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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 1: The Victorian Era •

The Victorian Era

An engraving of a coach journey

A coach journey


The recently published Victorian Diaries provides an intimate glimpse of life as it was really lived by Victorian men and women. In reading it we are constantly reminded that whilst the scenery and props of life may change, human nature remains a constant. The publication's editor, Heather Creaton of the Centre of Metropolitan History, has expertly produced a volume which is both accessible and appealing. A key benefit of this work is that it highlights the compelling nature of primary material and therefore has the potential to motivate readers to conduct research of their own.

The Institute would like to thank the publisher, Mitchell Beazley for the cooperation we received when creating this feature. Thanks are also due to the copyright holders who permitted us to publish extracts from the diaries.


George Pegler was 25 and headmaster of the British School in Earith in 1850 at the time of the diary entries shown below. Concerns about parental control and influence, lack of respect for teachers and the consequential problems with adopting a successful disciplinary policy resonate into the 21st century.


January 18: Today my Committee met to pass the year's accounts and consider a charge brought against me as the master of the school, which was found to be groundless. Parents should be very careful how they spoke before their children, and if they wish them to improve in learning and moral feeling, inculcate obedience and respect for the Master.

June 14: For 15 days excepting Sundays I have put up my stick, hoping to do without corporal punishment in my school, but today I was obliged to bring it out again, but very reluctantly. I fear that I shall not be able entirely to dispense with the rod as long as the parents are so indifferent about good moral training at home. They furnish us with very unruly subjects.

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Maria Hobart married Robert Cust in 1856 when she was 23 and in the following year gave birth to their first baby. Robert (often referred to in the diaries as Rt.), was on extended leave from the Indian Civil Service when they got married and they initially settled in Windsor. Just prior to returning to India, Robert was present at the birth of the couple's first child to offer much needed comfort which counters the modern stereotype of the distant and severe Victorian patriarch.


October 18, Sunday. 8.30 A.M.: A slight pain caused a note by fly to be dispatched to Dr Bullar. The pains increased in frequency and severity. Dr Bullar arrived at 11.40 & at 12.20 our little one was brought into the world & cried out loud. There being no nurse, Horton and Ann (housemaid) had to wash and dress the infant, who was pronounced to be a fine child, but sometime afterwards was considered very small indeed. She was born with dark hair & beautiful nails on her hands and feet. Dear Rt was allowed by Dr B to to be of the greatest comfort to me in supporting me during the last pains. I was ordered to be kept very quiet but nevertheless saw my sister in the evening. The baby was brought to me several times in the day and night but not allowed to remain. At the time of the birth there were present Br B, Robert, Mamma, Horton and Caroline.

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John Pritt Harley was 70 when the following extract was written and was a famous comic actor who regularly acted at the Princess's Theatre, Oxford Street, London. He was tall and very thin and was jokingly known as 'Fat Jack'. Amusingly, his diaries show something of a preoccupation with food which he generally describes in detail.


January 4: Arose half past eight, breakfast half past nine. Went to Regent Street & saw John Savory and his son Charles. Then in buss to Southwark Street, saw Mat and her mother and J.C. Harding. Rehearsal at two, home to dinner at four. Roast beef, potato, biscuit, cheese, ale, port and sherry. Tea at seven. Left letter of excuse and card at J.Cooke's on having to decline dining with him tomorrow. Theatre at eight, saw Ellen on stage. Home at ten, supped at eleven, cold roast beef, biscuit, cheese, ale, gin and water. Read Spectator to Betsy. Bed at one. C.Kean ill, unable to act Hamlet.

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Young lady

Amy Pearce was 20 when the following diary entry was made. She was part of a middle class family and had an anxious disposition. Her only brother, Hugh left home in disgrace and suffered a loss of social position. Her writing is guarded at times and has a melodramatic tone redolent of some Victorian fiction.


July 22: As usual I make all kinds of resolutions & fail to keep them. I am feeling so wretched, so miserable, we heard today something dreadful, something I cannot & will not believe. Oh I pray it may not be true, it is enough to shake one's confidence in God, in heaven, in everything. Dear Mr Chapman: It is about him, but I cannot say what it is. I do not, I will not believe it. It makes me so wretched. I feel I want to die. Is there no good really in the world? It seems to me as though every one I ever looked to as being upright, godly men was being taken away from me and I feel inclined to think that there is not a good man living. I am so miserable. My darling brother too, his sin is a light one compared with others. He has not written yet and we are still in complete ignorance as to where he is.

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The Institute would like to thank the following copyright holders for allowing extracts to be published: Mr E. Hill in respect of George Pegler's diaries. We have tried to contact copyright holders before publication but copyright owners for diaries of Maria Cust, John Pritt Harley and Amy Pearce are presently unknown. We will gladly co-operate with the copyright owners if they wish to make themselves known to us.

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