes Woodforde, lived close to Beresford in Hertfordshire, as described in the tale of the lost notebook. Over the years Dr Woodforde lent the precious manuscripts to his eager patient who had grasped the value of their contents.

Beresford's vision in introducing Woodforde's diary to the public had far-reaching consequences. The rural parson quickly captured the public imagination, and his record of daily life has appeared in numerous editions and formats over the decades. The Parson Woodforde Society's launch of this greatly expanded website in March 2024 falls on the eve of the centenary of the first appearance of Beresford's work in April 1924.

James Woodforde's life and career

James Woodforde was born in Somerset on 16 June 1740, the son of the Rector of Ansford and Vicar of Castle Cary. He received his early education away from home as a boarder at two schools before moving to Winchester College as a boarder in 1752.

After spending the year 1758–59 at Oriel College, Oxford, he gained a scholarship at New College. On taking his degree he returned to Somerset, where he held various curacies. Following his father's death he was denied the chance of succeeding to the Somerset livings and returned to Oxford at the end of 1773 as a Fellow and Sub-warden of New College.

Weston Church C14 south doorUnlocking Woodforde's world: 14th-century ironwork and timbers on the south door of Weston Church [photo Margaret Bird 2014]In 1774 he obtained a college living at Weston now known as Weston Longville, in Norfolk. Only once, on the day he was elected to the living, does Woodforde refer to the parish by its manorial name of Weston Longueville or Longeville. As well as being patrons of the living New College had been lords of the manor centuries earlier.

Here Woodforde lived as rector or parish priest until his death on 1 January 1803. He never married, and made fairly regular long visits to his family and friends in Somerset. His family circle meant a great deal to him, and his relatives play a prominent role in the diary.

In the early days the rector had the companionship of his nephew William Woodforde (1758–1844) until 'Nephew Bill' joined the Royal Navy; Bill is seen at the foot of this page, aged 45. Bill's sister Anna Maria (1757–1830), known to Woodforde as Nancy, then joined her uncle at the parsonage and stayed until his death.

Exploring Woodforde's world

You can become familiar with Woodforde's world through a series of objects associated with him, and in explorations of Woodforde country. Both are accessed from the Features page.

A Chronology of Parson Woodforde's World 1740–1803 aims to place the microcosm which is James Woodforde's world in its wider context. The five columns range from significant events in the diarist's personal life to national and international events. Two columns are devoted to the Arts and to Science, Technology and Agriculture. First printed for members as a celebration of the Society's fiftieth anniversary in 2018 it is now adapted for online access.

James Woodforde's life would be considered totally unremarkable and uneventful but for one thing. For more than 43 of his 62 years he kept a diary, with almost daily entries.

The value of the diary

James Woodforde's daily record has long been recognised as a most valuable source. Climatologists have referred to his daily weather notes as a source for proxy climate data. Historians of the family and the domestic interior have a wealth of information on which to draw.

Woodforde's references to his meals, possessions and purchases are of interest to students of material culture and social history generally. Some of the artefacts associated with the diarist, such as his longcase clock, are pictured on this website using the links from the Features page. The diarist's leisure pursuits, from reading the newspapers and attending the theatre to hare coursing in his younger days all enter his record.

William-Woodforde-1803-halflengthWilliam Woodforde, the diarist's nephew, painted by his brother Samuel as commanding officer of the 1st East Somerset Volunteer Infantry. The painting is dated 1803 in the top left corner [Woodforde Family Collection]He reveals the dynamics of rural life to us. Relations between the classes; problems with servants; pressing social concerns such as vagrancy and care of the poor; the clergy's commitment to pastoral care as well as the provision of weekly church services; village fairs: Woodforde in his gentle way sheds light on these matters and often gives us his views.

The diarist took a lively interest in politics and in national and international affairs: Britain was at war for much of the period of the diary. William Woodforde, 'Nephew Bill', who had sampled life at the Norfolk parsonage for two years from the age of eighteen, took an active part in serving his country as a midshipman in the Royal Navy from 1779 to 1784. Britain's struggles against the colonists in the War of American Independence had developed into a full-blown conflict with France, Spain and, from 1780, the Dutch.

In August 1803, when invasion by the French was feared, William Woodforde was appointed Captain of the newly formed Castle Cary and Ansford Volunteer Infantry. By the end of the year he had been promoted major and appointed to command the 1st East Somerset Regiment of Volunteer Infantry.

Some time in late 1803 his brother Samuel painted him in uniform, as seen here and in the fuller account of his military career. In May 1804 William was commissioned as Lieutenant Colonel of the Western Battalion of the 1st East Somerset Regiment of Volunteer Infantry.

Our debt to Lt Col. William Woodforde

We, the readers of the diary, have great cause to be grateful to William (Bill) Woodforde. He inherited the manuscript notebooks from his uncle and took them to his Somerset home on the rector's death in 1803. Generations of his descendants preserved them until passing them in 1959 to the Bodleian Library at Oxford for safe keeping.

You can dip into the Revd James Woodforde's diary at various stages of his career: as an Oxford undergraduate; Somerset curate; College fellow; Norfolk rector; Tourist.