Parson Woodforde’s accounts

Parson Woodforde was Rector of Weston during the late 18th century. He kept a detailed diary of his life, particularly his expenditure.

The 18th century really is a far-off country, shrouded in rumour and half-truth, with just a few honest guide-books that explain what a traveller might have found there. One I like very much was written by a parson who lived in a little village in Norfolk. Covering nearly fifty years, it describes a peaceful rural life of simple pleasures and great anxieties, when a ten-mile drive to the shops took two hours, and a trivial illness might kill you.

Parson Woodforde

James Woodforde was born in 1740, the son of a Somerset Vicar. He became a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and in 1774 he was appointed Rector of the parish of Weston, in Norfolk, where for the next thirty years he lived the tranquil life of a country parson. He kept a detailed diary in which he noted down not only significant events like Parliamentary elections, but also day-to-day trivia such as what he had for dinner and how much he had spent that day:

Dec 21st, 1780 … To poor People of this Parish being St. Thomas’s Day gave each of them 6d. against Christmas. Gave in the whole today - 44 in number, £1. 2s..0d. …

What would their 6d. (2½ p) have bought them? A loaf of bread? A coat? Asking what sixpence was actually worth in 1780 is a much more complicated question than it seems. What would a CD would have cost back then? Or a light bulb?

In this article I try to sketch how Parson Woodforde saw this strange, foreign, 18th century world, where servants cost a few pounds a year, gin was brought in by smugglers, and the chamber-pot froze in winter.

Woodforde's income

The ‘living’ of Weston Longville belonged to New College, Oxford. This meant that the College had the right to appoint the parish priest, who then lived on the tithe income generated by the parish and from nearby farmland also owned by the College. Weston was worth about £300 per year. When the living fell vacant in November 1774 the College held a meeting of the Fellows to choose between two candidates, and Woodforde was elected to the post. He went to Norwich the following April to meet the Bishop, ‘a short, fat man’, and visit his future home. Then he had a holiday, and returned to Somerset for the summer. In November he returned to Oxford to take his Bachelor of Divinity degree, for which he was required to hold a public debate with the Professor on some matters of doctrine, preach a sermon (in Latin), and pay a fee of £12. 18s. 6d. He moved to Weston parsonage in May 1776.

Being a country parson was not really a job as such, but more a device for allowing an educated gentleman to live comfortably. Woodforde was expected to read prayers at his church on Sundays - unless he decided to spend a few days somewhere else, in which case he was obliged to find a replacement to do it for him - and perform the occasional baptism, wedding, or burial. But much of his time was his own, and he spent it visiting his neighbours and supervising his farm.

His income derived mainly from the tithes paid by the farmers in his parish, and came traditionally as a single lump sum in December. When he was paid for the year, he in turn paid his tradesmen for the year.

Dec. 1st, 1776 … Had notice given at Church this morning for People to come to my House on Tuesday next to pay Tithe …

Dec. 3rd … My Frolic for my People to pay Tithe to me was this day. I gave them a good dinner, surloin of beef rosted, a Leg of Mutton boiled and plumb puddings in plenty. Recd. today only for Tithe and Glebe of them, £236. 2. 0. … They all broke up about 10 at night. Dinner at 2. Every Person well pleased, and were very happy indeed … They drank of wine 6 Bottles, of Rum 1 gallon and a half, and I know not what ale … 17 dined etc. that paid my Tithe … We had many droll songs from some of them …

The farmers’ tithes came to £236. This suggests that the total income of the 17 farmers was about ten times as much - say, £2,500 - so each farmer’s income will have been between £100 and £150 a year. Government figures today suggest that modern farmers earn about a hundred times as much, which gives some indication of the value of money then and now. It’s worth pointing out that even £150 a year was considerably less than their Rector’s income. Incidentally, Woodforde had received payment in the previous December for that year’s tithes, even though he was then still at Oxford.

Woodforde’s other income came mostly from selling the produce of his own farm, chiefly corn and pigs, and he also received rent from a small farm he had inherited back in Somerset. Interestingly, he acted as a banker for people he knew well. They entrusted him with money - £50 or £100 - and he invested it in farmland, paying them 5% interest a year. When they wanted it back, he sold the land again.

