Caught by the River

The World of Thomas Turner

Mathew Clayton | 21st February 2019

In a new monthly column, Mathew Clayton explores the daily life of a Sussex village in the middle of the 18th century as recorded in the diary of Thomas Turner. With original illustrations by the author and artist Peter Chrisp.

Exactly 261 years ago, just after 10pm on a Wednesday night, a group of friends gathered for supper in a Sussex village called East Hoathly. The host was a local landowner, Mr French — also in the company were the butcher, two farmers, a widow, a candle maker, the wife of the blacksmith and a 24-year-old shopkeeper called Thomas Turner. The weeks before Lent, sometimes called Shrovetide, have been a time of celebration since the Middle Ages. And although it wasn’t quite Madchester in the 90s, the inhabitants of East Hoathly clearly knew how to have a good time. There was usually supper, cards and then what Turner calls, ‘the frantic sports’. Dancing, wig pulling and drinking, ‘like horses’.

This particular party carried on through the night on Wednesday, started tailing off towards dawn, then gathered a little steam around 9am, before finally petering out sometime on Thursday afternoon. Not bad for a week night. Writing the next day Turner described it as, ‘The silliest frolic as I think I ever knew’ inferring that this type of behaviour was a one-off, but as you will see from the entries below more of the same was just around the corner.

In future extracts we will journey with Turner to London, examine his extensive reading habits and try and better understand how the village organised itself. The late nights are just one small aspect of his life. I find him fascinating, because although we lived centuries apart his fears, hopes and dreams are so similar to my own. And when he writes about trying to escape his drunken friends at 9am and being  chased and rolled in the dirt, well the 24-year-old me remembers mornings like that very well.

So, imagine a day like today – bright blue sky, but cold, snowdrops flowering in the churchyard and just the smallest hint of spring in the air. It’s just before lunch. Time to travel back to the world of Thomas Turner…

22 February 1758
About 1.10 Mr French sent his servant with a horse for my wife, who accordingly went with him and dined at Mr French’s. Myself and family at home dined on the remains of Wednesday’s supper and a dish of cheap soup. Tho Davy dined with us in order to taste our soup. About 6.40 I walked down to Whyly where we played at brag the first part of the even; myself and wife won 1s 2d. About 10.20 we went to supper on 4 boiled chickens, 4 boiled ducks, some minced veal, sausages, cold roast goose, cold chicken pasty, cold ham, damson and gooseberry tarts, marmalade and raspberry puffs. Our company was Mr and Mrs Porter, Mr and Mrs Coates, Mrs Atkins, Mr Piper and his wife, Joseph Fuller and his wife, Tho Fuller and his wife, Dame Durrant, myself and wife, and Mr French’s family. After supper our behaviour was far from that of serious, harmless, mirth for it was downright obstreperous mirth mixed with a great deal of folly and stupidity. Our diversion was dancing (or jumping about) without a violin or any music, singing of foolish and bawdy healths and more such-like stupidity, and drinking all the time as fast as could well be poured down, and the parson of the parish was one amongst the mixed multitude all the tie, so doubtless in point of sound divinity it was all harmless. But of conscience dictates right from wrong, as doubtless it sometimes does, mine is one that we may say is soon offended. For I must say that I am always very uneasy at such behaviour, thinking it not like the behaviours of the primitive Christians, which I imagine was most in conformity to our Saviour’s gospel. Nor would I on the other hand be thought to be either a cynic or a stoic, but let social improving discourse pass around the company.  But, however, about 3.30, finding myself to have as much liquor as would do me good, I slipped away unobserved, leaving my wife to make my excuse; for sure it was rude, but still ill-manners are preferable to drunkenness (though I was far from being sober). However, I came home, thank God, very safe and well without ever tumbling or any other misfortune, and Mr. French’s servant brought my wife home about 5.10…

Wednesday 23 February 1758
This morn about 6 o’clock, just as my wife was gladly got to bed and had laid herself down to rest, we was awakened by Mrs. Porter, who pretended she wanted some cream of tartar.  But as soon as my wife got out of bed, she vowed she should come down which she complied with and found she, Mr. Porter, Mr. Fuller and his wife with a lighted candle, part of a bottle of wine and a glass. Then the next thing in course must be to have me downstairs, which I being apprised of fastened my door.  But, however, upstairs they came and threatened and also attempted to break open my door, which I found they would do; so I therefore ordered the boys to open it.  But a soon as ever it was open, they poured in to my room, and as modesty forbid me to get out of my bed in the presence of women, so I refrained.  But their immodesty permitted them to draw me out of bed (as the common phrase is) tipsy turvy.  But, however, at the intercession of Mr. Porter they permitted me to put on my breeches (thought it was no more than to cast a veil over what undoubtedly they had before that time discovered); as also, instead of my clothes, they gave me time to put on my wife’s petticoat.  In this manner they made me dance with them without shoes or stocking until they had emptied their bottle of wine and also a bottle of my beer. They then contented themselves with sitting down to breakfast on a dish of coffee etc. They then obliged my wife to accompany them to Joseph Durrant’s, where they again breakfasted on tea etc. They then all adjourned to Mr. Fuller’s, where they again breakfasted on tea, and there they also stayed and dined; and about 3.30 they all found their ways to their respective homes, beginning by that time to be a little serious, and in my opinion ashamed of their stupid enterprise, or drunken perambulation.  Now let anyone but call in reason to his assistance and seriously reflect on what I have before recited, and they must I think join with me in thinking that the precepts delivered from the pulpit on Sundays by Mr. Porter, though delivered with the greatest ardour, must lose a great deal of their efficacy by such examples. Myself and family at home dined on the remains of yesterday’s dinner. Mr. Jordan called on me but did not stay. Mr. Elless and Joseph Fuller in the evening called in to ask me how I did after my fatigue and stayed and smoked a pipe with me.  And so this ends the silliest frolic as I think I ever knew, and one that must cast an odium on Mr. and Mrs. P. and Mrs. F. so long as it shall be remembered.

