An Enigmatic Diarist as Ever Was Known: The Syleham Diary 1784 – 1824

Taken from Norfolk Record Office, MC 2329/1, 958X1

In 1805 this diarist wrote:

This comment led to the diary being offered to the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.  They declined the offer and it was subsequently retrieved from a waste paper bin in Portsmouth and offered to the Norfolk Record Office because it was thought to have originated from Brockdish.  Despite never identifying himself; family references and parish activities identify the diarist as Charles Souter, parish clerk of Syleham (1736-1828).

Syleham is a small Suffolk village south of the river Waveney on the Norfolk Suffolk border.  Charles Souter’s house and shop, marked on the map below in red, was at the end of the lane leading to the church.

The Souter Diary

The diary was not written on a regular basis and months can pass without an entry.  The contents can be categorized into six main themes; parish life, prominent families, the weather, crimes and calamities, births, marriages and deaths and national events.  This is a typical page: 

Family References

Charles Sowter of Syleham married Susanna Juby in 1736.  Were these Charles Souter’s parents?

Souter rarely mentions his family but they do give some evidence of his identity.  In 1816 Souter writes: My daughter, the wife of S Reeve, was safely delivered of a son.  Samuel Reeve had married Phoebe Souter in 1813 in Needham.  Baptismal records show that Robert Reeve was born on 26 July 1816 to Samuel Reeve and his wife Phoebe nee Souter.  He died in September.  A year earlier Souter had written:

Baptismal records for Phoebe Souter have been unavailable to prove that she was Charles Souter’s daughter.  To confuse the matter there is a Phoebe born to Charles Souter in 1817.  This Charles was born c1784 and was the son of Robert and Susanna Souter who I believe was related to Charles Souter, parish clerk, perhaps a nephew.

Diarist Charles Souter’s headstone in Syleham churchyard reads:

In Memory of

Charles Souter

Who was 54 years clark of this parish

He died Dec 16th 1828 aged 92 years.

Also of Mary his wife

Who died Augst 12th 1820

Aged 82 years.

St Margaret’s Church, Syleham.  Souter’s grave marked in red.

When Souter died in December 1828 the Bury & Norwich Post wrote: On Friday last at Syleham in his 92nd year, Charles Souter, he was clerk of the parish for 54 years.  From his early youth he made the Holy Scriptures his constant study, the fruits of which were apparent in his exemplary piety and strict integrity.

Charles Souter married Mary Mills in 1768.  He mentions her only once;  35 years after starting his journal, he writes: I and wife went to Fress (Fressingfield).

What other personal information can we glean from the diary?  A shopkeeper, he assiduously noted prices of crops and coal. Other references: The causeway before my home was thrown down in June and July 1787 . . . . shop end and fore side of the house daubed (July 1792) . . . . Pantry taken down (November 1800) . . . . House new tiled (June 1801) . . . A new window in the kitchen (May 1802).

Souter’s House

Parish Activities

Souter’s recording of parish activities provides strong evidence that he was Charles Souter, parish clerk.  Who but a parish clerk would be inspecting churches and issuing fines and have such a detailed knowledge of parish activities and costs? 

  • Went the bounds of the parish 9 ½ miles 27 rods (1802). 
  • Church visited and as many faults found as come to 7s 0d (1804). 

Other references include covering another parish clerk’s duties at Wingfield in 1816, purchasing a new bible for the church for £4 (1822) and tythe feasts.

The annual tythe feast was usually held at Wingfield in December or January. Souter first writes about it in 1803. The menu was similar throughout the years as were the numbers attending, usually between 40 and 60.  December 1812: Tythe feast at Wingfield.  45 dined.  4 stone 11 pound of beef 21 ½ pound of mutton.  Paid for all beer.

Souter wrote much about people and events in his parish.  A few entries to note include:

  • The building of the brick wall in the mill pool in 1784 and the county bridge to Brockdish the following year.
  • In 1805, at a time of fear of invasion from France: Volunteers reviewed on Syleham green by General Elwes . . . . Fressingfield Volunteers marched to Lowestoft on duty.

Prominent Families in Syleham

Mann

William Mann (1738-1812) owned Syleham corn mill.  When William died in 1812 he gave £20 to the poor of Syleham. 

Souter writes of the family building the Horse Mill (1785), building a windmill (1788), purchasing the Manor of Syleham (1791), building a barn (1793), purchasing the estate by the church gate (1795), purchasing the manor house (1796) and Richard Mann laying his first brick at the manor house (1797).  In 1818 Mr Mann sold his windmill and lett the water mill to Mr Hervy the windmill built by the side of the common.

Souter also writes of Issabella Mann:  Took Miss Issabella Anne Mann to nurse (1789), took Miss Mann to nurse she had been taken home for fear of the small pox (1790), died Mrs Murry of the smallpox Miss Mann went home (1791).

Memorial to three of the Mann family in Syleham church.

Corbould

Pelham Corbould (1743-1771), of the Corboulds of Bath, lived at Monks Hall in Syleham with his wife Catherine (1740-1826).  They had three children; Pelham, Elizabeth and William.  Catherine later married James Walne in 1772 and they continued to live at Monks Hall.  They had six children; five died in infancy.  Catherine’s obituary in 1826 read: A woman greatly esteemed by a numerous acquaintance for her hospitality and for her kindness and attention to the poor.

Barry

Lambe Barry (1704-1768) was a wealthy landowner and lived at Syleham Hall.  He was High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1748.  He married Susan Morse (1709-1786) and they had two daughters.  Following the death of Susan Barry in 1786 Souter writes:  The remains of Lambe Barry was put into a new coffin he died November 24 1768.

Souter mentions Mrs Barry on two occasions.  On New Year’s Day 1814:  Mrs Barrys tennants dined at Wingfield beef 9lb mutton 10lb.  8 dined.  And in January 1816: A tythe feast at Wingfield.  6 stone 2lb of beef at 8s 9d per stone.  18lb of mutton at ? per lb.  Mrs Barrys feast included. 

The Weather

Souter appears obsessed with the weather and the diary is valuable for anyone researching weather patterns of this period.

A favourite and frequent phrase of Souter’s was “as ever was known” or “as was ever remembered by man” to describe extreme weather conditions, even those occurring within weeks of each other.

Property suffered in bad weather.  Following severe storms Mr Girling’s house was badly damaged in 1794, Mr Bond’s house burnt down in 1795, Mr Pitt’s barn burnt down in 1809 and Mr Kent’s house burnt down in 1811.

In July 1802: A very great tempest and a storm of hail such as had not been remembered by man . . . Hailstones as big as nuts.

In 1822:

Crimes and Calamities

As with any time or place, Syleham was not immune to tragedy in its many forms.

Some of the accidents Souter writes about include:

  • 1787.  Sharp frost many accidents on the ice. Boy Danford killed by turnip cart . . .2 children scald to death and many others had limbs broke near us.
  • 1791.  Miss Bunstead drowned at Hoxne Swan water her body found March 1st near the Red Bridge. 
  • 1804.  William Harper of Fressingfield drowned in going home from street.
  • 1808.  In May Mr Brighton of Wingfield drowned in the river near Earsham bridge.

Souter writes of the suicides of Samuel Gibbs and widow Pretty which were regarded by the jury as lunacy.  Charles Gosling drowned himself in the river and Mr Sherrick shot himself.  In 1791 Mrs Hawes gave herself the death sentence: Mrs Hawes of Brockdish hanged herself.  She first fractured her husband’s skull with a hatchet of which wounds he dy’d May 15.

Souter also writes of murder.  In 1791 Souter noted that Mr Gooch of Brockdish set off on his travels.  Gooch, an astronomer from Brockdish, joined a Naval voyage to make astronomical observations.  In 1793 news arrived of his death.  Malancholy news arrived of the death of Mr Gooch who was killed in the Sandwich Isle.  The Ipswich Journal (20 April 1793) reported that both Gooch and Lieutenant Hergest were making astronomical observations when they were attacked, killed and eaten by a local tribe.