The income he received from his ecclesiastical duties was not high. The normal fee for ‘churching’ a woman - that is, for re-admitting her to the church after childbirth - was 6d., and if the woman was poor he often gave her the sixpence back. For a normal marriage he expected 2s. 6d. (12½ p) to read the Banns (which he returned if the woman’s father then turned up and forbade the marriage, as sometimes happened) plus the same again to perform the service. A burial cost half a guinea - that is, 10s. 6d. He doesn’t mention a fee for baptism, except in the case of the Squire’s children, when he was always given a five guinea banknote ‘wrapped up in clean white Paper’.

A marriage by Licence also cost 10s 6d. These weddings were frequently ‘compulsory’ and resulted from the Bastardy Act of 1733, which gave an unmarried pregnant woman the right to go before a Justice and name her child’s father. The parish officers then held the unfortunate man responsible for the cost of raising the child. If he couldn’t pay, he was sent to prison - but he was released if he agreed to marry the woman. This law remained in place until 1834. Woodforde hated performing compulsory marriages.

One Sunday in May 1780, a few years after he arrived in Weston, Woodforde ordered that “the bounds of the Parish would be gone over Wednesday next.” Almost all the men of the parish (about thirty of them, including the Squire) met at the inn at 10 o’clock that morning. They spent the day walking the boundary, marking its limits by cutting a blaze on suitable trees, or digging a hole and filling it with stones. (A friend suggests that the point of the exercise may have been in part to check for new encroachments.) When they returned to the inn at 3 o’clock, weary after their 12-mile tramp across the fields, the generous Squire gave half a guinea each to the six old men whose memories the group had relied on, five shillings each to the men with the Hook and the Spade, and sent the rest of them to the inn “to eat and drink as much as they would at his expense.” He invited Woodforde home to dinner, but that day the parson was simply too tired to accept. Woodforde was a naturally generous man, always ready with a tip of 1s. for some trifling service. He fed beggars who came to his door:

Nov 26, 1790 … A poor fellow from Windham (who looked exactly as if he came out of Jail, a young Fellow, short, black hair, a very dirty shirt, a Short kind of brown great Coat and Kitty-boots) came to the back door and begged some Victuals. I gave him part of a rost Neck of Veal and bread. He might be, and I hope is a very honest Fellow, but his appearance was much against him.

And when, in his mid-fifties he began to dislike turning out on a cold winter Sunday to hold a service, he hired a Curate at £30 a year to do the work for him, and mostly stayed away from the church after that.

May 30, 1796 … [The Curate] called on us again this morning, but did not stay long. I paid him for serving my Church for the last half Year, due May 22, 1796, the Sum of fifteen Pounds - £15, a ten Pound Note of Backs & a five Guinea Note of Kerrisons, he returned to me the Balance.

In those days a bank-note meant a note from a bank. The note was just a receipt, an acknowledgement that the sum quoted had been placed on deposit. Bank notes were far from being legal tender. Accepting one implied a degree of trust, not only in the person who offered it, but also in the bank that issued it.

Weston Parsonage

The Parsonage came with the job, of course, so Woodforde did not pay rent. The parson was however expected to maintain his house, and so on his first visit Woodforde arranged for a survey of ‘dilapidations’ to be carried out. The estimate for repairs came to over £175. The former Rector’s widow - who would have to pay the bill - then had her own survey done and came up with the much lower figure of £27. Woodforde moved in, and after yet another survey (which the widow also rejected) the matter was sent to the Ecclesiastical Court. At this point the widow gave in and agreed to pay.

Even with the repairs done, he worried constantly that a winter gale would cause some major structural damage.

