The search for the lost diary

One of James Woodforde's notebooks in which he wrote his diary has been lost for years. Can anyone help us in the hunt for this small bound exercise book?

Custodians of the manuscript notebooks

On the death of the diarist in 1803 his manuscript was handed down through generations of the Woodforde family. It comprised 73 slim notebooks, together with further diary entries written on 100 loose sheets of paper used by Woodforde during his 1797 illness.

In 1959 one of the descendants of the diarist's nephew William Woodforde donated the collection to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. There the notebooks and loose papers remain, along with many other items from the Woodforde family archives. These were donated principally in the mid-twentieth century and are held in 36 boxes.

The Beresford centenary

However the library discovered that one diary notebook was missing, running from 6 March 1790 to 21 March 1791. The library gave it the shelfmark MS. Eng. misc. f. 164 in the hope that it could be allocated once the lost notebook was reunited with the rest of the manuscript diary. The notebook had been held with the others in the 1920s as the diarist's first editor John Baldwyn Beresford (1888–1940) quoted from it in the third volume of his selections.

That volume, covering the years 1788–1792, was first published by Oxford University Press in 1927; the 1968 reprint is seen here. The set of extracts is especially valuable as it includes numerous entries from the missing year (on pages 178–258).

John Beresford's third volume of Woodforde's diary, published 1927, is our sole source for the missing entriesOur only source: John Beresford's third volume, published in 1927, contains a selection of the missing entries. This is a 1968 reprint, also by OUP


We can picture John Beresford sitting in Dr Robert Woodforde's waiting room in the doctor's Hertfordshire home near Baldock in the early 1920s. Here the waiting patients could browse the bookshelves lining the walls. Beresford cast his eye over James Woodforde's neatly composed entries dating from the eighteenth century, and began to think that extracts from the manuscript might be of interest to a wider audience. He sought permission to take the notebooks home in small quantities, and from them he produced his five-volume set of extracts published by OUP 1924–31.

The year 2024 marks the centenary of the Revd James Woodforde's introduction to the modern world. The debt we owe to Beresford is incalculable. He understood the power of the diary, despite the apparent triviality of the events described by its author. Beresford wrote in the editorial introduction to volume 3:

And now, in 1927, Parson Woodforde has made friends for himself in all the continents of the world. So great a power have simplicity and truth.

Woodforde's first editor: John Beresford in 1913, by Lucy Graham SmithWoodforde's first editor: John Beresford in 1913, by Lucy Graham Smith

An account of Beresford's life by Martin Brayne appears in the Parson Woodforde Society Journal vol. 36 no. 3 (Autumn 2003).

The hunt by the extended Woodforde family

It is unlikely that the missing manuscript was deliberately taken, as one notebook would have almost no monetary value – certainly before the diary became known to the wider world. An accidental misplacement seems more likely. The Bodleian Library would naturally be delighted if it were found, and have wished the Parson Woodforde Society all the best in the attempt to find it.

A Woodforde descendant, historian Stephen Butt, has created a family website The Woodforde Story which contains a great deal of information about the extended family. Here he describes the search for the lost notebook. If you have suggestions as to possible avenues to be explored please contact the Parson Woodforde Society: editor@parsonwoodforde.org.

The notebooks are described by Penny Taylor in her study 'The Diary Notebooks', available on this website: Parson Woodforde Society Journal, vol. 22 no. 1 (Spring 1989).