Robert Humphrey Marten’s 1825 Norfolk diary - In search of health and pleasure

with Emma Maria Marten, his third wife, and his daughter Sarah Marten, who accompanied him on the trip.

A recently published book edited by Elizabeth Larby (Poppyland Press, 2012)  

Background

During the eighteenth century few people travelled except for business or out of necessity.  The later Georgian era, however, was called the first great age of popular travel, when the activity was no longer restricted to such purposes or to the very rich.  Travel became a pleasure in itself and even became associated with the idea of an annual holiday.  Robert Marten’s 1825 Journal of an Excursion to Yarmouth, Norwich, Cromer, etc affords us a fascinating glimpse into the sights and sounds of familiar places in a very different time. 

The small, calf-skin bound journal was purchased by the Norfolk Record Office in 1980.  The inscription ‘given to Sarah Marten’ inside the cover gives few clues as to its origins, but editor Liz Larby has carried out extensive research into diarist Robert Marten and his family and provides a great deal of background information on the nonconformist, philanthropic Essex businessman.  Accompanied by his third wife Emma, daughter Sarah and servant, Robert states that his purpose in making the 24-day expedition to Norfolk is simply for ‘health and pleasure’. His excursion allows him the chance to unwind away from the stresses of his busy work in ship insurance and community responsibilities at home in Plaistow, but he takes an obvious interest in the people and places he visits, noting the intense building activity taking place in Norwich and conversing with ease with Cromer fishing folk as well as local gentry.

The editor first got the idea to look for suitable NRO texts to edit and make more widely available from her college history tutor when she had finished work on Poppyland in Pictures in 1983.  Liz was already doing voluntary work at Cromer and the Bridewell Museum, Norwich and was able to use their collections as a basis for the background research to look up the people and places mentioned in the diary.  The journal had previously been featured in several articles, and short extracts had appeared in another Poppyland publication. Of course, the manuscript is available at the NRO for consultation by the public, where the diarist’s spidery handwriting and well observed sketches can be studied first hand, but now we have a more accessible transcript with a commentary that explains the anachronisms and fleshes out the story with information on the historical context, the genre of travel literature, as well as interesting biographical detail on the diarist which brings the journal to life.

The diarist

In an interview about the book, editor Liz Larby talks of her fascination with the diarist Robert Marten, at face value a Plaistow businessman involved in ship insurance, who turned out to be a many faceted character with far-reaching philanthropic interests.  Before the days of the internet and family history online, Liz struck gold after placing a small ad in The Lady magazine asking for information on Marten, which was read, quite by chance by a family friend who put her in touch with the great great grandson of the diarist, John W. King. This chance lead provided a family tree and copies of the diarist’s will and autobiography  and a window into his extensive charitable work, both at home and abroad, covering more humble activities such as running a local soup kitchen in Plaistow,  through to raising money for famine relief in Sweden for which he was justly rewarded.  Marten founded a local chapel to cater for his fellow non-conformists who had nowhere to worship, as well as the Port of London Society to promote religion amongst sailors, and became involved in the disputes of dissenters involving their political rights. 

The first great age of travel

What is particularly interesting about the journal is that it tells us about travel in a very different age to ours. The Marten family travelled by steamer and by coach and horses, which took a long time and could by very uncomfortable and even dangerous. Early paddle steamers sometimes exploded, highwaymen robbed coach passengers, and people had been known to freeze to death sitting outside a coach in winter! The excursion takes place at the start of the age of great improvements in travel, though, with better designed carriages, turnpike trusts improving the roads, and the opening of the first railway in 1825. Travel was gradually becoming cheaper and more available to people other than the very wealthy.  In fact, travel had become such an important part of the social calendar by 1825, that it was rumoured that people in London shut up their houses and pretended to be away if they could not afford a holiday! It was a great age for travel literature too when antiquarians such as John Byng hunted out ruins, and William Gilpin laid down the rules of scenery spotting, a sort of eternal search for the picturesque view. 

The editor’s introduction provides more information on the genre of travel writing and the rise of the developing holiday industry in the area. It is Interesting to compare Marten’s visit in 1825 to a visit to the same places today. Cromer was just emerging as a holiday destination for discerning visitors, yet still retains its charm as a seaside resort today. Walking on the pier and the cliffs, enjoying the views, picking up shells & pebbles on the beach, relishing the bracing sea air, eating crab and lobster are holiday activities we have in common with the Martens.  Norwich still has plenty to interest the tourist, with its many old buildings, cobbled streets, markets, etc, but we perhaps wouldn’t want to visit places such as new prison buildings and factories as the Martens did. Yarmouth has probably changed the most with its mass tourism appeal, the amusement arcades and funfairs which would make it almost unrecognisable for the Georgian traveller, but it is certainly less smelly than when the Martens visited when the town’s prosperity was based on its herring fisheries!

The diarist’s lifetime

In 1818 William Howley, Bishop of London, neatly summed up the character of the age, stating, ‘It is our lot to have fallen on days of innovation and trouble: the political circumstances of the age have produced an alteration in the circumstances of the country and an agitation in the public mind.” The historical backdrop to Robert Marten’s diary is one of change, of a country in transition from a rural to an industrial economy.  The introduction provides ample material on the Georgian age, its character, politics, and concerns, setting the journal in its social context and helping to explain historical points of interest, both locally and nationally. The Martens often encounter examples of poverty on their travels, giving money to school the poor children of East Runton, and visiting the new prison in Norwich, another manifestation of a society in turmoil amidst accelerating industrialisation.  Conversely, they take note of the increased building activity in Norwich, as well as visiting a busy silk factory in the city, the outward signs of industrial prosperity, commenting that “the Manufactures and general business of the place” are in thriving condition.

Social reform, much of it driven by the non-conformist, middle class businessmen, is another important topic discussed in this section.  Marten attends missionary society meetings in Norwich and dines at Earlham Hall, the home of the philanthropic banking Gurney family, an occasion that led to the formation of the ‘Norwich Society for Promoting the Immediate mitigation and final Abolition of Slavery’. He worships in several thriving non-conformist chapels in Norwich, comparing the serious nature of the preaching there unfavourably to that in the poorly attended Cathedral. A charming interlude takes places at Hockham Lodge, where the host strives hard to guide his household in religious observation, describing the pleasing effects of family prayers on one servant who has ceased to be a swearer, drinker and quarreller and instead become valuable and trustworthy. In this setting the family enjoy the diverse delights of Georgian country living, with shooting, riding, and a fashionable musical evening.

The appeal of the journal

The author has explained that what she set out to do in editing the text was to help bring it to life and make it accessible to a much wider audience than those who might encounter it at the Record Office.  She comments, “I found Marten a very interesting character and I think the journal itself is still very readable for its own sake, whether you are visiting the area like he was or whether you live here and have an interest in its history.”  The journal and its commentary introduce us to the very different world of Georgian society, with its many characters and happenings, bringing its sights and sounds alive, while the diarist’s well observed sketches of the places he visited add greatly to our enjoyment of this fascinating little volume.  It will appeal to readers of all ages interested in local and social history, as well as those with a special interest in one of the many subjects encompassed by the diary including travel, non-conformity, industrialisation, and the Georgian era in general.