Dec 23, 1790 … I had not been to bed last Night one Hour before I got up again on Account of the Wind being so very high and continued so till after six in the Morning. I then laid down on the bed with all my Cloaths on and rested till after Nine this Morning but it was not sweet … I was very uncomfortable and uneasy all Night, Walked about all the Night long above Stairs and below - No Candle or fire and very cold …

The candles he used were probably made on his farm. He regularly sold spare tallow to his butcher. Tallow candles were widely used because they were cheap, but they smoked, and they smelt nasty. He did possess a single large wax candle which was lit for an hour every Christmas Day as a special treat, but it was far too expensive to burn wax every day. Wax candles were valuable objects in their own right. A couple of generations earlier, an advertisement had appeared in the Daily Courant offering a reward for information about a robbery at a funeral in Stepney. The mourners, carrying large candles - ‘white Wax lights’ specially hired for the occasion - had been assaulted, and the candles stolen.

The house was home to Woodforde himself, a relative who lived with him (and the evenings were very long when he was briefly obliged to spend them alone), and his servants - his Man, his ‘Boy’, his Head Maid and his Lower Maid. His Farming Man would have lived on the farm.

There were at least four bedrooms - one for him, one for his permanent house-guest, a spare bedroom, and the maids’ room. People often shared a bed in those days, for warmth as well as company, I assume. For a while, his Head Maid slept with his niece, Nancy. It’s not clear where the male servants slept. Downstairs there was a parlour, a dining room, his study, and the kitchen, where the servants ate and spent their evenings. Water was drawn from a well. The privy (the ‘Necessary House’, or ‘Jericho’, as he referred to it) was a shed, outside somewhere.

The rooms were heated by coal fires, but that didn’t mean they were warm.

Feb 28, 1785 … The Frost severer than ever in the night as it even froze the Chamber Pots under the Beds. Wind very rough and tho’ the Sun shone all the morning very bright it continued freezing every minute. Most bitter cold to day indeed, and likely to continue …

Woodforde notes that he paid Land Tax for the parsonage and the College land (£3 for a quarter), Window Tax (£1. 2s. 7d. for a half-year - he had 23 windows!), House Tax (1s. 9d. for a half-year), and Horse Tax (two, at 10s. each). In all, these taxes cost him about £16 a year. Income tax was still unheard of.

Dinner with Parson Woodforde

The Woodforde household ate three meals a day. Breakfast and supper seem to have consisted mainly of snacks, and the main meal of the day was dinner, at about three o’clock in the afternoon. Entertaining played a large role in his social life. He and a group of friends dined together every week, taking turns to be the host, though it was important for his guests to think ahead if they wanted to get home afterwards.

Nov 9, 1792 … I asked him [Mr. Du Quesne, who had called in for an hour] to dine with us, but there being no Moon, he could not.

These gatherings were also his means of learning what was happening in the larger world outside his little parish. From the care he takes in writing down the details of the meals, the feasts obviously meant a great deal to him.

Aug 27, 1784 … We had for dinner some Pike, a Couple of Fowls boiled and Piggs Face, green Peas Soup and a prodigious fine and fat Haunch of Venison … The second Course was a Fricasse, a Couple of Ducks roasted, green Peas, plumb Pudding, Maccaroni, &c. …

Two ‘courses’ seem to have been quite usual at a dinner party, though when the company was smaller the meals were more modest:

Aug 29, 1786 … We had for Dinner Ham and Fowls, Tripe, green Peas, a fine Hare and a Rasberry Tart …

Hare coursing was not thought of as a cruel and unnecessary sport, but as an enjoyable walk with the dogs that might put some meat on the table. Woodforde went out coursing several times a year, and it was not unusual for friends to send each other a hare as a gift. Similarly, when he went fishing, he might eat the day’s catch, or pass it on to friends, or even keep it for a while in the pond in his garden.

The household would have baked its own bread, though bread was taken so much for granted that Woodforde barely mentions it. During the terrible winter of 1794/5, when the milk froze in the dairy, he contributed £10 to help the poor people in the parish. They were given free bread twice a week, with a Sixpenny Loaf weighing 4 lb. 2 oz. (about 2 kg.). So each Christmas sixpence he handed out would have fed a family for a couple of days.

