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Diary: Ian Marchant

22 March 2019


Marchant the Diarist 2

TEN years ago, I came across the work of a group of local historians in mid-Sussex who had transcribed and published A Fine Day in Hurstpierpoint: The diary of Thomas Marchant, 1714-1728. I had come across Thomas Marchant’s diary before: E. V. Lucas alludes to it in Highways and Byways in Sussex, published in 1904. Thomas wasn’t Pepys, or even Parson Woodforde. He was a yeoman farmer, and the diary deals with the day-to-day running of his estate. But I ordered a copy, owing to the coincidence of the name.

Thomas, I was sure, couldn’t have been a relative — or not a close one. My branch of Marchants were builders from Surrey. My great-aunt Marjorie (really) said that her father never talked about where he was from, except to say that he had run away from home.

Then, six years ago, my wife unearthed my line of descent. She found out where my great-grandfather had run away from: Hurstpierpoint, just on the Wealden side of the South Downs from Brighton. And she established that I am the oldest son of the oldest son in direct descent from Thomas Marchant the Diarist. So it is that I have the extraordinary privilege of knowing what my eight-times-great-grandfather was doing 300 years ago. It is a privilege, too, to be able to write my own diary in response.


Sturm und Dung

THOMAS had his off days, as do we all. The entry for 15 May 1727, for example — “A gloomy day. Carry’d dung, etc” — sounds very much how I feel listening to the news in 2019.

Sadly, all too often, Thomas’s pleasant Saturdays — such as the one in 1727 when he “sauntered about the market, din’d at Mr. Hunt’s. Drank with Mr Gates and Mr Milne before at Half Moon” — were followed by Sundays when “I were not at church.” Sometimes, these unexplained Sunday incapacities could last until Monday: “A dry day. Did nothing.” Yet his Christian practice is as present in the diary as are details of agricultural life.

Although he does miss the odd Sunday morning, he always notes who “preach’d” at morning and evening prayer. And, most weeks — and sometimes more than once — he attends a vestry meeting, usually for issues arising from the administration of Poor Relief.

On my desk, the form to join the electoral roll of St Andrew’s, Presteigne, is waiting to be filled in. As I was confirmed only last May, I’ve never been on such a thing before. It was my ambition to go to the deanery synod, feeling that this was the sort of thing that Thomas would have done; but Steve, the Rural Dean (aka Steve the Vicar), pointed out that those are public meetings, and that I could have gone along anyway.

My discovery of my link to Thomas Marchant was one of the reasons that I sought confirmation at this time: I wanted to step up to something that all of my grandsires might understand, and that we might be able to discuss, from the opposite ends of industrialisation.


A broad church

IN AN attempt to turn myself into a historian of the 18th century, I nipped over the border to visit St Barnabas’s, in the village of Brampton Bryan.

The church was built in 1656, during the Commonwealth, and it is as broad as it is long. Brampton Bryan is the home of the Harleys, where, in 1643, Brilliana, Lady Harley, withstood a six-week Royalist siege while her husband, Sir Robert, was off in “that London”, running the Committee for the Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry — which gave an air of respectability to the lads who were kicking your church in.

It was his grandson’s monument that I wanted to see. This Robert Harley, created Earl of Oxford by Queen Anne, was an extraordinary political and cultural figure. He was Speaker at the time of the Act of Settlement, Northern Secretary at the time of the Act of Union, and in charge of the Treasury for the last years of Anne’s reign. He was a patron of Defoe, Swift, and Pope.

But his rambling memorial in St Barnabas’s reads as though it were written by Vicky Pollard from Little Britain: “Yeah, but, then they impeached me, right, and then they put in me in the Tower — yeah, but, I hadn’t done nothing, and they had to let me out; two years I done.”

It is a useful reminder that all political careers end in failure, and that we need to be careful about the things that we write about ourselves — diarists or not.


In the name of the father

AS I write this, it is Shrove Tuesday 2019. My batter is resting downstairs in the kitchen. On Shrove Tuesday 1719, old Thomas tells us that he paid Dick White 2s. 6d. for mole-catching, and that John Haselgrove “hicholl’d today and yesterday” (2s. 6d. was 12½p). A “hicholl” was a comb for refining flax.

I’m becoming obsessed with this stuff; so I spent the day watching YouTube videos about making flax and catching moles. After all, but for 300 years of circumstance, all this might have been mine. So might the family advowson — for the living of Rusper, in the diocese of Chichester. Thomas sold it for 700 guineas, in 1721.

Why did we have such a thing? Why have I started saying “we”? I feel a book coming on.


Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.

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