Dr Rose McCormack
Over the past three months I have been volunteering for Ceredigion archive. The project I have been working on has been an exciting one; I was asked by the archive to look at the diaries of Eliza Webley-Parry (1817-1894), a genteel woman of nineteenth-century Ceredigion, in order to create a summary of the first ten years for the archive’s on-line catalogue. Eliza was the seventh and youngest child of Rear Admiral Webley-Parry (d.1837) and his wife Maria Washington White (1776-1858). The family lived at Noyadd Trefawr, a property the Admiral inherited in 1815. At the age of seventeen Eliza started writing a journal which she kept until February 1893, when poor health prevented continuation. Evelyn Hope, Eliza’s niece, then wrote the journal for her elderly aunt, until her death in January 1894. The diary fills 11 volumes and is written neither in flowing emotive prose nor in the brief style of a ladies’ pocket journal. Instead, Eliza enters a few detailed accounts of activities she enjoyed, mainly documenting visits and social events and often mentioning her sisters, Maria and Ellen, with whom she was very close.
One of the most striking aspects of Eliza’s diary is just how busy it is. Eliza records frequent visits to other Welsh estates including Blaen-pant, Cardiganshire (home of her sister Maria), Pentre, Manordeifi, north Pembrokeshire (home of her brother William) and Coedmore, Cardiganshire (home of the Lloyd family). Sometimes these were day trips, whilst on other occasions she stayed for several days at a time. Eliza also went on many seaside visits, including trips to Glanymor, Pengwbert and Aberystwyth. For example, in July 1837 Eliza and her sister Ellen resided in lodgings on the Terrace at Aberystwyth. Whilst there, they lunched at Gogerddan (home of the Pryse family), attended three balls at the assembly rooms, watched a cricket match and a female archery tournament, visited Borth and dined at Nanteos (home of the Powells). Most years Eliza also attended Hunt Week festivities in Cardigan, which usually included two sizeable balls.
In addition to documenting her busy social world, Eliza’s journals also reveal some of the less comfortable aspects of her life. There are frequent references to the dentist Mr Noot visiting to remove her teeth and to illnesses which forced Eliza, her sisters and their mother to be confined to their bedrooms for days or weeks at a time. In 1841 for instance Eliza had bronchitis and influenza. In April of this year her journal states: ‘I had my head shaved for the third time since my illness.’ These less glamorous details help to create a fuller picture of Eliza’s world.
Eliza’s journal also comments on wider social, cultural and political events happening in her life time. For instance, in May 1839 Eliza wrote: ‘Heard of the resignation of Lord Melbourne’s administration, but Sir Robert Peel failed to form a ministry owing to the Queen not parting with her Ladies of the Bedchamber.’ In the summer of 1841 she made observations about the local election, noting that Mr Pryse had been canvassing at Pengwbert where she had been staying, and recording the election results: ‘Mr. Hereford at Cardigan: 69, at Lampeter: 16. Mr Pryse, at Aberystwyth: 88, at Lampeter: 22.’ In June 1843, on another a visit to Pengwbert, she recorded seeing a steamer ‘with 150 marines who landed under Penbryn, on account of the Rebecca disturbances.’ Such comments demonstrate that Eliza was politically aware. Whilst her day-to-day life revolved around dinners, dances and visiting, she was not entirely removed from the political sphere. Matters such as local elections or the Rebecca Riots were natural topics of conversation amongst the Welsh gentry classes, irrespective of gender.
My summary only covers the first ten years of the journals; the remaining fifty-two years of journal entries are bound to offer further rich source material for historians, revealing fascinating details about rural and urban life in nineteenth-century Wales, and in particular, about how it was experienced by genteel women. Eliza and her sister Ellen never married. Instead, they lived out the later years of their lives together in a house at Glanhelyg, which was built especially for them by their sister Maria and her husband William Brigstocke. History is often unkind to spinsters, depicting them as lonely figures who failed to attract suitors and lived closed off lives, but Eliza’s journals demonstrate that for women of means, the single life could be very comfortable. Country house gatherings, seaside visits and Hunt Week festivities gave variety to Eliza’s life, whilst her friends, sisters and nieces provided company which supported her until her death in 1894.
Rose McCormack recently graduated from Aberystwyth University with a PhD from the Department of History and Welsh History. Rose’s doctoral thesis explores female spa-visiting in eighteenth-century Bath and Tunbridge Wells and utilises female authored letters and journals to investigate how women perceived the resorts and their experiences there. Her interest in women’s life writings encouraged her to volunteer at Ceredigion Archives, where she spent time researching the diaries of Eliza Webley Parry.
[See also: Webley-Parry collection (introduction) and follow the links in the menu on the left for the rest of the catalogue]