The usual household drink was beer, and he brewed barrels of different strengths every couple of months. Once a year, in January, Woodforde paid his maltster. The bill was typically around £20.

He liked port, too, and at one stage he was drinking a bottle a day, though when later he was stricken by gout he wondered if perhaps that had been excessive. Gin and brandy he bought by the barrel from the local smugglers. Gin cost 6s. a gallon (half the shop price), and brandy was 10s. He bottled the ‘Moonshine’ himself, quickly and in secret - the penalty for being caught with a smuggled barrel was a £10 fine.

Dec 29, 1786 … Had another Tub of Gin and another of the best Coniac Brandy brought me this evening abt 9. We heard a thump at the front Door about that time, but did not know what it was, till I went out and found the 2 Tubs - but nobody there.

The Moonshine brought it, he wrote in his diary. He must have been an old and valued customer, as the normal payment terms were cash on delivery. By day, Woodforde’s bootlegger was the local blacksmith, by the way.

Travelling to Norwich and beyond

Woodforde kept a couple of horses as personal transport. Ladies were not expected to ride them. For a social engagement the Woodfordes might use the small horse-drawn cart, but they were just as likely to walk. When it rained, they got wet - though occasionally the person they were visiting would send his carriage for them. The large cart was used mostly by his Farming Man to move grain from the farm to the mill, and to fetch coal (which was measured in ‘Chaldrons’).

Norwich is about ten miles from Weston Longville and it took about two hours to get there in the small cart. Ten miles was no great distance, even in the 17th century. People walked there and back in a day. Woodforde sent his man into Norwich every week or so to buy the newspaper and other small necessities of life, or simply to post a letter:

Feb 18, 1792 … Sent Briton early this morning on horseback to Norwich after News and many other things. He came home about 5 o’clock this Afternoon having had a very cold and disagreeable Day of it - As it snowed the whole Day with a strong Wind and also froze sharply all Day.

However, when Woodforde himself made the journey he usually spent the night in town, probably because to return in the pitch dark would have been too difficult and dangerous.

Society only functioned because horses could pull ploughs, and carts, and coaches. The horse was the diesel engine of its day. But unlike a tractor, it was capable of finding its own way home when its rider got so drunk that he fell off.

Nov 28, 1792 … Sent Ben round my Parish this morning to inform the Farmers of my Tithe Audit on Tuesday next. He got very full indeed of liquor somewhere or another. The Horse got away from him and came home, leaving him in Peachmans Lane lying down, we got him home however about 5 o’clock …

And since a horse cost fifteen or twenty guineas, it was not cheap to replace. When a poor man’s horse died it could be a disaster for him, as Woodforde and his friends understood very well.

June 7, 1790 … To Ross Bean, losing a good horse, gave 10s 6d. Mr. Du Quesne gave him the same, as did Mr. Custance.

Long-distance travel seems to have been expensive and uncomfortable. When Woodforde took a trip to the west country in 1789 with his niece, he arranged for transport to take them into Norwich, where he booked seats on the London coach. The hundred mile journey to London lasted 17 hours. It rained a good deal in the night, apparently, and nobody slept much.

June 9, 1789, Tuesday … About Noon we went in a Norwich Chaise to Norwich, got there about 2 o’clock and there dined and spent the Afternoon at the Kings Head and my servant Briton went with us and my Boy with him to have back his Horse, as Briton goes with us into the West of England and set of to night. … Paid at the Expedition Office for 2 Inside Places at 24s. 0d. and 1 outside at 14s. 0d. For extraordinary luggage at 1½d. per Pd 12s. 0d. Paid for chaise &c at the Kings Head abt 19s. 9d. At 6 o’clock precisely Nancy and self got into the Expedition Coach for London and Briton on the Outside, and sat of for London where we expect to arrive to Morrow Morn by 11 o’clock.

