[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Tawny Paul introduces us to a frustrated eighteenth-century artisan whose life she explores in more detail in her new article on ‘Accounting for Men’s Work’.]
In 1769, Thomas Parsons, a young stonemason in Bath, penned a daily account of his life. He may have written quite a lot over the years, but only one volume of his diary survives, covering a period of eight months. Though relatively modest in size, the text provides an entry into the world of a young man at a formative stage of life.
Parsons was twenty-five years old when he produced the diary. At this age, many young people in the eighteenth century married, finished training, assumed occupational status, and became more independent. Parsons’ diary therefore gives us insights into many themes related to lifecycle. This makes the text extremely valuable, because while histories of women have done remarkable work in uncovering the nuances of female lifecycle experiences, we know rather less about how men transitioned through life’s stages.
His entry for 13 April 1769 shows this in vivid detail as it centres on his struggles with his father:
13th. Fine weather
Work’d very hard at turning all day- in the afternoon accidentally let the Point turn’d with fall upon my foot it being just ground cut well- went thro’ my shoe and stocking and pierced my foot just between the second and middle tow- it bled a little I wraped it in a rag- and left it- at tea time I mention’d it- my Father quite pettish said he thought I was careless- that he had turn’d for 30 years at time and had never such an accident- I took the liberty to say that he might have escaped for so long time, that I thought that two Persons not having an accident exactly alike in every circumstance was no proof of carelessness. We were both somewhat [?] (what my Father was warm about I can’t tell) and he said, that I did not think about work so much as I ought- and that my mind was too much upon other things- I answer’d that some times possibly that was the case, but not lately and that today especially I had work’d very hard as well as the Men- here my Mother interrupted us with some other Subject, so our conversations ended- but I confess I was vexed to be reflected on so smartly, for paying too little regard too Business- when at the same time, I starve my Mind in the attainment of 40 or 50 pounds a year! and spend my thought and time about this little Business as if it was ten times as much- I generally work all day as long as my Men- but sometimes steal half an hour to refresh my spirits by disappearing into a Book and yet I am negligent and thoughtless- I am very sore that no Person in the City in anything like parrelell circumstances can be found that spends near so many hours in business as I do- I’m positive my Father never did since my remembrance- I have often thought of, and wish’d for some other way of getting my bread, so as to be detach’d from my Father- for I am (which is doubtless wrong) discontended- tis very rare I can leave my business, when I do ‘tis but for a short time, and yet when I return my Father’s countenance seems to ask me where I have been squandering away my time and my Men at play, and to reproach me for it- tis not often he says so much tho’ he has some times- I am now five and twenty years of age, have been in business three year, and have not the liberty to take a walk with a person if I chuse it. Mr Fuller was an instance of it. HE asked me to walk with him my Father made excuses for me, that I was busy that my Men wanted to be look’d after etc and the only time I did walk with him I was obliged to obviate those difficulties which my Father threw in the way- besides not having that freedom in any respect, (which every one wou’d desire, and reasonably too) I find myself in a business that is not so well as to profit, as I think I cou’d get with the same attention by working as a Journeyman- I shou’d not complain and to God I desire to be thankful, but I am very uneasy in my present circumstances and hope ‘twill not be so always.
As can be seen in the last couple lines, Thomas Parsons was a very religious man. His father was a Baptist minister and everyone in their family went to church regularly. Like many writers of his time (including Ralph Thoresby discussed in a previous post), religion provided the impetus to put pen to paper. In other entries, he quoted Biblical passages that he found to be personally inspiring, and discussed the context of sermons that he attended. But for Parsons, religion also framed his work and daily activities. He wrote in order to ‘account’ for himself in both a spiritual and a temporal sense. Writing was a form of self-examination in which he accounted for his day to day activities, work and relationships.
Even more obviously in this passage is the centrality of his work as a stone carver to his diary writing. Elsewhere in the volume we find him drawing schemas for potential clients, training apprentices, and chipping away at the buttery-yellow Cotswold stone for which Bath is so famous. He spoke about his work in multi-faceted ways, in terms of daily tasks, income earned, and the fulfilment or status that he gained from his labour. The passage transcribed here describes ‘turning’, a process used to create a symmetrical object by cutting into stone while rotating. He wrote about the task of managing people, referring at multiple points to ‘my men’, probably apprentices or wage labourers hired to assist with production. He noted the income that he earned from his work – forty to fifty pounds per year – which would have placed him squarely within middling sorts.
As a person of ‘middling’ rank, neither poor nor aristocratic, Parsons strove for a position of independence, which was one of the central features of eighteenth-century masculine identity. He framed his desire for autonomy in his writing about his working practices and his relation to his father. At the time of writing, his ageing father Robert, once the master of the stone-cutting workshop, followed spiritual aspirations and began lecturing as a Baptist minister. At several points in the diary, Thomas recounted listening to his father preach.
But the diary also revealed father and son working together, sometimes leading to harsh words and resentment. Robert continued overseeing the business and critiquing Thomas’ performance, frustrating his young-adult son and causing him to write at one point that he ‘wish’d for some other way of getting my bread, so as to be detach’d from my Father’.
The diary shows very clearly that independence and the dividends of patriarchy were dependent on one’s stage in the lifecycle. Though someone of Parsons’ status could expect to achieve patriarchal status eventually, probably heading a household and becoming the master of his workshop, this entry for a sunny April day provides a vivid glimpse of the ambiguous condition of a young adult in a transitional stage. The ideals of independence and occupational status were tempered by youth.
Although it is not present here, Parsons began almost every entry with a note about his physical and emotional health, including comments about the state of his stomach and bile, as well as feelings of restlessness and anxiety. The emotionally vivid nature of the diary emerges very strongly in this passage, and shows just how precarious this transitional life stage could feel for an individual. Parsons fretted about his relationship with his father, his future working life, and described his circumstances as uneasy. Later on the diary, he discussed the emotional turmoil of courtship and the financial uncertainties that he faced as a craftsperson in a rapidly changing economy.
Parsons was anxious about his body. The diary provides insights into how people in the eighteenth century talked about health, understood the form and function of their bodies, and lived within their physical selves. Perhaps the most noticeable example of the body in this passage is the experience of injury. While cutting into a piece of stone, Parsons let his tool slip and stabbed himself in the foot. The passage constitutes one of two examples in the diary where Parsons was injured. Later on, he would drop a statue on his hand while attempting to move it, rendering himself unable to work.
Here, the frailty of the body intersects with the precariousness of financial life. Parsons longed to be engaged in the higher pursuits of intellectual enquiry, and indeed in this passage he describes ‘starving his mind’ in order to attain an income. But, like it or not, the livelihood of a craftsman was closely connected to the physical body.
Huntington Library (San Marino, California), Thomas Parsons, ‘Diary, 1769 Jan.-Aug’, HM 62593, 13 April 1769.