A few posts ago I briefly introduced Ralph Thoresby, the Leeds antiquarian and diarist whose intellectual and religious pursuits have caught my attention. My intention is to make this a regular series where I offer up some little gems from the Thoresby diary, but in these initial posts I want to provide a bit of background for the entries and the reasons why they exist in the first place.
Previously I pondered in general terms why people keep diaries, and what sorts of information you might include in them, here I want to explore Thoresby’s inspiration in more depth. Thoresby began his diary in 1677, and pasted into the first volume is an intriguing note from his father John Thoresby, written on 15 August 1677.
Ralph had been placed with a relative in London to learn the cloth trade, and his father was writing to him with advice about how to conduct himself in the City. He began by requesting that his son walk to Ludgate Hill to buy him two peruke wig combs which should be sent back to Leeds by the carrier. He continued by reminding Ralph to buy stockings, shoes and a hat, the latter ‘not over broad because the fashion will probably be narrower still’. After these everyday beginnings, Thoresby Snr offered some thoughts on conduct:
Remember that I advised you to be always employed in lawfull some imployment or other, sometimes in hearing good sermons wherein you will have many opportunities, sometimes in attending my cosen at the Hall and helping to lift or remove cloth [or any] such thing wherein you can be usefull or serviceable, sometimes in writing or drawing prospects which will be a pleasant or innocent recreations, as that of the monument, or of Bedlam, which [might be] taken very well in the middle of morefields…
Next, John Thoresby made a suggestion that apparently left a very long lasting impression on his son. He wrote:
I would have you in a little booke which you may either buy [or] make of 2 or 3 shreads of paper, take a little journall of any thing remarkable every day principally [as] to your self, as suppose Aug: 20 I was at such a place (or) such a one preached from such a text and my heart was touched, (or) I was a negligent hearer, (or) otherwise, etc I have thought this a good method for one to keep a good tolerable decorum in actions because he is to be accountable to himself as well as to god which we are too apt to forgett.
Given the fact that Ralph Thoresby’s diary begins shortly afterwards, on 3 September 1677, this seems to be a remarkable insight into why he began keeping a such a record, and to the motivation behind it. Ralph clearly took his father’s advice to heart, and this fits with a strong sense of filial loyalty that is amply demonstrated in the diary, particularly after Thoresby Snr’s sudden death in 1679. From this point in the diary Ralph’s grief is painfully apparent in many diary entries, one raw passage describing how he is unable to participate in psalm singing because:
methinks I hear his very voice, and with renewed pangs I am constrained to crouch to the bottom of the pew, and there vent my sorrow in plenty of tears.
His diary therefore fits into the ‘spiritual diary’ genre as an introspective work, inspired by a desire to give a good account of oneself before God. The Thoresbys were a dissenting family, so the paternal encouragement of rigorous self-examination comes as no surprise.
My understanding of Ralph Thoresby’s motives was greatly enhanced by actually seeing the volumes of the diary at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society archives last November. The diary was first published by Reverend Hunter in 1830 in two volumes, but the published material represents only a tiny fraction of the eight volumes of the diary which survive. In selecting material that Hunter thought would be of interest to his readers, the editor has obscured the extent to which the diary is a spiritual document – the vast majority of the original diary is actually taken up with Thoresby’s description of and exploration of questions of theology that he encountered during attendance at both Church of England services and dissenting meetings, not with the more secular concerns that Hunter focused on. In this instance, the process of editing the diary has made it seem much more like Bridget Jones’ diary with a bit of added religion, and much less like the extended spiritual meditation that the manuscript represents.
Reverend Hunter did include John Thoresby’s note to his son in the preface to the published diary, although in this instance he excluded any talk of combs, foul linen and the merits of ‘secondhand beavers’ that John opens with. Even this seems like a significant omission – the fact that Thoresby Snr bookends his promotion of diary writing with everyday advice indicates how integrated spiritual concerns were with daily activities for those of the Thoresby’s ilk. Self-examination was just as important as a properly maintained wig, spiritual discipline sat naturally alongside innocent recreations and decorum in dress. I will wrap up with John Thoresby’s parting shot on producing good ‘prospects’, which, during my more frivolous moments seems pregnant with a deeper meaning: ‘when you draw any thing… make your lines straight’.
 Yorkshire Archaelogical Society, MS26.
 The Diary of Ralph Thoresby, Author of the Topography of Leeds (1677-1724), J. Hunter (ed.), two vols. (London, 1830).