They arrived on time, and they pottered about in London for a day or two, shopping, watching the changing of the guard at St. James’ Palace, and attending a performance at the theatre. Then they set off on the Salisbury coach, again with Woodforde and his niece inside and the servant outside. This journey lasted from mid-afternoon until early the next morning and cost £2 16s., plus a 2s. tip to the coachmen and 7s. for ‘eating and drinking in the Night’. They spent the weekend at Salisbury, recovering. On the Monday they took a post chaise for Hindon (15 miles - 18s. 6d., plus 2s. tip, plus 4s. to rent a horse for his servant) and then another to Stourhead (10 miles - 9s. 6d.) and then yet another to Cole (7 miles - 13s. 6d. including the extra horse, plus a 2s. tip for the driver, plus another 1s. 6d. in turnpike fees), where his sister was waiting for them. They arrived at Cole that evening. The total cost of the journey from his home to his sister’s house came to over £10, not including food and accommodation along the way.

Card games and the theatre

Woodforde’s great passion was for cards. Scarcely a day passed without several hands of Quadrille, or Loo, or Cribbage. He always played for money, and he noted carefully in his diary how much he had won or lost - usually a few shillings.

Occasionally after a dinner party there might be singing, and he did buy the odd magazine or novel to read when he had to spend an evening alone. He paid 2s 6d. for a copy of Robinson Crusoe, and the Westminster Magazine cost 6d. A trip to Norwich sometimes included an evening at a concert or the theatre.

Feb 9, 1790 … In the Evening I walked to Rivetts the Book Keeper of the Norwich Theatre and took six Places in the Boxes for to Morrow Evening, paid 18s. 0d.

And a few years before they had all gone to see the Automaton at Norwich,

Mar 16, 1786 … at which we were all highly Astonished, it was a wax Doll, a female Figure, dressed with a Trumpet in her Mouth, under a kind of Canopy on Pillars. It answered distinctly every Question proposed to it, and even proposed Questions itself, the Deception indeed is wonderfully ingenious. We each paid 1 Shilling.

The Woodfordes regularly exchanged letters with their relations in Somerset. Postage wasn’t cheap, but the letters were delivered by whoever happened to be passing, since everyone knew everyone else.

Jan 7, 1796 … Nancy had two Letters this Afternoon, one from my Niece Pounsett from Bath, and the other from her Brother Sam from London, all well. A Girl from Lenewade-Bridge brought them from one Thorne, a Butcher there, and he had them yesterday at Norwich, I gave the Girl for bringing them to my house 6d. The Letters came to 2s. 1d., one of them being charged double on Account of a little strip of Paper inclosed in that from Bath.

Toothache, rhubarb powder and a black cat

Toothache can happen to anyone, and at the time there was only one cure for it - send for the blacksmith.

Oct 24, 1785 ... The Tooth-Ach so very bad all night and the same this Morn’ that I sent for John Reeves the Farrier who lives at the Hart and often draws Teeth for People, to draw one for me. He returned with my Man about 11 o’clock this Morning and he pulled it out for me the first Pull, but it was a monstrous Crash and more so, it being one of the Eye Teeth, it had but one Fang but that was very long. I gave Johnny Reeves for drawing it 2s. 6d. A great pain in the Jaw Bone continued all Day and Night but nothing so bad as the Tooth Ach.

In the eighteenth century the science of medicine was almost non-existent. When people fell ill, they either recovered or died, and nobody knew why. Although the local Doctor was respected (and expensive), and was called in by the gentry when it seemed necessary, nobody expected him to cure the patient. All he could do was to alleviate the symptoms. He might bleed the sufferer, or prescribe a herbal powder.

Woodforde frequently dosed himself and his household with rhubarb powder, perhaps because of the constipation induced by eating too much meat and too little fibre.

Aug 8, 1783 … My Servant Boy Jack Warton taken very ill in the Fever that is going about - I gave him some Rhubarb.

Aug 9 … My Boy still very bad tho’ not so bad as yesterday. My Under Maid Lizzy Greaves taken very ill also in the Fever. I sent this morning early for Dr. Thorne and he came here about 11 o’clock and he examined them and in the Evening they are to have some things from him to take …

[... that evening:] We found both our sick Servants had gone to bed and very ill. I had them both up and to each gave a Vomit abt. 10 o’clock and then sent them back to bed after it had done working. They were both very feverish and very ill.

