What did Susannah do all Day?: Part II – EDUCATION – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

“Portrait of Theophila Palmer ” by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1771, private collection

On Thursday January 4th 1776 Susanna wrote:

(c) M Nairne 2017

“We worked at our muffs, drew and did the same as when Mama is at home”.

Beyond making muffs and drawing, Susannah doesn’t list the activities that comprise what they do “when Mama is at home” but Mama (her Stepmother) presumably oversaw Susannah and Lucy’s education taking on teaching the girls what they needed to know. And what they needed to know was how to write, how to read in order to study the Bible and other suitably improving books, plus some arithmetic so that, as they got older, they would be able to record their own as well as the household expenses.

Girls of her social level would also be taught other accomplishments such as needlework, music, drawing and dancing. Apart from these, fresh air and exercise were part of their daily activity and, luckily for them, there seem to have been a number of games to be played and entertainments to be enjoyed as well (all covered in next post). It may also be that what they did when Mama was at home was part of a daily morning routine (like going to school – why bother to mention it?) and the exciting part of the day was later on: visiting and taking tea with friends and cousins.


(c) M Nairne 2017

Susannah’s diary entries show that their father valued their education as by the age of 14, she had been taught how to read, how to write and how to do maths. Susannah’s handwriting is generally wonderfully neat although there are weeks when her writing gets messier – I suspect that she sometimes wrote the diary the following week so was trying to remember what had happened – causing some crossings out and smudges!   Her spelling is excellent – though she sometimes struggled with surnames as there are various spellings for the same people e.g. Mr Hage and Mr Hauge who presumably is in fact Mr Hague.


Susannah noted that on Sundays when they didn’t go to church, they read sermons instead, or Mama read a sermon to them. On Sunday January 28th 1776 she wrote,

IMG_6328 2.jpg
(c) M Nairne 2017

“We keep Church at home. Read a sermon in the morning. The text was “The History of Jacob Consider’d”. I wrote what I understood by it. We read another sermon in the evening. The text was “The Rich Man and Lazarus”.  

There seems to be a slightly laboured tone in I wrote what I understood about it which is hardly surprising as, having noticed that her references to sermons seemed to be very specific, I searched online for the sermon they read on Sunday January 7th 1776 which she calls “Felix’s behaviour towards Paul explained”, and quickly found that they were reading from a volume of Laurence Sterne’sSermons of Mr Yorick”.  On other Sundays, as well as going to church, they cover Sterne’s sermons on The Prodigal Son, The Rich Man and Lazarus, Pride, Humility and The Advantages of Christianity to the World and again Susannah wrote on a couple of Sundays, I wrote what I understood of it.

Sermons of Mr Yorick.jpg

Laurence Sterne, now more famous as the author of the novels Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey was very well-known at the time for his sermons. Having myself read “Felix’s behaviour towards Paul explained”, I can state with some authority that it is not a light or easy read!

The Huguenot’s Protestant faith would have followed the tenets of John Calvin, believing in salvation through individual faith without the need for the intercession of a church hierarchy (unlike the Roman Catholic church) and on the belief in each person’s right to interpret scriptures for themselves, and this would have been in tune with Laurence Sterne’s Latitudinarian theology (see link for definition). By Susannah’s day, she and her family attended the local Anglican parish churches although her parents and grandparents were baptised, married and buried at the French churches in London, established following the Huguenot influx of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  For example, her father was baptised at the French Artillery Church in Spitalfields in 1726 and returned to his Huguenot refugee roots to be buried in 1808 in Christchurch, Spitalfields.


Susannah wrote down the titles of two other books: firstly, she noted twice that Mama read to them from a book she calls “Cyrus”.  Cyrus, I have deduced, refers to a hugely popular French novel published in 10 volumes at the end of the 17th century as Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus written by Mademoiselle de Scudéry.

The book is considered the original Roman à Clef and is loosely based on classical figures and classical tales. The 10 volumes amounted to around 1,954,300 words but presumably they just dipped into it!

On Thursday 2nd February, Susannah says “Lucy read Les Journes Amusant” and I picture Lucy reading it out loud to her sister.

Serena Reading, by George Romney, c.1782, Dulwich Picture Gallery.

This will be Madame de Gomez’s Les Journées Amusantes (the amusing days) which was another huge European bestseller in the early 18th Century. An English version by Eliza Haywood was available soon after the volumes were published, but as Susannah writes the title in French, I think they must have been reading this and Cyrus in the original French. As they travelled to France later in the year and Susannah then wrote her entries in French, 90 years on from her Great Grandfather’s arrival in London, their French heritage must still have been of great importance to this Huguenot family.



(c) M. Nairne 2017



At the end of The Ladies Annual Journal or Complete Pocket Book for the year 1776 there are Tables of numbers for help in accounting which seem quite complicated to me in our age of the calculator! Also, on each diary page the right hand side is devoted to “Account of monies” with columns for noting L S D (Pounds, Shillings and Pence, the LSD standing for Libra, Solidus and Denarius) and money “Received” or money “Paid or Lent”. Susannah was probably encouraged to keep an account of any money that she had and she does occasionally make entries in the right hand side accounts section: 

(c) M.Nairne 2017

Susannah has £2.80 cash in hand in January.  If you put this into an inflation calculator today, this apparently gives her approximately £300 spending power compared to today – I wonder if that can really be true.  She does spend some of her money: she writes down when she has given “To a poor woman” several times and she buys presents, such as a doll for Harriet, her little sister.

1776 William Hoare (English artist, 1707-1792) Christopher Anstey with his daughter.jpg
Christopher Anstey with his daughter by William Hoare,
oil on canvas, circa 1775 (c) NPG, London

and, I am sorry to say, she spends money (both winning and losing) gambling in card games (Piquet and Quadrille) in May and June! 

I imagine that Susannah’s father encouraged her to write in her diary each day and to start keeping her accounts where she could.  He will have been aware that the year 1776 was going to be an eventful one for all of them with moving house, a new baby and a long trip abroad.  But, in the longer term, he would also have been keen to ensure that both his two eldest children were educated and accomplished enough to find themselves husbands when the time came and there is no doubt that both Susannah and her sister were very privileged to have such a caring and nurturing father.

(c) M.Nairne 2017
(c) M.Nairne 2017

What did Susannah do all day?: PART I – Tea and Sustenance

In François de La Rochefoucauld’s travel memoir, Mélanges sur l’Angleterre, originally written in 1784, de La Rochefoucauld says that

“The drinking of tea is general throughout England…It gives the rich an opportunity to show off their fine possessions: cups, tea-pots, etc., all made to the most elegant designs, all copies of the Etruscan and the antique. It is also the custom for the youngest daughter or the lady of the house to make the tea.”  (The Boydell Press. Translated by Norman Scarfe. 1988)

Here, then, is Susannah, the younger daughter, on 1st January, 1776, writing:

(c) M. Nairne

“Mama & Lucy drank tea at Mrs Martin’s. I stayed at home to make tea for Papa and Cousin James”.


Susannah’s diary tells us that her family ate Breakfast, Dinner and Supper plus they followed a daily ritual of drinking tea. Susannah never once refers to anything that they ate. At her age and in her social situation, the provision of food was clearly organised by someone else or she might have mentioned it, but it also leads me to think that perhaps their food was repetitive and un-noteworthy. Or might it have been bad manners to mention food? However, Susannah’s constant mention of dinner and tea, and the reliable rhythm created by these, must have leant stability to her daily life.

A Regency family at breakfast

Breakfast: is mentioned twice as a specific meal first thing in the morning. The contents of breakfast seems to have varied between town and country but would probably have consisted of bread and butter and perhaps jams and marmalade. Eggs and cold meat are another common theme for breakfast.

Dinner: the main meal of the day – was eaten sometime between 3 and 5pm. The meal might consist of 3 courses, the first chiefly meat, the second a combination of meats and puddings, followed by fruit and sweetmeats. In 1781, James Woodforde in his Diary of a Country Parson gave a dinner which, although he lived in the country, may give an idea of what the Dalbiac family ate, consisting of:

“A Couple of  Chicken boiled and a Tongue, a Leg of Mutton boiled and Capers and Batter Pudding for the first Course, Second, a couple of Ducks roasted and green Peas, some Artichokes, Tarts and Blancmange. After dinner, Almonds and Raisins, Oranges and Strawberries, Mountain and Port Wines.”

Susannah refers to “Dinner” or where they or someone else “Din’d” 57 times but only once refers to the actual time when on 9th March she noted

 Papa and Mama came home to dinner at 5 o’clock”

Perhaps this was rather late in the day for dinner and therefore noteworthy.

Tea: came after Dinner : see below

Supper: which was much smaller and eaten later in the evening.


Unknown 18th-Century British Artist, A Tea Party

Susannah mentioned “tea” 77 times in the days between 1st January and 6th July and the drinking of tea was obviously a key moment on every day of the week.

Here is a week when she mentioned tea every day:

(c) M. Nairne


Tea at home:

Writing her diary at the age of 14, there is an implied significance to the fact that Susannah has stayed behind specifically to make the tea for her father and cousin.

Still Life, Tea Set by Jean Etienne Leotard. lido.getty.edu-gm-obj854

A certain amount of equipment had to be acquired for the proper taking of tea including a tea table, a tea kettle, a tea caddy, a tea pot, a tea strainer, tea cups, a slops bowl and probably a milk jug and sugar bowl, and I feel sure that Susannah must have enjoyed the responsibility of presiding over the tea table.

Jonathan Tyers and his family by Francis Hayman, 1740 National Portrait Gallery UK Accession Number NPG5588
Jonathan Tyers and his family by Francis Hayman, 1740 National Portrait Gallery UK Accession Number NPG5588

By the 1770s they would mostly likely have been drinking black tea (such as Bohea, Congou, Pekoe or Souchong), all imported from China by the British East India Company, who by the 1760s, along with the Dutch East India Company, were importing 720 tonnes into Europe each year. Tea was still an expensive commodity but the diary leaves you in no doubt as to its social and domestic importance for Susannah’s family and friends. Was it the best time of the day for Susannah and Lucy? After the formality of Dinner, was it a chance for them to sit round chatting with their cousins without any obligation to read difficult sermons or do their sewing? I am a great tea drinker and I wonder if they were all a bit dependent on the caffeine too!

Susannah noted either who she or her parents were with and/or where she or her parents were – often different places with different people – but she notes it anyway, thereby giving some emphasis to the occasion each day. For her father, tea time may have been either an important part of his business day or a chance to socialise with friends. He has tea with a whole list of different people and I don’t know how typical this was, but Susannah’s father often appears to socialise with his business partners. He was in business as a “Silk Weaver” with his brother James Dalbiac, referred to by Susannah as “Uncle Dalbiac”, as well as a Mr Barbut and Mr Jourdan, as referenced in Bailey’s Northern Directory, published in 1781, both of whom he takes tea with (and on other occasions even stays the night with).

Out for tea:

On Tuesday 28th May, Susannah wrote:

In the Evening Uncle, Aunt CK, CM, Papa, Mama, Lucy & Me went to see Luxborough House. Drank Tea there.

Luxborough House, Chigwell, Essex. Inscribed: ”J.Prattent delt. et Sculp”. Essex Record Office, via Wikimedia Commons

Luxborough House was the seat of Admiral Sir Edward Hughes and was a local stately home at Chigwell, very close to Wanstead. As in Pride and Prejudice, on Elizabeth Bennett’s Derbyshire tour when she visits Pemberley with her aunt and uncle, visiting stately homes was a popular pastime for the wealthier classes who expected to be allowed to tour the grounds and, if the owner was away, to be shown round the house by the housekeeper. Susannah makes a note of the fact that they “Drank tea there”, perhaps as they were well-to-do local residents, they were invited for more than just a tour of the house that day, or perhaps Admiral Sir Edward was at home, and he and Susannah’s father found a mutual acquaintance in Admiral Sir Francis Geary from Polesden Lacey.

The Boston Tea Party:

Boston Tea Party re-enactment. Boston, March 2017 (c) M. Nairne

I happen to have visited Boston earlier this year and was fascinated to read about the colonialists and some of the history of the colonies in the 18th century. Only 3 years earlier than Susannah’s diary, in 1773, the “Sons of Liberty” in Boston, under cover of darkness and disguised as native americans, got on to three ships in Boston harbour and destroyed and threw overboard 340 chests of tea. The harbour apparently smelt for weeks. An estimate suggests that this was the equivalent of approximately 18,523,000 cups of tea and a loss to the British East India Company of $1,700,000 in today’s money. The colonialists were protesting against taxes imposed by Britain and the destruction of the tea was both a symbolic act and the cause of great financial damage, and was a key instigator of the beginning of the American War of Independence.

Having researched tea-drinking in the mid-late 18th century and got a feeling for both its social and political significance, my conclusion about Susannah’s obsession with tea is, that although I wish Susannah had made even the smallest reference to food, it would have been much more surprising if she had never mentioned the word “tea”.

Susannah and her sister’s tea times are highly sociable: on most days they meet up with their extended family but also often with friends. The Dalbiacs were originally city dwellers but even in their suburban homes in Surrey and Essex, they had friends and family living close by and the daily time for drinking tea allowed them to fulfil their other obligations earlier in the day (which I will look at in a further Post) whilst entertaining themselves, their families and friends, and leading amazingly busy and active lives.

Child’s miniature tea set