Theodora's Journals - BALH Review

Review in BALH online

This review was first published on the website of the British Association for Local History (BALH) in June 2012, and was reprinted in Newsletter 117, September 2012.

This excellent book deserves a wide audience. Covering the years 1885–1937, it comprises the almost complete diaries of Theodora Wilson of Harpenden, Hertfordshire, but it is far from parochial in approach. The Wilson family lived from 1872-1926 at Rivers Lodge, next to the Rothamsted Experimental Station, overlooking Harpenden Common. Although they were wealthy enough to enjoy travel and take frequent holidays, they had strong social consciences and involved themselves in the local community. They also took a keen interest in national affairs. Theodora had a poor opinion of party politics, writing in December 1885, ‘A general election has taken place. And a most curious struggle it has been … Mr Parnell, the leader of those Irish who wish for home rule, made a league with Lord Salisbury to be on his side … Oh how the two sides do slander one another. It’s dreadful’. On 23 September 1889 she was upset to discover that ‘Even in the noblest acts difficulties arise and one wonders what is right. For now good earnest Dr Barnardo is in prison for three months’ hard labour for refusing to give up a child to its lawful guardian certainly but one who had morally forfeited that title. Right and wrong seem so inextricably twisted that one is dazed. Even in Christian England the law of the land is not always at one with the law of Christ’.

The outbreak of war in 1914 made an immediate impact on Harpenden, which Theodora described as having been ‘made into a military depot during the past six weeks. 5000 territorials have been billeted on the inhabitants to the great excitement and considerable inconvenience of housewives … the whole parish is in a ferment’. Denis, Theodora’s youngest brother, enlisted with the Territorial Army but, she said, he hoped to be able to avoid ‘being called on to kill … We are all ready to sacrifice ourselves, but killing is a different matter’.

In 1927 Rivers Lodge was sold and Theodora and her sister Rhoda moved into a newly-built house in Topstreet Way, on the other side of the Common. Their new home was not without its problems: ‘November 1928: It is a wild night which tests the capacity of our new walls and windows. The Crittall windows hold firm … but the walls have not been perfectly water-tight and the ceilings have caused us much inconvenience. The dining room ceiling has fallen twice’. Life in the 1930s was difficult for many people—even those who, like the Wilson sisters, were financially secure. Theodora concluded that ‘perhaps the outstanding event of 1931 was the great Financial Crisis in August and the general election and forming of the National Government under Ramsay MacDonald in September. It is all part of the world economic crisis brought about by the after-effects of the war … no nation can now stand apart and live to themselves alone, not even the USA’. The diaries end rather sadly with a catalogue of change and loss ‘among our Harpenden friends’, and a review of ‘the tragic year’ of 1936. On the death of King George V, Theodora commented, ‘Our sympathies went out to the young fair-haired Prince who led the [funeral] procession on foot and his mother and the brothers and sister … and little Princess Elizabeth … Poor little lady, the shadow of the throne has come nearer to her’. Amy Coburn and Ruth Nason are to be commended not only for their skilled editing but also for the production of the book which, with its well-chosen type-face and appropriate design, is a pleasure to read.

Margaret Ashby was for many years a tutor in local and oral history for the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education. She has written a number of books on the history of Stevenage and Hertfordshire and is currently researching a volume for the Hertfordshire Record Society.

Theodora’s Journals can be ordered from this site

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