Both his servants did eventually recover, despite his intervention, though they were ill for two months and during that time they passed on the infection to others in the household. The doctor recommended that Lizzy should take the Bark, which (we now know) contained quinine. Malaria is not confined to Africa, and malarial mosquitoes are apparently still found in the Essex marshes today.

Some of the more common ailments were warded off by folk-remedies.

May 6, 1790 … To 18 Yards of black Ribband paid 5s. 0d. Gave my Brother half my black Ribband. The Ribband is designed to put round our necks to prevent sore throats.

Mar 11, 1791 … The Stiony on my right Eye-lid still swelled and inflamed very much. As it is commonly said that the Eye-lid being rubbed by the tail of a black Cat would do it much good if not entirely cure it, and having a black Cat, a little before dinner I made a trial of it, and very soon after dinner I found my Eye-lid much abated of the swelling and almost free from Pain.

When hope of recovery was faint, as it often was, Woodforde’s unwavering faith in the existence of heaven allowed him to see suffering in a different light from today.

Mar 27, 1784 … A poor Woman brought a Child this morning to me from Witchingham to desire me to privately baptise it, being very bad since it was born - which I did directly by name Benjamin - It was born last Sunday and scarce a moment free from crying ever since. The poor Infant cried all the time it was here, very black in the face, and seemed to be in much pain. Pray God release him from his great misery.

Woodforde's servants

It would have been unthinkable for a man in Parson Woodforde’s position not to have servants, but for a single man with simple tastes he did seem to employ rather a lot of them. He paid their wages once a year, in January. This entry is typical:

In addition to their wages (and their food and lodging), he had to pay the recently imposed ‘servant tax’ of £1 5s. per man (so naturally he didn’t count the Boy) and 2s. 6d. per woman, but as he was a bachelor the tax was doubled. His servants cost him £25. 13. 0 cash, less than 10% of his income, and about the same as a return trip to Bath.

Servants were expected to earn their keep and had no regular days off, but they were free to attend the local fair in the summer. They could even spend the occasional night away from the parsonage, provided they first obtained Woodforde’s permission.

It seems to have been understood that the Boy would move on and learn a trade after a year or so. When the district heard that a servant’s job would be coming vacant at the Parsonage, interested parties came to visit.

Jan 25, 1785 … One Sucker [yes, that really was his name] from Mattishall a little Farmer came here this morning with his Son John about 13 Years of age to desire me to take his said Son at old Lady Day next in room of Jack Warton who then leaves me on Account of his now being too old for his Place - and which after some talk with his Father I agreed to take him then being well recommended … I gave the Boy, by way of earnest Mony 1s. 0d. I am to give him per Annum for Wages £1 1s. 0d. a Coat and Waistcoat and Hat when wanted, to allow him something for being washed out and mended - And his Friends to find him in Stockings and Shoes &c.

Washing the clothes was not the maids’ job. Woodforde’s practice was to hire a couple of old washer-women for a whole week, as and when he needed them.

Comparisons between then and now

Woodforde lived rather well on his £300 a year. How much would he need today to live in a similar style? What would £1 then be worth today?

This is actually two different questions, and both of them amount to ‘how-long-is-a-piece-of-string’. The world today is so different from Woodforde’s little village that a direct comparison is almost meaningless. To see why, try asking the question in two different ways.

First: ‘What annual income would be needed to support five servants?’ The cost of their wages today would surely be closer to £100,000 a year than the £22 Woodforde paid. And his tax bill of £16 would now be related much more to his overall income (and the skill of his accountant). He might well need an annual income of over £150,000, which would mean that £1 then is equivalent to £500 today.

Alternatively: ‘What annual income would be needed if the servants and the tax-man take only 14% of it? (as in Woodforde’s case). The answer might then be £30,000 a year, which would mean that £1 then would be equivalent to £100 today.

Both questions are unrealistic, because each requires an unreasonable assumption - either that Woodforde would have cheerfully handed over more than half his income in taxes, or that servants would work for practically nothing. But of the two, it seems to me that the second gets closer to the truth.

