2 . Portrait of Nancy Woodforde on a box lid 1779

Anna Maria Woodforde, known in the family as Nancy, painted by her brother Samuel when she was 22 Anna Maria Woodforde, known in the family as Nancy, painted by her brother Samuel when she was 22. Her luxuriant hair is also seen in a later sketch [Woodforde Family Collection]This is the earliest of three surviving portraits of Anna Maria Woodforde (1757–1830) by her brother Samuel. He was aged 16½ when he painted it in September 1779, and Anna Maria 22 years. She has come down to readers of the diary as Nancy, the affectionate name adopted by her uncle and presumably others in the family.

A second sketch of Nancy by Samuel may date from six years later. As described later on this page, he was visiting the rectory in late 1785 when he drew his uncle, sister, brother William and others.

Uncle and niece lived together at Weston Parsonage from her arrival in October 1779 until the diarist's death on New Year's Day 1803. James Woodforde made a record in a separate notebook, still held by William Woodforde's descendants, that the expenses of Nancy's journey to Norfolk came to three guineas (£3 3s 0d). He repaid his Somerset brother-in-law John Pounsett in full for this large sum sum advanced to Nancy.

This small cameo introduces Nancy to us as she looked at the time she embarked on her new life. The box lid which it adorned has been converted to a wall picture; the box no longer exists. The cameo in its oval frame measures 95 mm by 125 mm and is painted straight onto the wood of the box; with the wooden frame it measures 150 mm by 180 mm.

For the rest of her time at Weston Rectory Nancy was to be dependent on her uncle's considerable generosity. Her father Heighes Woodforde (1726–89), James's eldest brother, had trained as an attorney, his expenses being noted in his father's account book. But he was hopelessly improvident, proving unable to support his children or see them properly educated. Nancy received very little formal schooling. However, like her brothers, she was anxious to improve herself. Her diary for 1792 charts a self-imposed, varied reading regime; friends and neighbours would regularly lend her their books.

The child of a broken home

Nancy was the eldest of the four children of Heighes and Anne, née Dorville. She was born on 8 March 1757, six weeks after her parents had gone through a second (and this time legal) marriage ceremony in church. Their first ceremony had taken place on 17 December 1754 in the Savoy Chapel in London, Anne having eloped with Heighes. They were the seventeenth couple to be married in the chapel that day. Such weddings, conducted by the renegade chaplain of the Savoy prison and popular with those needing to act clandestinely, were not recognised as lawful under Hardwicke's Marriage Act of the previous year.

The reverse of Nancy Woodforde's portrait shows it was painted in September 1779The reverse of the cameo. The inscription reads, 'A.M. Woodforde Aetatis Suae [in the year of her age] 22, S. Woodforde Pinxit [painted it], Sep. 1779'. [Woodforde Family Collection]Anna Maria was born in her mother's old home in Alhampton hamlet in the parish of Ditcheat, Somerset. Alhampton lies just north of Ansford, her uncle's birthplace and childhood home. Anne Woodforde had four children with Heighes: Anna Maria, William (in 1758), Juliana (in 1760, this second daughter dying of consumption at the age of 28) and Samuel (1763). Anne later had three other sons 1767–71, but these were repudiated by Heighes as not his. All were brought up in their mother's family home.

As both James Woodforde and Nancy noted, Anne treated her children with Heighes with great coldness and made their lives miserable – a complete contrast with the affection she showered on her three youngest sons. On 2 May 1770 the diarist, then based locally as a curate, noted that the four eldest children were absent from home while under inoculation for smallpox. He made the startling claim, given the painful, highly unpleasant and dangerous pre-Jenner variolation method, that the patients were happy to be away from their mother. Three weeks later, on 22 May, he observed that 'their Mother behaves quite unnatural to them.'

It is no wonder the kind-hearted rector took two of them, William and Nancy, in turn to Norfolk to live with him. Over the years he made sure that Nancy, William and Samuel, the three to whom he was closest, received his financial support.

Between 1764 and 1769 the parents parted company, with Heighes living in Castle Cary and Anne at Alhampton. James Woodforde tried without success 'to reconcile Brother Heighes with his wife, and she would not by any means' (5 May 1769). Heighes then had to move into the Lower House at Ansford. It was a time of great anguish for his brother James, who found himself forced to live with his two unruly and trying brothers.

