Tuesday, July 6, 2021

City of virtue and vice

Thomas Asline Ward, a man who devoted himself largely to serving the town of Sheffield, was baptised all of 240 years ago today. He may have well have been forgotten but for his diary, which was first published in instalments in a local paper. Ward visited London in the early part of the 19th century, and his diary provides an interesting and colourful account of the busy city.

Ward was baptised in Sheffield on 6 July 1781. He married Ann Lewin in 1814, though she died just 12 years later. He worked for the Cutlers’ Company being Master Cutler in 1816, and he served as Town Trustee from 1817 to 1863, including nearly two decades as Town Collector. He was also a magistrate from 1836. He seems to have become something of a local celebrity, but on trying for Parliament failed to be elected. He died in 1871. There is a very little information about Ward online, although a few details can be gleaned from Sheffield History and from the Staniforth family website.

Ward is largely remembered because of his diary. This was edited by Alexander B Bell and serialised in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1907-1908. A year later it was published as Peeps into the Past being passages from the Diary of Thomas Asline Ward by W C Leng & Co with an introduction and annotations by Robert Leader. In his introduction, Leader says: ‘The value of the diary is the insight it gives into the details of the singularly beautiful life of a citizen of high rectitude, endowed with fine mental gifts, cultivated by assiduous reading.’

Here are a few extracts from Ward’s diary, all but the first about a visit to London in 1804.

6 July 1802.
‘I completed my 21st year. The workmen, to the number of 100, supped at Mr Bellamy’s, the sign of the Royal Oak, in New Street. Father, Brother Saml. and I staid till nearly 12 o’clock. We went at 7. Expense, £10 10s.’

16 August 1804
‘After a long and fatiguing day’s business I accompanied Mrs Dalby to Vauxhall Gardens, where a great number of people were assembled, it being a Gala Night on account of the Duke of York’s birthday. We first noticed the orchestra, which is erected amidst trees, and ornamented by coloured lamps in various forms and devices. A band of music and some of the first singers in town occupied it, and at the time we entered Mrs Bland was singing. In a short time they left the orchestra for a little repose, and it was occupied by the Duke of York’s military band which played several martial spirit-stirring airs. 10 o’clock arrived and suddenly a bell rang which announced an exhibition of waterworks, after which the restless auditors and spectators again flocked to the orchestra, which was again the theatre of singing til’ 12 o’clock, when they finally concluded, and the fireworks commenced. After this spectacle the gardens are generally a scene of merriment and jollity. The Pandeans, German, Turkish and military bands are stationed in various parts of the place, and some of them are continually playing, while parties of joyful visitors “trip it on the light fantastic toe.” Here might be seen fat clumsy boors dancing with the taper, light London Miss, a jumble of oddity and levity truly ridiculous. Long covered promenades (with little cells in which were spread a profusion of refreshments) served to protect the votary of pleasure from dire effects of the midnight air, which many, more ardent, braved in the dark green alleys, whose cool and kindly shade afforded a charming retreat to the lovers of darkness. Should the pitiless rain intrude its unwelcome patter, all take refuge in a large room which is elegantly fitted up with various patriotic and emblematic devices, where the walk, the dance, the music, and the supper, continually offer themselves to the senses. The lights, the transparencies, the trees, the magic-resembling, fairy-like whole, formed for me a truly new scene. Mrs D and I retired 2 hours before the usual time it closes, which is 4 o’clock.’

20 August 1804
‘Mr Dalby and I walked to Hungerford Stairs, where we took a boat, and landed near Billingsgate. Having inspected this famous fishmarket, we walked to the Tower, where we saw wild beasts kept there, the regalia and the armouries. The ancient armour is interesting, and the modern is beautiful; for the swords, pistols, musquets, etc. quite clean and ready for service, are ranged in the most perfect order, and with the nicest art are placed so as to imitate columns, stars, and other devices.

After seeing the curiosities of the Tower, we sailed to the new docks, appropriated for the vessels in the West India trade, of which 300 homeward bound may lie in the basin at one time, and a dock for those outward bound is making. The fleet was arrived only 2 or 3 days, and we saw an immense crowd of them pressing towards the yards to discharge their lading. The buildings are of stone, 7 stories high, built very strong to contain the heavy stores which are frequently put in them. A moat, wall, and palisade surround the whole, and sentinels are placed to prevent depredations. The circumference is great, but I cannot guess at it.’

21 August 1804
‘And now, London, I must bid thee “Farewell.” Thou art the centre of Good and Evil, of Virtue and Vice! How many and how various are the characters which inhabit they walls! How magnificent thy palaces! How mean they cottages! How miserable some, how happy others! Some fatten on the spoils of poverty, others starve in the midst of plenty. How many thousands are insufficient to supply the luxury of some, while others want a crust of bread to satiate the calls of hunger! . . .’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 6 July 2011.

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