Thursday 24 February 1758
Sadly indisposed…

Tuesday 7 March 1758
In the morn about 5 o’clock my brother and I set out on our intended journey. We arrived at Seaford about 8.20 where, after viewing the goods (which consisted of about 26 quarters of peas, 18 quarters groats, 5230 lbs of Smyrna raisins, and 20 bags of ops—all very much damaged with sea-water) in company whit Mr. Geo. Beard, we then walked down to the sea-side. The sale begun about 11.20 when the peas was sold from 15s. to 22s. per quarter, and the groats nearly the same, the raisins from about 14s to 18s per cwt. But the having lost much of their goodness, neither Mr. Beard or myself bought any. The sale ended about 1 o’clock… After I came home, my wife and I went down to Jos. Fuller’s where we drank tea.  We stayed and played at brag with the company hereafter mentioned.  My wife and I won 18d. We stayed and supped there on two boiled chickens, a cold veal pasty, tart etc. in company with Mr. and Mrs. Porter, Mr Coates, Mr. and Mrs. French, Mr. Calverley, Tho. Fuller and his wife, Dame Durrant, Master Fullers family and Mrs. Atkins.  After supper my wife being very ill, she went home, as would I very gladly, making several vigorous attempts, or else be stigmatized with the name of bad company. There we continued drinking like horses (as the vulgar phrase is) and singing till many of us was very drunk, and then we went to dancing and pulling off wigs, caps and hats. And there we continued in this frantic manner (behaving more like mad people than they that profess the name of Christians) till 9o’clock when I deserted them and was twice pursued, but at last got clear off with first being well-rolled in the dirt. I came home far from being sober, though I am sorry to see, for I shall always think it is contrary as well to the perambulation from house to house till 12 o’clock when they got home and with imprudence and impudence declared themselves neither sick nor sorry. Now whether this is consistent to the wise saying of Solomon, let anyone judge: ‘Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging; and he that is deceived thereby is not wise.’ Gave Molly Fuller 12d.

Wednesday 8 March 1758
Abed all day…

Friday 10 March
…About 3.50 my wife went down to Mr. Porter’s previous to an invitation given us yesterday by Mr. Porter and about 7.20 I went down. We played at brag the 1st part of the even; my wife and self won 4s. 41/2d. We stayed and supped at Mr. Porter’s on a shoulder [of] mutton roasted, a cold veal pasty, some fried veal, a cold ham, tarts, etc. in company with Mr. Gibbs and his wife, Mr. Piper and his wife, Tho. Fuller and his wife and Mrs. Vergoe.  After supper the old sport went on, such as dancing, pulling off of hats, wigs, caps and shoes etc., with a variety of such-like frantic tricks, but no swearing or ill words, by which reason Mr. Porter calls it innocent mirth, though I in opinion differ much therefrom, for I think it abounds too much with libertinism to be called innocent. Poor Mr. Piper had a very great fall, but received little hurt.  We stayed and breakfasted at Mr. Porter’s and came home about 8.30, and I think not sober. My wife and I gave the servants 2s. 6d.

Sat. 11 March
… At home all day, very piteous…

Tues. 14 March
… Mrs. French, Mrs. Coates, Mr. and Mrs. Porter, Tho. Fuller and his wife, Mr. Piper and his wife and Mr. Calverley drank tea with us.  They, together with Mr. Coates, Mr. French and Joseph Fuller stayed and spent the evening with us and played at brag. My wife and I lost 3s 6d. They all stayed and supped with us on some salt fish, a dish of Scotch collops with force meat balls, a piece of cold roast beef, some potted beef, a cold baked rice pudding, bullace and gooseberry tarts, celery, watercresses, egg sauce, cold ham and parsnips.  They all stayed, except Mrs. Coates, until near 6 o’clock, and many of them not sober. The old frantic sports went on as usual. But now I hope all revelling for this season is over, and am I never more be discomposed with too much drink or the noise of an obstreperous multitude, but may I once more calm my troubled mind and soothe my disturbed conscience with future goodness. Oh, may all the transitory, fleeting, foolish, pleasures of this life be no more in my thoughts, but let me lay hold on that durable and permanent happiness that fadeth not away, but remaineth eternal in the heavens. Oh, may I have the unspeakable pleasure to hear that comfortable sentence pronounced of: ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepare for you from the beginning.’