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  • Writer's pictureGranny Bonnet

The Parson Woodforde 1740 - 1803

Parson James Woodford by sculptor Linda Preece

Nowadays we are as much concerned with the nourishment of our bodies as with our minds whereas Parson James Woodforde presumably did all he thought necessary to look after his mortal soul though his body must have struggled with excess on a regular basis. We know these things thanks to his 45 year habit of daily noting down domestic detail and expenditure, so we have amongst other things, a vivid picture of his dining arrangements.

'Made a Scholar of New College' is the first diary entry that began an account of James Woodforde's expenses whilst studying at New College, Oxford and which held the living of Weston Longville, Norfolk. Born in Castle Cary, Somerset, in 1758, James was moved to take up the position of Rector of All Saints Church, Weston Longville after failing to succeed his father's livings.

As a 34 year old bachelor he began his comfortable new life with niece Nancy as housekeeper and several other servants besides. It was a gentlemanly life carried out slow-paced, tied intimately to the seasons, local events and most particularly on visitors and visiting. He lived on tithe income generated by the parish and college farmland, as well as sales of surplus from his own small farm. He brewed his own beer, made his own candles and occasionally hunted and fished for the table, any excess being shared with his friends who did likewise.

'At Lenwade Bridge we caught a Prodigious fine Pike which weighed 8 Pound and a half and had in it's Belly another Pike, of above a Pound. We caught also there the finest Trout I ever saw which weighed 3 pound and two ounces - Good Pike and Trout we also caught besides.'

The main drink was beer but the Parson was excessively fond of port and gin, the latter frequently smuggled to the parsonage, bottled by himself and for which the fine, if caught was a princely £10. In later life he suffered severely with gout and began to wonder if his habit of a bottle of port a day had been excessive...

While James Woodforde was able to frequently take time off and travel back to Somerset for months at a time, many of his parishioners led a very tough existence and subsisted on meagre incomes and rations. He was a kindly man though, often waiving fees or dipping into his pocket for odd coppers, sixpence or a shilling to help out someone less fortunate. A diary entry notes: June 7, 1790 … To Ross Bean, losing a good horse, gave 10s 6d. Mr. Du Quesne gave him the same, as did Mr. Custance. This was a considerable sum of money at the time but all the gentlemen knew the value of a horse to a poor working man.

It's rather a shame that the Parson is singled out nowadays and labelled gluttonous, as the quantities of food he describes, seem to have been the norm among friends with whom he regularly shared table. They clearly also struggled at times without the benefits of refrigeration we so take for granted today: ...for dinner 3 Fowls boiled, part of a Ham, the major part of which Ham was entirely eat out by the Flies getting into it, a tongue boiled, a Leg of Mutton rosted, and an excellent currant Pudding. I gave them for Supper a couple of Rabbitts smothered in onions, some Hash Mutton, and some rosted Potatoes.

June 8. ... Mr. and Mrs. Custance and Mr. du Quesne dined and spent the afternoon with us and stayed till 8 o’clock in the evening. Mr. and Mrs Custance were dressed very neat. We put their Coach my Barn. I gave them for dinner, a Couple of Chicken boiled and a Tongue, a Leg of Mutton boiled and Capers and Batter Pudding for the first Course, Second, a couple of Ducks rested and green Peas, some Artichokes, Tarts and Blancmange. After dinner, Almonds and Raisins, Oranges and Straw-berries. Mountain and Port Wines. Peas and Straw- berries the first gathered this year by me. We spent a very agreeable day, and all well pleased and merry.

The diaries give valuable insight into so much more that just dining habits. Even the poorest in our society today enjoys some sort of plumbing, heating, transport and health service. We do not struggle to pay a doctor largely unable to cure anything much, or for crude attempts at small-pox inoculation. Neither do we send for an old chap with pliers to pull out a rotten tooth. We no longer have chamber pots under the beds whose contents freeze solid in the night, nor live by the light of smoking, stinking tallow candles, the only precious wax one (if we are wealthy enough to own such a thing), being saved for an hour's burn on Christmas day.

James Woodforde was indeed a fortunate man and thanks to the efforts of John Beresford who accessed and recorded the diaries in 1923, we are able to contrast the dire conditions of the poor of the parish against how we all live so comfortably today.

The only known portrait of James Woodforde, painted in 1806 after his death by Samuel Woodforde. Image: Wikipedia.

Weston Longville Church - image Simon Knott

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