Matters got worse, with the final clash that ended the marriage: 'Terrible works all last night at Alhampton' (24 December 1770); the formal deed of separation, held in the New College archives, is dated 1776. The full story of the turmoil of Heighes Woodforde's life is told by Roy Winstanley in the Parson Woodforde Society Journal for Summer 1971: vol. 4 no. 2; this long study contains portraits of husband and wife. He continued the story in the Journal for Winter 1992: vol. 25 no. 4.

Nancy's affection for her brothers Bill and Sam, so apparent from her own diary and that of her uncle, would have been forged in the torment of their childhood with its severe financial and emotional deprivation.

Anna Maria, Nancy or Ann?

Were we living in the eighteenth century it would seem disrespectful in the extreme to refer to Anna Maria Woodforde as Nancy. Even in the more relaxed conditions of today few of us would call James Woodforde by the diminutive adopted by his father, up to and including the time 'Jemmy' set off for Oxford at the age of eighteen. The family, as was nearly universal at the time, had pet names for one another: Jenny for Jane, Jack for John, Bill for William (or Billy when a small child).

In later life Nancy was called Aunt Ann and Great-Aunt Ann by William's children and grandchildren when she returned to Somerset after her uncle's death (D.H. Woodforde, Woodforde Papers and Diaries, p. 242).

Nancy Woodforde did not act as housekeeper at Weston Parsonage. Her uncle took command of most matters relating to the running of the household and the hiring and dismissal of both male and female servants. To contemporary eyes this would represent a slight. At times the relationship was strained, particularly when the years passed and life became more monotonous – the very quality her brother had complained of as a young man at Weston.

A search of the set of indexes to the Journal which is downloadable in .xls format (the Journal page gives guidance) reveals a wealth of articles on Nancy, the Woodforde family and their homes. A few of her letters are held in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, Roy Winstanley making good use of them for his 1996 biography of the parson and in his articles in the Journal.

Nancy's diary for 1792

The most revealing source is however Nancy's detailed diary for the one year to have survived. Her 1792 record, written in the same household as her uncle's journal, is transcribed in full in Dorothy Heighes Woodforde's Woodforde Papers and Diaries. As her editor declares, 'Here was Nancy herself.'

The diary opens with Nancy's prayers for Frances Custance, 'who I am very sorry to say now lays dangerously ill after her lying-in: we should be very unhappy to lose so good a neighbour'. Her chatty style belies her true nature: Nancy has a sharp tongue at times, and is a shrewd observer. She is a loving, grateful niece:

Monday 9 January  This day my uncle gave me a ten pound bank bill which I have every year off him for clothes and pocket money. Thank God I have so good a friend in him, I am sorry to say that I never have a farthing from any other of my relations . . .

Friday 5 October  [Writing of her mother's keeping the proceeds of the Sussex estate left by Heighes to his children] Pray God make her a better Mother to her first-born children who have never offended her and who have been cruelly used by her.

Nancy finds herself confined to the house a great deal on wet and windy days, her diary vividly recording the inconvenience of having to travel exposed to the elements either on foot, behind her uncle on his horse or in an open cart. She is careful to take as much exercise as she can by walking around the garden and even occasionally goes hare-coursing. On 30 November she records: 'Went out with Mr Peachman a-coursing with our dogs and brought home a fine young hare.'

While the diary overlaps closely with her uncle's, Nancy's has a more graphic style. Mrs Custance was semi-paralysed for months after the birth of Charlotte at the end of 1791 and in great pain at Weston House: 'The servants can hear her shriek all over the house' (15 January).

The Custances were by far their closest friends, the families often calling on one another. Uncle and niece felt their loss deeply when the whole Custance family uprooted themselves to Bath for five years:

Saturday 6 October  . . . We shall never have such good neighbours again in Norfolk, their going is the greatest loss I could meet with here.

Sunday 7 October  Uncle and self took a walk in the garden this morning and saw Mr Custance's carriage pass by for the last time which made me very low indeed. God only knows when we shall see them again . . .

Samuel Woodforde's portraits

The Fortune Teller: a portrait by Samuel Woodforde, RA of his future wife Jane GardnerThe Fortune Teller: a portrait by the diarist's nephew Samuel Woodforde, RA of Samuel's future wife Jane Gardner (1788–1860). It is probably the one exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1808 [Parson Woodforde Society Collection]We owe a great deal to Nephew Sam (1763–1817) in capturing the appearance of his immediate family for posterity. He drew three portraits of his sister Nancy, one of his uncle James, and two of his brother William which have survived. Six of these seven are shown on this website, enabling us to feel closer to some of the central characters in James Woodforde's life. In addition Samuel painted arresting self-portraits.

