Secrets of a Norfolk diary revealed after almost 250 years.

Portrait of Mary Hardy in 1785 aged 51 by James Gabriel HuquierThe diarist is dressed for the playho

Portrait of Mary Hardy in 1785 aged 51 by James Gabriel HuquierThe diarist is dressed for the playhouse at Holt: an outbuilding at the back of the White Lion, cleared for the travelling players. Mary Hardy was a keen theatre-goer at this time. Later she became a Methodist and shunned the playhouse. Picture: Cozens-Hardy Collection - Credit: Picture: Cozens-Hardy Collection

A project to reveal the secrets of a diary begun by a Norfolk woman almost 250 years ago has finally been completed after more than three decades of work

Two pages from Mary Hardy's diary for November 1805This extraordinary diary, half a million words lo

Two pages from Mary Hardy's diary for November 1805This extraordinary diary, half a million words long, was written by a woman with little formal education. Her Norfolk voice is heard in her spelling, as in 'Aster' for Easter (pronounced 'Ayster'), or 'tamer' for teamer (driver of a team of horses). Here she records the Letheringsett wedding of her only daughter Mary Ann to the Sprowston farmer Jeremiah Cozens on 12 November 1805. Picture: Cozens-Hardy Collection - Credit: Picture: Cozens-Hardy Collection

In 1773 a Norfolk woman began a diary with an account of a boat trip from Coltishall to Yarmouth. Mary Hardy kept writing for 36 years, detailing her daily life, first in Coltishall and then Letheringsett.

More than 200 years later Margaret Bird began transcribing, editing and publishing the diaries. It has taken her 32 years.

This month the final part of her mammoth task is published – four volumes of commentary and analysis of the diaries of the Norfolk farmer, brewer and trader and her family. “Hers was the world of trade and manufacturing. She was the wife of a farmer, maltster and brewer,” said Margaret. “Her diary is remarkable for being nearly as long as the Old Testament of the Bible and in portraying a man’s world in which she was actively involved.”

Mary writes about bread riots, disasters at sea, commercial rivalries, religious and political upheavals, and her own family’s day-to-day life. There are days out to the theatre and dances too, and tragedies, including the death of Mary’s eldest son, Raven, who succumbed to tuberculosis, aged just 19. Raven, which was Mary’s maiden name, is a name used by her descendants to this day.

Letheringsett Hall, near Holt. This shows the east front, remodelled in 1832-34 by the Hardys' son W

Letheringsett Hall, near Holt. This shows the east front, remodelled in 1832-34 by the Hardys' son William Hardy junior (1770-1842). The diarist lived here from 1781 until her death in 1809, The River Glaven runs in the foreground, used by William Hardy to power his maltings and brewery across the road. Picture: Margaret Bird. - Credit: Margaret Bird

You may also want to watch:

The diary begins in 1773, just after the birth of her third child, Mary Ann, but this is not simply a domestic diary. Mary writes of working lives – her own and her family’s, their staff and the people they live alongside and meet.

Margaret Bird believes it was also a diary of gratitude. “Each day following her recovery from Mary Ann’s birth held its own unique significance. She was a deeply religious woman, and she was giving thanks - as the mounting pages and each new ledger attest,” said Margaret.

Most Read

Margaret, who lives in Surrey and has been holidaying on the Norfolk Broads since childhood, studied history at Oxford. When she read the few extracts from the diary which had been published in 1968, she said: “I felt an immediate bond with this diarist. I knew her home village intimately, as Coltishall had been the home berth of my parents’ small motor cruiser since 1948. I knew the church, the lanes, the waterways and the public houses familiar to her. I also knew Letheringsett well as one of my closest friends lived there.

“I could see the diary’s significance just from the short extracts. I loved Norfolk and its history, and I had a feel for the waterways which underpinned the Hardys’ malting and brewing concern.”

Mary Hardy and her World by Margaret Bird Volume 1 shows Mary Hardy in 1785.

Mary Hardy and her World by Margaret Bird Volume 1 shows Mary Hardy in 1785. - Credit: Burnham Press

Margaret said the diary started with information about business events but then became a wider record.

Mary had been born and raised at Whissonsett, near Fakenham, and married William Hardy, a tax collector who went on to farm at Coltishall and Horstead and manage a maltings and brewery. William and Mary moved from tenant farming to their own farm at Letheringsett, near Holt, where they harnessed the power of the river to run a corn mill and maltings.

The diary shows them working hard growing wheat and barley, making malt, and brewing and delivering beer to around 100 pubs in an area stretching from the Burnhams to Cromer and across to the Broads.

“The best aspect for me is the way Mary Hardy depicts the social, economic and religious forces of the time,” said Margaret. “The women of Mary Hardy’s circle were not downtrodden creatures totally dependent on their husbands. They were forceful personalities, and kept hold of their property through manorial, customary law well before the Married Women’s Property Act of the mid-Victorian age. The diarist was actively engaged in the family business, as her entries show clearly.”

Mary’s daughter, Mary Ann, married farmer Jeremiah Cozens – beginning the Cozens-Hardy family. The diaries were passed down to present-day Cozens-Hardy descendants. Margaret discovered that, Beryl Cozens-Hardy, doubly descended from Mary Hardy, was the custodian of the books. Beryl, who died in 2011, gave Margaret permission to work on them.

Margaret had no idea the project would take her more than three decades.

She said she was surprised by the astonishingly long hours worked by Mary and her family, but her own work has been phenomenal too.

When she began the project Margaret was a partner in the business she and her husband had founded, an economic consultancy specialising in the aluminium industry, with three children, and her ill mother, to care for. “I would work long into the night as our children and the business took priority in the day,” she said. “Since 1988 I have worked on The Diary of Mary Hardy and then the companion volumes Mary Hardy and her World almost every day. At first I could manage only about four or five hours a day as I had so many other commitments. However when my husband and I retired in 2000 I could devote much more time to the task.

“From then onwards I have given it 10 to 15 hours a day, usually seven days a week, other than during our time on the boat on the Broads. When in Norfolk I carried out the fieldwork and worked in libraries and the record office.”

Reviewers have described the diaries as ‘incredibly rich material’ and Margaret’s work as ‘a remarkable feat of scholarly dedication.’

One of her favourite excerpts is the launch of William and Mary’s own wherry at Coltishall in 1776 – when the men got very drunk and the following day saw Mary paying a friend for broken glassware.

“After long sessions at the Recruiting Sergeant at Horstead, the nearest of the family’s many tied houses, William Hardy was frequently laid up ‘poorly’,” said Margaret.

Another favourite is an account of their younger son’s argument with his teacher. “The parents instantly took their son’s part,” said Margaret. “They took William out of school that same day, and from the age of nine he went to school at neighbouring Great Hautbois, and then at Holt, only if he felt so inclined. His focus was on the business and on learning his craft - at which he excelled.”

Mary Hardy and her World 1773-1809, by Margaret Bird, is published on April 23 by Burnham Press.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter