Surely every young girl’s diary starts with her writing her name, address and probably age on the front page? Tantalisingly, not this one!
Each entry is very short and I started by typing out all the little diary entries so that I could get more of a feel for the life it portrayed. Also, another aunt has written three books about family history on this side of the family so I had these by my side. I sifted through my aunt’s writing and family trees, trying to find the name of the girl. The surname Dalbiac seemed to be the link, as my aunt’s middle name is Dalbiac and this name appears in the diary. Of course, I was also soon diving around on the internet, following this or that tangent. Louisa Dalbiac seemed to be my girl – she was my Gt Gt Gt Gt grandmother and had married a Peter Luard – Auntie Helen, who gave me the diary, was a Luard – this had to be my girl!
I found Louisa online on various ancestry sites. But I soon learnt that history can be mis-written and re-written with surprising ease, especially inaccuracies and omissions in family trees. My diary-writing girl never married (or had children) and her name is therefore left off a number of online family trees – a side-track grumble on women’s place in history to be researched there!
But, eventually, after much to-ing and fro-ing, I pinned her down: she was my Gt Gt Gt Gt Aunt, SUSANNAH DALBIAC, born 14th May 1762, died in 1842, and aged 14 in 1776.
Her very first entry mentions 5 people and I wondered who they all were: who was Mrs Martin? And, much more to the point, who were Mama, Papa, Lucy and Cousin James?
“Mama & Lucy drank tea at Mrs Martin’s. I stayed at home to make tea for Papa and Cousin James.”
1980 Thursday August 7th: 204 years later my mother and I drove from our home in Surrey to the little village of Childrey, near Wantage, in Oxfordshire, to visit my elderly great aunt in her beamed and thatched cottage.
I wrote a diary all through my teens and early twenties and my entry about the trip refers to our conversations with my great aunt and records that my mother was “so good at getting her on to family history” and that at some point during the day Great Aunt Helen sent us into her sitting room to find a photo album at the bottom of the china cabinet. I record that, “This we found but whilst sniffing about among the dusty books, we also came across a small leather-bound diary, dating from the year 1776!” Great Aunt Helen did not know much about the diary but she let me take it away.
I must have tried to read it straight through when I got home as I go on to write a paragraph or two about the contents of the diary, concluding that the girl who wrote it must have lived tantalisingly close to us in Surrey and also that her “life seems to consist of one long drink of tea”. Great Aunt Helen died aged 98 and I inherited a few other family items from her. I never forgot that I had the diary, but I didn’t take it out to look at again for 34 years, when my dear mother was dying. The little diary is very fragile, and I started gently looking over the pages again and this time I was determined to find out: