The diary of Nathaniel Bryceson, wharf clerk of Soho and Pimlico, 1846
The diary of Nathaniel Bryceson is a rare survival. It gives a fascinating insight into the daily life of a Victorian clerk, including details of his job at the coal wharf and the diverse places he visits across London as well as numerous mentions of family ailments and his assessment of the weather. Local events, especially murders, sudden deaths of famous people and the execution of criminals, feature alongside references to major London landmarks. National politics are mentioned in the context of the Parliamentary debates on the Corn Laws and the replacement of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel by Lord John Russell. There is even an international dimension to the diary with references to the war between the British and the Sikhs in India.
Nathaniel Bryceson was born in St Marylebone on 5 June 1826. His mother Mary (born in 1797) had been married to John Bryceson, who died in 1824. From Nathaniel’s baptism entry on 4 July 1826 we can see that his father was Nathaniel White, a pauper in the St Marylebone Workhouse. Mary was married again in 1841 to Matthew Ward (‘Mattie’), a tailor 13 years her senior. Nathaniel seems to have been Mary’s only child.
In 1846 the Ward family were living at 9 Richmond Buildings, Soho, on the west side of Dean Street. The tenement itself is no longer there. John Shepard (otherwise spelt Sheppard or Shepherd), Nathaniel’s maternal uncle, shared the accommodation with them, and in May of that year ‘Granny’ Shepard also moved in.
Little is known of Nathaniel’s early years. At one time he served as an errand boy and was later employed by Nodes, the funeral undertakers of Chapel Street, Tottenham Court Road, a position from which he was dismissed. His experience at Nodes probably accounts for his excessive interest in deaths, funerals, interments, churchyards and monumental inscriptions.
When the diary opens, Nathaniel is employed as a clerk at Lea’s Coal Wharf (Eccleston Wharf) situated off Upper Belgrave Place (now Buckingham Palace Road), Pimlico. He was related to the proprietor, George Lea, through his grandmother. The coal business at Eccleston Wharf was established in 1844. The diary suggests that it was not a flourishing enterprise, partly due to George’s neglect of the wharf in pursuit of a good social life. In 1851 the business failed and George was declared bankrupt.
In 1852 Nathaniel moved from Richmond Buildings where he still lived with his uncle, John Shepard. His mother, step-father and grandmother had already moved out. He went to Islington where he continued in the same line of business as a coal merchant’s clerk. In 1854 he married Sarah Clark, and by the 1861 census was living at 10 Edward Cottages, Canonbury, with her and their three children. From parish registers we know that there were also three infant deaths, all female, in the 1850s and 1860s. By 1881 he was at 48 Essex Road, Islington Green North, describing himself as an accountant, aged 54, living with his wife Sarah (55), daughter Sarah (22) and three sons, Nathaniel, an undertaker (24), John, a compositor (21) and Henry, a builder’s labourer (17). He appears in the Kelly’s London Directories as an accountant at this address until 1895. His wife Sarah died in 1890, leaving him with only a housekeeper by time of the 1901 census. Nathaniel himself died in Mile End early in 1911.
The diary runs from 1 January to 12 December 1846, and contains entries for 260 days. It was obviously not the only venture of its kind because Nathaniel refers to his ‘log book’ of the previous year, and on 12 December he purchased one for the following year. However, the 1846 diary seems to be the sole survivor. All the pages have suffered some water damage at the edges. The book was purchased by the Westminster City Archives and was formally accessioned on 20 August 1974 (reference Accession 730).
The text of the diary is written in longhand, interspersed with Pitman’s shorthand entries embracing private matters such as his financial affairs, his observations on the proprietor, colleagues and activities at Eccleston Wharf, and most of all his relationship with Ann Fox, his only regular companion. Some of the references to his sexual behaviour with her are written in surprisingly explicit language.
In transcribing the diary, some editorial conventions have been used for clarification. Abbreviated words have been extended, unnecessary capital letters removed, punctuation inserted or modified and some spellings modernised. The shorthand passages have been reproduced in italics. Text missing through water damage has been represented with three dots. The transcription has been a collaboration between the staff of the Archives Centre and the Friends of the Archives and other volunteers, for whose work we are extremely grateful.
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