Theodora's Journals - background to their discovery

From discovery and selection to publication

In the 1990s Amy Coburn ‘discovered’ Theodora’s journals when she investigated a box of notebooks received by the Society in its early days.  Clearly it was not feasible to publish the 11 handwritten volumes covering over 50 years from 1885-1937.  However, realising their immense value as a historical source, Amy spent some years transcribing selected parts of the journals, and she gave many local history talks, based on Theodora’s material.  She worked with Ruth Nason, an editor and Harpenden enthusiast, to turn these extracts into a book.

Theodora Wilson (1867-1966) lived at Rivers Lodge, next to Rothamsted Experimental Station (now Rothamsted Research) until 1926, and then in Topstreet Way until her death.

Rivers Lodge, West Common, in 2011


What makes the journals special?

Theodora’s journals stand out for many reasons, including:

  • They tell a continuous story of more than 50 years
  • Theodora designed the journals to be a “history of our own times”, capturing family, local, national and world events for the interest of future readers
  • She was a talented, communicative writer
  • She gives a first-hand “inside” view of events at the time they were happening

The book is divided into time periods:

  •    Late Victorian times (1885-1899)
  •    Into the new century (1901-1911)
  •    War and its aftermath (1911-1922)
  •    The wireless and other novelties (1923-27)
  •    Changing environment (1927-1937)

Most of the text is Theodora’s, but there are short linking pieces by Ruth and Amy, explaining particular references or summarising the passages of the journals that have been left out.  Some 50 photographs and memorabilia that Theodora included in her journals have been reproduced in the book.

Harpenden connections

Many Harpenden organisations will recognise themselves in Theodora’s journals.

The ‘Institute’, with children playing on the Common

The Wilsons were much involved in the community.  For example, from the mid-1890s to 1908, Theodora’s father, Thomas Wilson, ran “University local lectures” which took place in The Institute (now the Friends Meeting House).  Two of Theodora’s sisters became teachers at St Hilda’s.  Her youngest brother, Denis, an architect, was on the first committee of the Society for the Preservation of Rural Harpenden (forerunner to The Harpenden Society).

Theodora and other members of the Wilson family contributed towards building affordable homes for “the needy working class”.  They were staunch supporters of St John’s church, and busy in charity work and local politics.

This means that Theodora’s journals are rich in information about Harpenden and its people. More than 400 names appear in the index of our book.  These can be viewed in the Index attached below.

Wider History

Think of events that took place in the 50 years during which Theodora was writing – from Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, through the Boer War, the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, and on to rise of the Nazis.

Think of the ‘firsts’ she experienced – aeroplanes, cars, wireless sets, suffragettes, elections with women voting, Labour government, state pensions …

Theodora follows all these events and developments with interest.

And not just a history book!

The book is of tremendous interest as a source of information on Harpenden’s past, but it is appealing in other ways too. Maybe you will find it compulsive reading as the story of one woman’s experience across 50 years.

Many talking points arise from Theodora’s journals, concerning what is different, the same, better or worse, about our times compared with hers. The book could be an excellent choice for book groups .

The book

Theodora’s Journals – front cover

Theodora’s Journals, edited by Amy Coburn and Ruth Nason, is an attractive 256-page paperback, priced at £15.

Order form

About the Editors

Amy Coburn was a founder member of the Harpenden and District Local History Society.  She had been interested in local history since her childhood, and joined Lionel Munby’s WEA classes in the early 1970s.  In 2001 she was the proud recipient of one of the first awards by the British Association of Local History for services to local history.

Ruth Nason is a book editor and Harpenden enthusiast. She worked with Amy, re-visiting the original journals and transcripts and working with book designers to develop THEODORA’S JOURNALS – and so put Theodora’s work into print, as we all think it deserves.


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