James Woodforde

James Woodforde

Infobox Person
name = Rev. James Woodforde

image_size = 240px
caption = James Woodforde by his nephew Samuel
birth_name =
birth_date = 1740
birth_place = Ansford, Somerset
death_date = 1803
death_place = Weston Longville, Norfolk
death_cause =
resting_place =
resting_place_coordinates =
residence =
nationality =English
other_names =
known_for = Diarist
education = Winchester, Oriel & New College, Oxford
employer =
occupation = Clergyman
title =
term =
predecessor =
successor =
party =
boards =
parents = Revd Samuel and Jane Woodforde
relatives =
religion = Church of England

website =
footnotes =

James Woodforde (1740-1803) was an English clergyman, best known as the author of "The Diary of a Country Parson". [(ed. John Beresford, 5 vols. 1924-1931] .

Early life

James Woodforde was born at the Parsonage, Ansford, Somerset, England on 27 June 1740. In adulthood he led an uneventful, unambitious life as a clergyman of the Church of England: a life unremarkable but for one thing - for nearly 45 years he kept a diary recording an existence the very ordinariness of which provides a unique insight into the everyday routines and concerns of 18th century rural England.

The sixth child of the Revd Samuel Woodforde, rector of Ansford and vicar of Castle Cary, and his wife Jane Collins, James was one of four brothers (one of whom died in infancy) and the only one to attend public school - Winchester College, and university - Oxford. He was admitted to Winchester as a scholar in 1752 and enrolled at Oriel College, Oxford in 1758, migrating to New College in the following year. His diary begins with the entry for 21 May 1759 - "Made a Scholar of New College". [J. Beresford, The Diary of a Country Parson, Vol. 1, p. 11 ]

Woodforde was ordained and graduated B.A. in 1763, became M.A. in 1767 and B.D. in 1775. He appears to have been a competent but uninspired student and the portrait he provides of Oxford during his two periods of residence as scholar and fellow (from 1758-1763 and from 1773-1776) only confirm Edward Gibbon's famously damning opinion that it was a place where the dons' "dull and deep potations excuse the brisk intemperance of youth". [Memoirs of my Life and Writings' from Lord Sheffield (ed.) Miscellaneous Works]


Upon leaving the university in 1763, Woodforde returned to Somerset where he worked as a curate, mostly for his father, for ten years. From October 1763 to January 1764 he was the curate at Thurloxton.cite book |title=Portrait of the Quantocks |last=Waite |first=Vincent |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1964 |publisher=Robert Hale |location=London |isbn=0709111584 |pages= ] This period of his life, under-represented in Beresford's abridged edition of the Diary, is thickly peopled with memorable characters from all strata of society, many of them immortalised with nick-names - Peter 'Cherry Ripe' Coles, 'Mumper' Clarke, 'Riddle' Tucker. The extended Woodforde family, including James's frequently drunken brothers, figure prominently in these Somerset years.On his father's death in 1771, James failed to succeed to his parishes and, likewise, failed to win, or rather retain, the heart of Betsy White - "a mere Jilt". He returned to Oxford where he became sub-warden of his college and a pro-proctor of the university. He was unsuccessful in his application to become headmaster of Bedford School, but in 1773, he was presented to the living of Weston Longville in Norfolk, one of the best in the gift of the college being worth £400 a year. He took up residence at Weston in May 1776.

Despite the wrench of leaving family and friends, he quickly settled down to a comfortable bachelor existence. He thought Norwich "the fairest City in England by far" [J. Beresford (ed.)The Diary of a Country Parson, Vol. 1 - entry for 14 April 1775, p.151] and always enjoyed a trip to the "sweet beach" at Yarmouth. [J. Beresford (ed.), The Dairy of a Country Parson, Vol. 1 - entry for 27 April 1775, p.153] He was soon joined by his niece Nancy who, as housekeeper and companion, was with him until he died.

In Norfolk, his social life was more limited, but he enjoyed the fellowship of the local clergy who took it in turns to entertain one another to dinner - "our Rotation Club". [Many references to the Rotation Club, beginning with entry for 13 Jan. 1776 -see R.L. Winstanley (ed.), The Diary of James Woodforde, Vol. 7, 1776-1777, p.103] Because he always recorded what was provided for dinner, which very occasionally was an elaborate banquet, he is often wrongly characterised as a glutton. Among the gentry in the eighteenth century, it was a matter of pride to provide a variety of dishes. Because Woodforde recorded them all, does not mean that he ate from them all.

Woodforde also provides a meticulous record of his accounts. This does not mean that he was either a miser or a spendthrift; he was advised to do so by his father. The daily entries are also accompanied by weather notes. The Diary also provides a wonderfully full account of the small community in which the diarist lived - of the births and deaths, comings and goings, illnesses and annual celebrations.

The Diary not only covers 'the Squire and his Relations,' but also the rector's servants, the farmers and labourers, carpenter and inn-keeper, parish-clerk and many others. As a churchman, Woodforde himself was conscientious by the standards of his time, charitable and pious without being sanctimonious and again typical of his day, deeply suspicious of enthusiasm.

The value of the Diary to the historian lies in the wealth of primary source material it provides, while the general reader can bring from it the authentic flavour of eighteenth century English country life.


The five volume edition of the Diary has one flaw: it is only a selection, and, unaware of how popular it would prove - with Virginia Woolf, Max Beerbohm and Siegfried Sassoon among many thousands more - Beresford's selected his first volume from nearly half of the entire Diary. [ See Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, Second Serties, Chap. 9 - Two Parsons; R.L. Hart-Davis (ed.), Siegfried Sassoon:Letters to Max Beerbohm, pp.53-57] The subsequent volumes, each covering between four and six years, are more complete. A definitive edition has been published by the Parson Woodforde Society. The MS Diary, consisting of 72 notebooks and 100 loose sheets, is deposited in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The Revd James Woodforde was one of several Woodforde diarists. His niece Nancy, and his `Nephew Bill's' three daughters all kept diaries, as did a number of his predecessors. Others were painters, including his nephew Samuel Woodforde RA. Hence, a remarkably detailed account of his family exists, and is now documented online. [ [http://www.woodforde.co.uk "Woodforde family information and website"] accessed 19 July 2008]


* Beresford, John (ed.) "The Diary of a Country Parson", 5 Vols. 1924-31
* Winstanley, Roy, "Parson Woodforde: the Life and Times of a Country Parson, "1996, ISBN 0-948903-38-4"
* Treasure, G. "Who's Who in History",Vol. IV 1714-1789, 1969, ISBN 0631061908
* Woodforde, Dorothy Heighes (ed) "Woodforde Papers and Diaries", 1932, Peter Davies, London.

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