Monday, January 16, 2012

A wretched bad writer

One hundred and seventy five years ago today, a household servant called William Tayler was complaining to his diary - started just days earlier to practice writing - about being confined indoors to help with those sick during an influenza epidemic. The next day, though, he did get out and about, and subsequently wrote in his diary of ‘a new machine for scrapeing the roads and streets’ that could do as much as seven men.

Born in 1807, Tayler grew up with many siblings on a farm in Grafton, Oxfordshire. He was the first of his family to go into gentlemen’s service, initially for a local squire, and then for a wealthy widow in London, a Mrs Prinsep who lived in Marylebone. Also in the household was the widow’s daughter (at least forty years of age, says Tayler, and therefore deserving of the title ‘old maid’), and three maidservants - he was the only manservant. Mrs Prinsep died in 1850, and William moved his employment several times thereafter, rising to butler, and eventually being able to afford to rent a whole house in Paddington.

At the beginning of 1837, Tayler decided to keep a diary, to practise his writing: ‘As I am a wretched bad writer, many of my friends have advised me to practise more, to do which I have made many attempts but allways forgot or got tired so that it was never atended to. I am now about to write a sort of journal, to note down some of the chief things that come under my observation each day. This, I hope, will induce me to make use of my pen every day a little. My account of each subject will be very short - a sort of multo in parvo - as my book is very small and my time not very large.’

And for the rest of the year, almost every day, Tayler wrote short entries. The manuscript was first edited by Dorothy Wise and published - with the title Diary of William Tayler, Footman, 1837 - by the St Marylebone Society in 1962, but has been reprinted several times since then. In her brief introduction referring to the social history of the time, Wise argues that Tayler was one of the many people being displaced from rural society and migrating to towns, particularly London.

There is very little information about Tayler online, although a chapter about him - in Useful toil: autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s - can be read at Googlebooks. This was edited by John Burnett and published in 1974 by Allen Lane. Brighton in Diaries also has a chapter on Tayler. Here, though, are a few extracts from Dorothy Wise’s work - the first dated exactly 175 years ago today.

16 January 1837
‘The Influenza was never known to be so bad as it is now. Seven hundred poliecemen and upwards of four thousand soldiers are ill with it about London, and many large shops and manufactorys are put to great inconveniences on account of it. I am obliged to stay within to help the sick. This is what I don’t like as I like to get a run everyday when I can.’

17 January 1837
‘I took a short walk today, saw a new machine for scrapeing the roads and streets. It’s a very long kind of how, very much like an ell rake. One man draws it from one side of the street to the other, taking a whole sweep of mud with him at once, cleaning a piece a yard and a half at a time. There are two wheels, so, by pressing on the handles, he can wheel the thing back everytime he goes across the street for a hoefull. It’s considered to do as much as seven men.’

25 January 1837
‘Been to Hamstead with the carriage. It’s about six or seven miles out of London. It’s where a great many Cockneys goes to gipseying and to ride on the jackasses. It’s a very plesent place.’

10 August 1837
‘It’s Brighton Races today. Have been on the race course all the afternoon. I never felt the heat so much before in my life. There were whores and rogues in abundance and gambleing tables plenty and everything elce that is jeneraly at races. The town is very full on account of it.’

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