Mary Hardy and Her World: 250-year-old diary of Norfolk woman to be published

Letheringsett Hall, near Holt This shows the east front, remodelled in 1832-34 by the Hardys' son Wi

Letheringsett Hall, near Holt This shows the east front, remodelled in 1832-34 by the Hardys' son William Hardy junior (1770-1842). The diarist lived here from 1781 until her death in 1809, The River Glaven runs in the foreground, used by William Hardy to power his maltings and brewery across the road. Picture: Margaret Bird - Credit: Margaret Bird

A project to reveal the secrets of a diary begun by a Norfolk woman almost 250 years ago has finally been completed after more than three decades of work

In 1773 a Norfolk woman began a diary with an account of a boat trip from Coltishall to Yarmouth. Mary Hardy kept writing for 36 years, detailing her daily life, first in Coltishall and then Letheringsett.

More than 200 years later Margaret Bird began transcribing, editing and publishing the diaries. It has taken her 32 years.

This month the final part of her mammoth task is published – four volumes of commentary and analysis of the diaries of the Norfolk farmer, brewer and trader and her family. “Hers was the world of trade and manufacturing. She was the wife of a farmer, maltster and brewer,” said Margaret. “Her diary is remarkable for being nearly as long as the Old Testament of the Bible and in portraying a man’s world in which she was actively involved.”

Mary writes about bread riots, disasters at sea, commercial rivalries, religious and political upheavals, and day-to-day life. There are family trips and tragedies too, including the death of eldest son, Raven, who succumbed to tuberculosis aged just 19. Raven was Mary’s maiden name and is used by her descendants to this day.

This is not simply a domestic diary; Mary writes of working lives. And Margaret believes it was also a diary of gratitude, saying: “Each day following her recovery from Mary Ann’s birth held its own unique significance. She was a deeply religious woman and she was giving thanks.”

Historian Margaret has been holidaying on the Norfolk Broads since childhood. When she read the few extracts which had been published in 1968, she said: “I felt an immediate bond with this diarist. I knew her home village intimately, as Coltishall had been the home berth of my parents’ small motor cruiser since 1948.

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I knew the church, the lanes, the waterways – and the public houses – familiar to her. I could see the diary’s significance just from the short extracts. I loved Norfolk and its history, and I had a feel for the waterways which underpinned the Hardys’ malting and brewing concern.”

Mary, of Whissonsett, near Fakenham, and husband William Hardy moved from tenant farming to their own farm at Letheringsett, near Holt, where they harnessed the power of the river to run a corn mill and maltings. They grew grain and delivered beer to around 100 pubs from the Burnhams to Cromer and across to the Broads.

“The women of Mary Hardy’s circle were not downtrodden creatures totally dependent on their husbands,” said Margaret. “They were forceful personalities. The diarist was actively engaged in the family business.”

Mary’s daughter, Mary Ann, married farmer Jeremiah Cozens – beginning the Cozens-Hardy family.

Margaret had no idea her project would take so long.

“Since 1988 I have worked on The Diary of Mary Hardy and then the companion volumes Mary Hardy and her World almost every day. At first I could manage only about four or five hours a day as I had so many other commitments. However when my husband and I retired in 2000 I could devote much more time to the task.

From then onwards I have given it 10 to 15 hours a day, usually seven days a week, other than during our time on the Broads.”

Reviewers have called the diaries ‘incredibly rich material’ and Margaret’s work ‘a remarkable feat of scholarly dedication.’

One of her favourite excerpts is the launch of William and Mary’s wherry at Coltishall – when the men got very drunk and the following day saw Mary paying a friend for broken glassware. “After long sessions at the Recruiting Sergeant at Horstead, the nearest of the family’s many tied houses, William Hardy was frequently laid up ‘poorly,’” said Margaret.

Another favourite is an account of their younger son’s argument with his teacher. “The parents instantly took their son’s part,” said Margaret. “They took William out of school that same day, and from the age of nine he went to school at neighbouring Great Hautbois and then at Holt only if he felt so inclined. His focus was on the business and on learning his craft.”

Mary Hardy and her World 1773-1809, by Margaret Bird, will be published on April 23 by Burnham Press.

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