Many – but not the one seen at the top of this page – appear to have been painted years after the original sketches on which they were based were drawn in late 1785. Interestingly, the artist confirms in his own diary that he drew these portraits on 29 November 1785 – a few days earlier than his uncle records:

While I was at Weston drew the portraits of Uncle James, Sister Nancy, Brother William, myself, Mrs Davie and daughter. Mrs Davie a most agreeable, sensible and handsome woman.
[from D.H. Woodforde, Woodforde Papers and Diaries, p. 94]

Samuel obtained the patronage of the Hoares of Stourhead, travelled a good deal in Italy and became a Royal Academician in 1807. He married one of his models, Jane Gardner, in London in 1815, less than two years before he died of fever in Italy. The very attractive portrait of Jane more than seven years befere their marriage was bought at auction by a former President of the Parson Woodforde Society, George Bunting, from whose estate the Society purchased the painting in 2014.

Studies in the Journal for Spring 1973 and Summer 2014 shed light on Samuel and Jane: vol. 6 no. 1 and vol. 47 no. 2. The Society's chairman Martin Brayne and his wife Ann undertook a pilgrimage to Bologna in the bicentenary of Sam's death to find and photograph his grave: vol. 50 no. 3 (December 2017).

Nancy's brother William Woodforde

The fractured marriage of the parents produced coldness towards the drunken, improvident father, as evidenced by Bill Woodforde's reproachful letter to Heighes dated 17 January 1784 from his ship at Spithead on his return from the American war. He accuses his Somerset relations, his family 'in the West', of cruelty in not writing to him during all the years he was away: vol. 15 no. 1 (Spring 1982).

The contrast with his supportive sister and kindly uncle in the East must have been painfully clear. As a very young man William had found life at the parsonage lacking in stimulus and excitement, but the strained relations with the rector were repaired during the 1780s and 1790s. Bill spent months at a time at Weston, his visits being to all appearances very amicable. Nancy loved seeing her brother, and Bill cultivated a circle of acquaintances while remaining at ease with his uncle.

At the age of thirty he eloped, like his parents, with the orphaned seventeen-year-old heiress Anne Dukes. This time the marriage proved happy and they had three daughters, Juliana (Julia), Jane and Anna Maria (Anne), and two sons, William and George Augustus. The family home William built near Castle Cary, Galhampton Place, is pictured on the Frolics page. Here, rather sourly, Roy Winstanley pictures him enjoying life as 'the squirelet' of Galhampton: vol. 22 no. 3 (Autumn 1989).

William celebrated his wife's coming of age and their son's christening at Galhampton on 8 March 1792 with a great deal more panache than ever his uncle and the squire managed at Weston at times of national celebration. Nancy records the event as reported in a letter from her aunt Jane Pounsett:

William Woodforde, painted by his brother Samuel in 1803 in his uniform in the 1st East Somerset Regiment of Volunteer InfantryWilliam Woodforde, Nancy's brother, painted by their brother Samuel in 1803 in his uniform in the 1st East Somerset Regiment of Volunteer Infantry [Woodforde Family Collection]

Thursday 19 April   . . . She informed us that she and her daughter had been at a great entertainment at my Brother's at Galhampton on the 8th of March . . . Mrs Pounsett says there was no expense spared to make it agreeable to the company which consisted of near thirty people. Bells ringing, music playing, guns firing and flags flying; and the evening concluded with a ball . . .

William's naval and military careers

Sir Angus Fraser produced the definitive study of William Woodforde in the Journal for Winter 1993: vol. 26 no. 4. Basing his research on Admiralty, War Office and Home Office papers in the National Archives and also in the Somerset Record Office (for the Lord Lieutenancy, which oversaw appointments to the Volunteers) he corrects numerous misconceptions about Bill's career in the Royal Navy during the American war and in the Volunteer Infantry and Local Militia during the Napoleonic war.

Bill served in the Royal Navy from 1779 to 1784. He joined as an able seaman, becoming a midshipman two months later. Without patronage he never progressed to commissioned rank, for which six years at sea were required for those joining in the ranks. Peace came before his six years were up. He saw active service off the Barbary Coast and on the American seaboard on three ships: HMS Fortune, HMS Ariadne and HMS Astrea. Angus Fraser records the prize money to which the young midshipman was entitled for his part in these engagements.

