A young clerk working for the Steward of the le Strange Estate in North-west Norfolk in 1863 left a diary recording a year of his life, but failed to put his name to it.
The diary, held at Norfolk Record Office (NRO, MC 287/1, 774×5) remained unattributed until it turned out to be a vital piece of a puzzle being worked on by three local historians. When they realised they were working on different bits of the same picture, they teamed up to give personal histories not only to the diarist but also the people he wrote of in his unique record.
The le Strange Estate today includes much of the villages of Old Hunstanton, Ringstead and Holme Next the Sea, and is home to a great diversity of natural history. Helen & Kalven Stanley, volunteers and archivists who were transcribing the gravestones of St Andrew’s Church at Ringstead, had been putting together mini family trees for all those in the churchyard whose names and dates could be deciphered. They soon got talking to next-door neighbour Sophie Barker, a local wildlife recorder who was studying the history of wildlife on the le Strange Estate and had been working with the le Strange’s Victorian game records, photographed at the NRO in February 2020 before the pandemic forced the offices to close.
The game books include information on dates, locations and people, as well as ‘bag data’ – quantities of game species ‘bagged’ during shoots. This information can help to show how abundant wildlife on the quarry list was, and shed light on how shoots were managed. Game records sometimes list unusual birds and other wildlife that were shot or observed in the field. For most of the 1800s the le Strange Estate was not a big sporting estate, focussing on rough shooting predominated by wild partridges and hares. Wildlife recorded in the estate game books included some unusual species, such as guillemot, corncrake, quail and otter.
A natural progression was to ask who the people listed in the game books were and what connected them. Landed gentry ran shoots on their estates and those invited to take part were often family, friends, neighbours and tenants. The game records gave surprising depth to the social structure of the time, with people listed in ‘disposals’ – ie receiving gifts of game even if they had not been at a shooting party, combined with those appearing in the lists of ‘guns’, giving a broad cross-section of the communities of the time. It sometimes revealed connections which could never be made through other records.
During the lockdown, these combined efforts to identify the communities of the estate in the 19th Century soon took off, with the use of parish registers, census returns, newspaper archives and a range of other sources to identify and cross-reference those referred to in the estate game books. Work on the books of Henry le Strange (1815-1862), kept between 1833 and 1851, revealed some surprising details such as clues to Henry’s religious views, reflecting his support for the Oxford Movement and Canterbury Association, supported by gifts of game to key people who were active promoters of these ideas or the debates surrounding them.
But in 1851 there is a 20 year gap in the game records, and the Stanleys found the mysterious diary listed in the NRO catalogue as the journal of a young man working for Charles Wolley Preedy, (the Steward of the estate between 1851 and 1866). Among its topics were information on farming and wildlife which could be really valuable to their research, so Sophie undertook a transcription of the diary and between them they identified the young diarist as noted pastoralist Eric Henry Mackay (1840-1923).
Eric was the son of a Norfolk landowner, Col Henry Fowler Mackay, who appears in the game books in 1836. Henry was one of few people who had not been successfully identified through their earlier research, referred to simply as ‘Capt Mackay’. Eric Mackay was traced as soon as his journal mentioned a visit to his Aunt Sophia at Elton Rectory, Northamptonshire in October 1863. This made her Sophia Mary Kempthorne (nee Ainslie). Her younger sister Caroline married Captain Mackay, and Eric was their first child. With the help of the Stanley’s genealogy research they began to piece Eric’s family and friends together around him.
This completed the background of a fabulous insight into life on the le Strange Estate, just after the tragic death of Henry le Strange. Eric gives some curiously personal accounts of meeting family members, friends, local farmers and clergy. The diary also gives a first-hand glimpse of life in the 1860s. With the railway newly arrived at Hunstanton the previous year, Eric travels widely in the UK – his diary begins with a 3 week family holiday on Lake Windermere. His account includes a reunion in Paris with former work colleagues from the offices of luxury shirt manufacturer Sydney Barlow, including a drunken lunch party the day after a ball. Based on his account, the concept of ‘Brits Abroad’ is far from new! Eric joined the 17th Norfolk Rifle Volunteers and gives vivid descriptions of some of their activities which clearly captured his imagination, and show the local community did much to support their cause. The journal includes 20 references alone to games of croquet, including one on Hunstanton beach which was interrupted by the rising tide. Eric does indeed mention wildlife, including observations of migration and efforts at shooting, fishing and nest finding. He records species such as shelduck, grey heron, nightingale, spotted flycatcher, common buzzard, red kite and many others, all seen on the estate before the official county records began to be published by the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists Society in 1869.
Eric Mackay was 23/24 years old at the time of his diary and went on to distinguish himself as a pioneering farmer in Australia, emigrating to Queensland in 1867. He spent more than forty years on the other side of the world but returned to the UK in 1911, living in Hampshire until his death in 1923.
It has been a privilege to help bring Eric’s young world back to life, and brought great excitement for the three historians to contribute to the vital work of the NRO, and the fascinating archives of the le Strange Estate, in such strange times that have been otherwise marked by such great tedium. This experience has been one of escapism of the very best kind – time travel, and with the help of the estate the researchers intend to continue work on the game, wildlife and community records into the 20th Century.
Written by Sophie Barker, Helen Stanley & Kalven Stanley