One of the best things about working with archives is the sheer variety of material that turns up in collections, especially in an archive such as the Royal Society’s, largely thanks to the wide-ranging activities and diverse interests of the Fellows and their varying backgrounds. It’s thanks to this diversity that we can find in the archives, for example, an extensive collection of papers on the Football Association from the 1930s-1980s, papers concerning the policies and activities of the Labour party during the 1950s and 1960s, and an account of life at Fort Augusta, Jamaica, during the Anglo-American war of 1812-1815.
Reflecting this rich and varied background, we were recently given a digital transcript of the diary of a Victorian lady, Ellen Miers – daughter-in-law to the renowned botanist John Miers FRS and aunt to the mineralogist Sir Henry Alexander Miers FRS – by her great-great grandson, David Broad. Ellen’s diary commences on Saturday 12 April 1851 – her 26th birthday – shortly after her marriage to John Miers in Brazil, and shortly before the newlyweds are due to visit England where they stay with John’s family in Hammersmith. The diary then encompasses the couple’s return to Brazil in 1852, where Ellen’s family was based, the Miers’ subsequent return to England in the 1860s, where they eventually settled, and their travels around Europe.
Covering some 36 years in total, Ellen’s diary provides some fascinating glimpses of life in Victorian England and colonial Brazil. The weather features prominently – and it’s refreshing to learn that the soggy British summer isn’t a recent invention! – mainly due to its effect on Ellen’s ability to get out and about, whether it be heavy rain, snow or an intense heat. Ellen’s early diary is particularly interesting due to her frequent references to the Great Exhibition of 1851; her first visit was made on 22 May, and she wrote that ‘No description of what we saw, can do it justice… We saw three remarkable men there – Lord Ross who made the wonderful telescope; Herz, the great composer, whom we also had the pleasure of hearing play on a magnificent Broadwood piano, and Doctor Burchell the celebrated traveller in Africa’; she goes on to write, ‘I have dreamt all night about the Exhibition’. Ellen was clearly enthralled by the Exhibition and she visited on at least 9 other occasions between May and October.
Ellen obviously made the most of her time in London and, when she wasn’t at the Exhibition, she records making trips up and down the Thames with friends and relatives, taking in the various landmarks. Ellen also records a multitude of visits to various places of interest around London: Bushy Park, Kew Gardens, the National Gallery and British Academy, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum (where I’m pleased to note that she was particularly impressed with the library and manuscript collections!), London Zoological Gardens, the Chiswick Flower Show and Hampton Court Palace – not to mention numerous trips to the theatre and opera, and shopping on busy Oxford Street.
Equally interesting are the accounts of her long summer holidays, usually on the coast, reflecting the birth of the British seaside holiday. The family’s holiday in the Isle of Wight – birthplace and childhood home of Robert Hooke FRS – in 1864 is particularly well documented, and includes details of Ellen’s impressions of the landscapes and locales, as well activities such as hunting for ‘curiosities’ on the beach, paddling in the sea and watching a Punch and Judy show. An earlier sojourn to the Midlands in July 1851 is also recounted in some detail, with Ellen stating how she helped lead the party round Kenilworth castle, having previously ‘read our little guide-book’.
Although there is little scientific content in the diary, Ellen’s writing gives us glimpses of the numerous scientific and technical advances of the Victorian era, and the general interest Victorians had in such matters – from descriptions of train journeys and using the new Metropolitan line (the world’s first underground train line, opened in 1863), to her delight in the Great Exhibition and the first use of gas lighting in Brazil. John Miers obviously had a keen interest in science, particularly its practical application; if Ellen visited the Great Exhibition 10 times, John visited at least several times more; as well as being a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Ellen regularly mentions his visits to the public lectures and displays hosted by both the Royal Institution and the Royal Polytechnic Institution on Regent Street – accompanied at times by one or several of his daughters.
Although Ellen’s diary may not seem to the sort of document which naturally ‘fits’ in the Royal Society’s archives, we are nonetheless delighted to have a copy of it, and consider it to be a valuable addition to our collections. The social history it reveals is fascinating, and the various references it contains to technological advances, as well as to John and Sir Henry Alexander Miers will no doubt make it a useful source to both social historians and historians of science. We are grateful to David Broad for depositing a copy of the diary, helping the Society to grow and broaden its already rich and diverse archive collections.
Edited 11/02/2011 to add the following comment from David Broad:
Ellen Miers (1825 – 1910) was married to John William Miers who was a grandson of Francis Place. John William Miers’ father, John Miers, married Annie Place who was Francis Place’s second daughter. Francis Place (1771 – 1854) was a leading social reformer in England about whom a great deal has been written.