In 1793 A cruel murder was committed at Cratfield on the bodys of Mr Carter and daughter. Their skulls had been fractured with a hammer.  What is interesting about this case is that it took 18 years to find the culprit.  In 1812 Souter writes: This month Thrower was hanged for the murder of Mr Carter and daughter.  The Bury and Norwich Post (25 March 1812) commented he eluded justice for more than 18 years.

Other Crimes included the theft of cows by Jonathan Saunder who was hanged in 1802.  At his trial Saunders denied any knowledge of the Carter murders in 1793 for which he and William Dunnett, hanged at the same time for stealing a horse, had both been suspect.  Prior to Saunder’s execution he was attended by a minister and Saunders spoke of his concerns and innocence in the murders which prompted the minister to write to James Fisher of Cratfield who had been diligantly trying to solve the case.  This letter was published in the Bury and Norwich Post on 28 April 1802. 

Births, Marriages and Deaths

Souter records 4 births, 65 marriages and 128 deaths.  Not all occurred within Syleham itself.  The reasons for Souter’s selective recording are unknown.  Not all can be listed here; see the full list at the Norfolk Record Office.

Souter usually only gives surnames.  Christian names have been added from checking his entries against genealogical sites.

Births:

The four births may all have a family link to Souter.  Three are the children of Syer and Elizabeth Smith born in 1793, 1794 and 1796.  Syer Smith’s wife was Elizabeth Mills, possibly related to Souter’s wife Margaret?

In 1799 twins were born to Robert and Susanna Souter.  Their son Charles, born in 1784, named his daughter Phoebe in 1817.

Marriages:

  • 1784 Henry Theobald and Susan Sadd.
  • 1785 John Walne and Anne Theobald.
  • 1792 Syer Smith and Elizabeth Mills.
  • 1794 Barzallai Hurry and Lydia Batho.
  • 1797 Rev Thomas Whitaker and Jane Ayton.
  • 1798 Charles Mann and Sarah Moxon.
  • 1799 Doctor Abraham Girling and Jane Goat.
  • 1800 John Burgess and Susanna Girling.
  • 1805 William Sumpter and Sophia Cotton.
  • 1819 September 9.  Was married by the Rev S Reeve Sir George Crewe Bart of Calke Abbey Derby to Jane eldest daughter of the Rev Thomas Whitaker of Mendham.  The last marriage to be recorded and a significant one at that.

Deaths:

  • 1784 John Pretty died very suddenly.
  • 1785 Thomas Souter of Stradbrooke died. Age 66.  A relation? 
  • 1786   James Branch, schoolmaster at Fressingfield.
  • 1787 Brothers John Branch age 48 and William Branch age 49 of Thorpe Parva.  Age 48.  They were buried together on 3 January at Billingford.
  • 1789 Rev John Malyn.  He preached at Wingfield on Sunday afternoon went to bed well and found dead next morning Text Tim 3.16.
  • 1793 Ann Mills.  Age 60.  Wife of Joseph Mills, Souter’s brother-in-law.
  • 1799 Elizabeth Theobald.  Age 61.  Died very suddenly Mrs Theobald very much lamented.
  • 1806 Jacob Sadd parish clerk of Brockdish.  Age 56.
  • 1817 William Gooch of Brockdish.  Age 77. An Israelite indeed in whom was no question.
  • 1819 Joseph Mills brother to my wife.
  • 1821 Susanna Souter.  Age 66.   Wife of Robert Souter.  A relation?

National Events

Major national events that made an impression on Souter were recorded including solar eclipses and political events.

There are several references to the monarchy including the beheading of the King and Queen of France in 1793.  A loyal supporter of George III, in 1810 he writes: A general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the protection afforded the King during a long and arduous reign.  A barrel of beer given to the poor on Syleham Green.  Perhaps not such a loyal supporter of George IV when, in 1820, he writes: Great rejoicing this month at the Queens acquittal of adultery  brought against her by spies and false witnesses to the disgrace of King and ministers.

Throughout this diary Souter gives us a glimpse of Georgian life but he remains an enigmatic figure revealing little of his own personal life.  Who knows how his journal made its journey from Syleham to Portsmouth but its return to East Anglia is most welcome.

With thanks for the help from the Needham and Brockdish History Group and J & L Woodger.

Daryl Long.  NRO Blogger.

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