Put it in the diary'

Put it in the diary'

Ruth A Symes looks at what our ancestors’ appointment diaries can reveal

Ruth A. Symes, Teacher with freelance writer

Ruth A. Symes

Teacher with freelance writer


In the industrial era, the managing of time
became a national obsession.
In the industrial era, the managing of time became a national obsession.

Unfortunately, appointment diaries are often the first items to be thrown away when a descendant is checking through the papers of a deceased relative. Archives too tend to dispose of such diaries unless they are part of a much larger estate of papers and/or belong to someone famous. Multiple volumes of these ‘mere’ records of engagements are often considered to be too scantily filled to be of any real historical value, and too bulky to warrant storage space. The sentimental stuff that absorbs us in other kinds of personal diaries simply isn’t there to be analysed. But, surprisingly, appointment diaries can open up many different of avenues of research about an ancestor, so do try to have a good look through before consigning them to the tip.

Appointment diaries were kept by all sorts of people from the late 19th century onwards. These diaries were not for keeping personal reminiscences of the past or for recording feelings. Unconcerned with the writer’s intimate emotional life, they were more mundane and practical containing mainly factual jottings (entries usually amounting to no more than a few words or, at most, a few lines). And primarily, appointments’ diaries were for planning – even micromanaging – the future. Indeed, they were necessary accessories in a rapidly expanding industrial world – a world that was (more than ever before) governed by considerations of time. No longer tethered to the age-old patterns of market days and seasonal fairs, the experiences of working life began to dance to less predictable commercial and political factors. Patterns of work could no longer be so easily guessed at, with important events appearing on the calendar without much warning and then, potentially, being postponed or cancelled equally unexpectedly.

When diary publisher John Letts established a stationery business in 1796 in the arcades of London’s Royal Exchange, his first publications set out to meet the needs of traders and merchants in keeping control of their stock. Several decades later, the company had virtually cornered the market in notebooks that were primarily for time-management purposes. An appointments diary allowed people to make sense of the new fast-flowing river of experience. Like the watch, it was a portable timepiece that gave people the sense – if not the actuality – that they were in charge of their own destinies. Indeed, The Northampton Mercury of Saturday 8 January 1870 expressed the view that the Letts’ Appointment Diary was a kind of ‘moral disciplinarian’, keeping a tab on people’s lives, or rather allowing people to keep a tab on their own lives.

The Dental Cosmos: Dentist’s Pocket Diary and Appointment Book for Registering Appointments for Dental Operations, White et al 1890. Some appointments’ diaries for professionals such as doctors and dentists, started to mark in slots of half (or even quarter) of an hour Yale University Medical Archives
The Dental Cosmos: Dentist’s Pocket Diary and Appointment Book for Registering Appointments for Dental Operations, White et al 1890. Some appointments’ diaries for professionals such as doctors and dentists, started to mark in slots of half (or even quarter) of an hour Yale University Medical Archives

The popularity of appointment diaries can be illustrated by their growing variety as the 19th century progressed. In 1812, Letts produced only one kind of diary; by 1836, they offered 28 different varieties; and by 1862, there were 55. By 1870, Letts (and other diary publishers such as Renshaw and Harwood) were producing different diaries for each of the following categories: ladies, the nobility and gentry, clergymen, physicians, lawyers, teachers, the army and navy, merchants, bankers, engineers, farmers and agriculturalists, and warehousemen and mechanics and tradesmen. The diaries were differently bound, leather, silk and velvet for the ladies, for example, ‘morocco’ or ‘russia’ with ‘spring locks’ for the nobility and gentry. As the 19th century progressed, a variety of useful printed information suitable to the user came to be included in appointment diaries including poetry, signs of the planets and zodiac, lists of eclipses, holidays and feast days, puzzles and charades, and the words to new songs. Towards the end of the 19th century, the printed ‘extras’ in diaries started to take a commercial turn and included advertisements for purchasable goods. If you have a family appointment diary its worth considering these pre-printed parts carefully because they can give you an idea of what interests and preoccupations were expected of a person of your ancestor’s station in society.