When war broke out in May 1803 after the brief peace which ended the French Revolutionary War William was quick to serve his country once more, this time in military uniform in the Volunteers. A larger portrait painted by his brother in 1803 is seen at the foot of the Diary page. On 13 August 1803 he was appointed Captain of the newly formed Castle Cary and Ansford Volunteer Infantry. Two months later he was Captain of the 1st East Somerset Regiment of Volunteer Infantry, being promoted major on 8 December 1803.

William Woodforde's gorget as an officer in the Volunteers is seen in his portraits. The crown and cypher are those of King George III [Woodforde Family Collection]William's commission as Lieutenant Colonel of the Western Battalion of the 1st East Somerset Regiment of Volunteer Infantry, dated 22 May 1804, is still held by his descendants, together with some of his leather-bound order books and militaria. He took his duties very seriously, and was no longer the 'unsteady,' 'unsettled' youth portrayed by James Woodforde in the early Norfolk years. As late as 1830 William was still maintaining his series of commonplace books held in the Woodforde Family Collection by which he sought to educate himself.

By 1808 the Volunteers were being disbanded and William transferred to become Lieutenant Colonel Commandant of the East Somerset Regiment of Local Militia. Some irregularities arose over accounting for the regimental stores and supplies for which William was held ultimately responsible. He was dismissed in 1813.

Continuing the Woodforde name

William had many interests, as demonstrated by papers in the family collection and at New College, Oxford. He was artistic, and engaged in antiquarian pursuits in Somerset. He revered his uncle, as we can judge from the mural tablet he erected with Nancy, and from his saving the mass of notebooks and loose papers forming the manuscript diary.

William's close-knit family life emerges in this note by his daughter Jane:

Our beloved Mother, Anne Woodforde, departed this life on the 10th of February 1829 at Ansford House [the Lower House], and our beloved Father, William Woodforde, on July 24th [1844], aged 87 [86], at Ansford House – all but our eldest brother William being with him, and deeply did we feel it. [from D.H. Woodforde, Woodforde Papers and Diaries, p. 242]

Significantly, it is from William Woodforde that the name of the Woodfordes of Ansford, the diarist's parents, was perpetuated. The Revd Samuel and Jane Woodforde had four sons. Only Heighes continued the family line. Samuel died as a small child, James did not marry, and John's marriage did not produce children. Heighes' two sons both married, but the surname survived only through William and his sons William and George Augustus. Samuel and Jane Woodforde did not have children, and none of William's three daughters married.

Family bonds

On hearing of his uncle's death in January 1803 William Woodforde immediately set off for Weston, travelling the 238 miles from Galhampton in 48 hours without pausing for sleep. He was on hand to help his sister with settling their uncle's affairs and choosing which items to take back to Somerset. After a two-year spell in London with Samuel Nancy revived her Somerset roots and came to live close to Bill. She settled down first at Ansford and later in the house named Cary Villa at the top of the High Street in Castle Cary.

Given her subordinate status at Weston it comes perhaps as a surprise to learn that, thanks to her faithful uncle, Nancy was able to live in some comfort in her later years. James Woodforde shared his estate between Nancy and Bill, the two who had been his companions at the rectory. He drew up his simple will on 29 April 1799, shortly after the death of his termagant sister-in-law Anne. Two studies in the Journal for Winter 1994 analyse the wills of Heighes, his wife Anne, Revd James and Samuel Woodforde, RA: vol. 27 no. 4.

The bond between brother and sister remained strong. The recently-widowed Bill and the daughter he had named Anna Maria (1798–1861) were with Nancy when she died at Castle Cary on 6 January 1830 aged 72: vol. 14 no. 3. The probate copies of her will, with those of her brother William and grandfather Revd Samuel Woodforde, are held in the family collection.


We can say farewell to William with a personal recollection. Dying aged 86 he lived long enough to be remembered by those who spoke to his great-grandson, the custodian of James Woodforde's manuscript diary who was born 31 years after Bill's death. Roy Winstanley, habitually (and at times unfairly) a harsh critic, gives us this cameo in his study of Bill at home in the Journal for Autumn 1989: vol. 22 no. 3:

William was undoubtedly good-looking in youth . . . He had a striking enough appearance as he aged. Dr R.E.H. Woodforde spoke to old villagers who remembered him as 'a handsome striking man, upright as an arrow to the end, with bright blue eyes'.