4 . The diarist's birthplace: the Old Rectory at Ansford, Somerset

Ansford Old Parsonage oriel windowThe warm stone of Ansford Old Parsonage, the birthplace of James Woodforde in 1740 [photo Margaret Bird 2021]This mullioned oriel window is at the former parsonage house at Ansford, 25 miles south of Bath. Pictured during a Parson Woodforde Society frolic, it overlooks the large, well-stocked back garden of the beautiful Elizabeth or Jacobean house in the centre of the village. The L-shaped house, not far from the parish church, fronts the main road at the corner of Tuckers Lane and Ansford Hill, the former turnpike.

The diarist's father had become Rector of Ansford in 1719 and married in 1724, so it was presumably about that time that the house became the home of the Woodfordes.

James, the sixth of seven children, was born at the parsonage house on 16 June 1740; he was baptised three days later. After his early years his time here was limited largely to school holidays, as he was sent to the first of three boarding schools at the age of seven and a half.

James Woodforde's schooling

In his careful, tiny writing the Revd Samuel Woodforde logged the education of his promising son 'Jemmy'. His account book notes the fees, writing materials and travel costs for three schools. The first was only seven miles away, under Mr King at the small village of Compton Pauncefoot, five miles from Wincanton and just south of today's A303. Here James was entered on 12 January 1748.

He stayed two years, moving on 15 January 1750 to 'Mr Jacques' School at Urchfont'. This was near Devizes in Wiltshire, nearly 40 miles to the north-east from Ansford. In 1752 Mr Gibbs took over as master.

Then came the decision to send James to his father's old school, Winchester (known by its Latin name Winton). On 6 September 1752 Samuel Woodforde noted that he had entered James at 'Winton School', where his son stayed until he left for Oxford in 1758. A year later the Oriel College undergraduate embarked on his 42-year-long diary, from which it is clear he stayed at the parsonage, still termed his home, during the university vacations: 'Dined, supped and laid at home'.

Leaving the family home

Ansford Lower House c1860 smallThe Lower House at Ansford c.1860 (detail), by William Woodforde's grandson Alexander John Woodforde (1839–1909). It came into the family through the diarist's mother Jane [Parson Woodforde Society Collection]James Woodforde left Ansford Parsonage soon after graduating from Oxford and being ordained deacon. On returning to Ansford he served briefly as curate of nearby Thurloxton until securing the curacy of Babcary, six miles to the south-west. As well as noting his generous stipend he was pleased to be offered the chance to live at the Babcary parsonage and have free use of the elderly incumbent's furniture from early 1764.

It is evident from the diary however that he often stayed at his old home, especially when his parents were ill.

Woodforde returned to Ansford full time on resigning his Babcary curacy in late 1765, living unhappily with his younger brother John at the Lower House. This became his base as curate for their aged father at Ansford and Castle Cary. His birthplace was no longer 'home' but 'the Parsonage'.

It was a sad time. His beloved mother died at the parsonage on 8 February 1766, leaving her whole estate between her three youngest children Jane, James and John. She was a wealthy woman in her own right.

His father, equally revered, died in 1771. By the end of 1773 Woodforde realised he had no prospects at Ansford and Castle Cary. The livings to which he had hoped to succeed were denied him. His uncle Thomas Woodforde had secretly bought the Ansford advowson (the right to appoint to a living) and secured the parsonage house for his clerical son Francis (Frank). The diarist's future perforce lay elsewhere.

Woodforde retained close ties all his life with Somerset and his circle of friends there. But his birthplace was no longer the much-loved home. He and Nancy spent their Somerset holidays from 1782 not at the parsonage, nor in the Lower House, but at Cole Place, the home of Woodforde's sister Jane and her husband John Pounsett.

The Parson Woodforde Society and the Old Parsonage

By the mid-twentieth century the Old Parsonage had fallen into a semi-derelict state. It was rescued by its new owners from 1964, Bernard and Joan Mewes. The Parson Woodforde Society, formed four years later, established close ties with the new owners and their beautiful home which meant so much to the members.

Two of the Society's most distinguished members, its chairman George Bunting in 1979 and Journal editor Roy Winstanley in 1989, reflected on the house's significance:

In 1964 Bernard and Joan Mewes bought the Ansford birthplace of James Woodforde, saved it from otherwise certain destruction and began the long and loving restoration. How redolent of Woodforde it still is!

(from 'A review of reviews' in the Journal for Spring 1979 (vol. 12, no. 1), reprinted in Winter 2001: vol. 34 no. 4.)

Roy Winstanley was at his most lyrical and elegiac as he described the importance of the Old Parsonage. He had recently heard of the death of Joan Mewes:

It is natural that the news of her death should send the mind of many of us back to the very early days of the Society, when the Old Parsonage at Ansford was in a very real sense its headquarters, the focal point of all the Somerset Frolics (there has never been anything even remotely like it in Norfolk) and the natural centre round which the activities of the Society orbited.

We were here very fortunate. Of how many societies devoted to the commemoration of a literary or historical figure could it be said that his birthplace was still in existence and had not yet been converted into a museum or was in the hands of insensitive, uncomprehending people who cared nothing about the old associations of their home? . . .

Joan and Bernard were absolutely vital to the well-being of the Society in the first few years of its existence, and without them it might not even have survived . . .

When I stayed at the Old Parsonage I was given what I think would in the eighteenth century have been called the master bedroom, and very likely that in which James Woodforde was born. It is a large room of magnificent proportions, and runs the complete breadth of the house, so that it has one set of windows at the front, looking out on Ansford Hill, and another opposite at the rear. I remember once getting out of bed in the mist of an early dawn and going to stand by this window, looking out across the paddock and over the churchfields to the hazily looming tower of Ansford church . . . It was a view that James Woodforde must have looked on many thousands of times.

[from 'John Mewes and the Old Parsonage' in the Journal for Summer 1989: vol. 32 no. 2.]