Appointments’ Diaries were sometimes known as ‘remembrancers,’ ‘memoranda books,’ ‘almanacs’, ‘agendas’ or ‘calendars.’
Appointments’ Diaries were sometimes known as ‘remembrancers,’ ‘memoranda books,’ ‘almanacs’, ‘agendas’ or ‘calendars.’ Remarkably, they allowed time to be carved up in different ways: five days per page; or a single day sliced up into morning, afternoon and evening, according to the diarist’s requirements

The types of appointment that your ancestor recorded in his or her diary will give you an idea of the way society operated at the time he or she lived. As the 19th century moved on into the 20th, there were more appointments to be kept both outside and inside the home. Businessmen noted down non-personal appointments such as calls from suppliers and buyers, hirings and firings, meetings, trips overseas and to other businesses. Socially-active middle-class ancestors might have marked in lectures or concerts that they wished to attend in the evenings or at weekends, outings to the theatre, museums or exhibitions. For women, there were also an increasing number of services to be organised in the domestic environment: the visits of tradespeople and dressmakers, the term dates of schools, interviews with prospective domestic servants and nannies, the services of chimney sweeps, piano tuners and gaslight repairers, for example. The number and variety of appointments in a diary will give you an idea of an ancestor’s public stature, the social groups to which he or she belonged, the clubs and interest groups of which he or she was a member. Any of these can then be further researched on the internet.

Women were often the keepers of the diary for whole families, marking in the birthdays and anniversaries not only of their own brood but also of acquaintances and other family members, and organising the forthcoming visits of friends and relations. Emma Darwin’s appointment diary for 1863 – a Harwood’s Diamond Diary with Almanack – describes the full and varied life that she led with her ten children: ‘Thursday 15th April, Began reading with H, Tuesday 21st April, H went to conjuror in village; Thursday 23rd April, G. came from school; Wednesday 29th April, Walked out with pony; Friday 31st April, Children went to Brambletype; Friday 29th May, Hen and Hilary to dog show’ and so on.

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This diary belonged to gunner Joseph Allen, a railwayman
This diary belonged to gunner Joseph Allen, a railwayman from Nottingham who joined up in 1915 and served as a gunner in the 83rd Brigade Indian Expeditionary Force in France. The appointment diary format allowed young men who had perhaps had no reason or occasion to write anything much before the War, tempting and unintimidating morsels of space in which to record the extraordinary experiences of their time in the trenches

An appointment diary can also give you an idea of where your ancestor was at certain times, allowing you to draw up both a geography and a chronology of his or her movements when no other evidence for these exists. Place names can be researched on online maps and the AA route-planner site (www.theaa.com/route-planner/) can give you an idea about the distances between places. Historic train timetables (www.railarchive.org.uk/research.htm) can give you an idea of how long train journeys might have taken. What times of the day, week or month were the busiest for your ancestor? When were holidays taken? You should make a note of any regularly repeated names of people, businesses or places which might be followed up in other family or local history sources.

Ask yourself exactly what the relationship was between your ancestor and his or her appointment diary? How much time and effort was invested in keeping such a calendar, how well was it adhered to? Who made the appointments? Who cancelled them and why? Bear in mind that appointment books provide useful pointers to and corroboration for evidence that you have acquired about your ancestor from other sources such as letters, fuller diaries, and even registrations of birth, marriage and death records. You should also ask yourself whether your family appointment diary contradicts or corroborates any other written material about a particular ancestor (to be found in other sources such as letters, diaries, employment records, and newspaper reports).

Appointment diaries, such as this one belonging to businessman Denis Nealon of Rathbun Company Industries, America
Appointment diaries, such as this one belonging to businessman Denis Nealon of Rathbun Company Industries, America, often included a section for accounts (here for May to June 1874). In the industrial world, time was much more closely allied to the making of money than it had been in earlier centuries and time and cash were tracked much more carefully

Useful books and websites
Aylmer, Felix, Dickens Incognito edited by Felix Aylmer, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1959.
Steinitz, Rebecca, Time, Space and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/17134 On the appointment diaries of Virginia Woolf.

darwin-online.org.uk/EditorialIntroductions/Browne_EmmaDiaries.html Emma Darwin’s diaries online

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