Another way of approaching the problem would be to compare the price then and now of some commodity that has remained the same, such as meat. Some of his meat came from his farm, but even so Woodforde’s butcher’s bill in 1784 was £45. Today (ignoring the farm) it would be well over £3,000 - he was feeding 6 people regularly, and they all loved to eat meat. So meat now costs perhaps 80 times more than it did then.

Two rather shaky examples don’t amount to proof, but they do indicate the general area where the truth might lie. I am going to assume that £1 then is worth £100 today, which makes Woodforde’s income the equivalent of £30,000.

It follows that his servants really did work for next to nothing. His Head Maid earned the equivalent of less than £600 a year. On the plus side, though, she had a roof over her head and plenty to eat, so perhaps she counted herself lucky. There was no shortage of applicants for the job when it became vacant. And craftsmen too were readily affordable. A skilled carpenter was paid 14s. for 4½ days’ work - about 3s. a day. I wonder how he felt when he saw Woodforde tip another man 2s. 6d. simply for delivering a gift from his master.

The Woodfordes’ trip to Somerset in 1789 took a week and cost well over £10 - around £1,000 in today’s terms. For this he got two uncomfortable seats in a coach (and one very wet and uncomfortable seat outside for his servant). The same journey today by car or train would take perhaps four hours and cost under £100. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Using the same multiplier of 100, his fee for a wedding translates as £25, with £2 for ‘churching’ a woman. An ounce of snuff cost £1. A new gown for his niece was £120. Dinner, bed and breakfast at his usual Norwich inn cost £60. New breeches for his servants were £120. A novel cost £10. A bottle of (smuggled) gin was £4. But a horse cost nearly £2,000 - two years earnings for a working man, three weeks income for Woodforde.

Staying in touch with distant relatives could be expensive, as the recipient of a letter paid typically a shilling or so, plus a tip to whoever delivered it, so in today’s terms a letter cost more than £5. However, a benefit of the system was that Woodforde never got junk mail.

The first estimate for property ‘dilapidations’ of £175 in 1774 translates as £18,000 today - no wonder the widow was alarmed at the prospect of having to find this enormous sum. Of the bills he paid annually, after he had the tithe income, his wine merchant’s was £1,600, his coal merchant’s was £1,800 and his mercer’s (who supplied the expensive cloth for his and his niece’s clothes) £1,400.

All these figures seem to make sense in terms of what things cost today, so the multiplier of 100 times must be about right. Why, then, were his servants prepared to work for such low wages? The answer must be because low wages were better than no wages at all. There must have been too many people chasing too few jobs. The population was growing, and enclosures were reducing opportunities on the land. When the industrial revolution made it possible for them to find work in the cities, poor people moved there in droves and servants became harder to find. But all that lay in the future. Woodforde just happened to live at a time when servants were plentiful and cheap.

Of the other major differences between life then and life today, two themes stand out. The first is that the weather was always important to Woodforde. If he worked in his garden on a hot summer day he ‘perspired copiously’. I would wear shorts. If it rained, he didn’t go out, or he got wet. I would go by car. In the depths of winter,

… Water above Stairs froze this morning after Betty had carried it above Stairs for my washing before I got up …

but I can have a hot shower no matter how cold it is outside. Technology insulates us from the weather.

The second striking difference is that people routinely trusted casual acquaintances to deliver letters, or even money. For example,

Willm Aldridge of Norwich, who carries about the Country Cottons, Muslins &c called here this Morning … I desired him that when he was next in London which he should very shortly, that he would pay a Bill for me in Town to one Mr. Lambert Peruke Maker in St. Clements …

There were rogues about, of course - Woodforde’s stable was broken into one night, and some tools stolen - but robberies were literally few and far between. (The burglars were caught, by the way, and sent to jail for three years.) Were people more honest then? Or was it simply that in a small community everyone knew everyone else, at least by reputation? Whatever the reason, those days have gone, and it seems to me that our lives are in some ways the poorer for it.

Copyright © John Hearfield 2008