Of Diaries and the Perennial Diarist of Waldringfield

By Gareth Thomas

[This article is about A Perennial Diary kept by the Reverend Thomas Henry Waller, Rector of Waldringfield for 43 years from 1862 to 1905.   Please note that where entries are quoted verbatim the text is italicised.]

Readers who belong to The Arts Society will have had the opportunity recently to hear Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum, pronouncing on the immense value of diaries and describing a collection of 11,000 such pieces which he oversees at the Bishopsgate Institute, opposite Liverpool Street Station. 

Finkel, a real enthusiast in the preservation of diaries, describes the simplest, most humble diaries as ‘magical’, because they are concerned with the life of real people who have written ‘the truth as they see it, without manipulation.’ He makes a particular point that none of the 11,000 diaries in question were kept by politicians.

He describes a diary, any diary, as a memorial to the diarist as well as carrying the potential for being a valuable research resource. ‘’Sometimes,” he says, “the most startling historical event sits in a diary amongst the mundane” and, often, such an entry can add previously unknown detail of the event to the historical record.

In recent years the Waldringfield History Group (WHG) found that very ‘valuable research resource’ in the Perennial Diary of the Reverend Thomas Henry Waller which was one of the two main sources of inspiration for the formation of the Group in 2007 under the guidance of Joe Clark. The other, more perceptible, source of inspiration was the collection of glass slides attributable to Thomas Naunton Waller, one of the reverend gentleman’s five sons.

The Reverend Thomas Henry Waller born 16.05.1832.   (KC)

Many readers will know that Joe Clark is married to Kit, great-grand-daughter to the Reverend Thomas Henry Waller (THW). Joe and Kit live in Waldringfield, and they are curators, in effect, of both the glass slide collection and the Diary, from which Joe has been known to quote as if he knows it off by heart.

I have to admit that I did not know what was meant exactly by a Perennial Diary and, over the years, it has become apparent that I am not alone as it has been referred to variously as the Perpetual Diary, the Personal Diary and even as the Perineal Diary.

The Perennial Diary of Thomas Henry Waller as it appears today.   (GT)

For a definition of what is meant by a Perennial Diary we could do worse than go to the printed title page of THW’s Diary where, in the aptly quoted words of the ‘immortal Bard’, it is “The story of my life from year to year”.

The printed title page of the Perennial Diary.   (GT)

Wikipedia, unusually, does nothing to improve one’s understanding as it states, under the title ‘Perennial Diary’, that ‘a perennial calendar is a calendar that applies to any year, keeping the same dates, weekdays and other features. Perennial calendar systems differ from most widely used calendars which are annual calendars’ – which is not what we asked!

In the absence of any workable definition, understanding the concept may be helped by knowing that in the case of THW’s Perennial Diary there is one page for each of the 365/366 dates of the year. Then, on each page the diarist has written, usually in chronological order, a list of events which occurred on that date, and the years in which they happened.

Showing two of the inside pages – there is one page for each of the dates of the year.  (GT)

The Preface to Thomas Henry’s volume, again printed by the publisher, states that the Diary is intended to be a ‘record of incidents of permanent importance in the life of the writer’, a single volume of ‘great events’ which will ‘remain of permanent and increasing interest to the possessor and might even be handed down to and prized by his immediate descendants’. It is likely that this rather self-effacing Preface was prepared in the late 1880s as the volume was printed and published by John Heywood in 1889. Now, in the 21st century, we know that the book is very definitely prized (not just ‘might be’) not only by immediate descendants but by further generations including great, great, great grandchildren and, of course, by acquaintances in the WHG.

My main concern, when I first saw this Diary, was the absence of its spine: pure wear and tear, more marked in a diary such as this because of the need to thumb through it whenever looking for specific events. Despite the book’s age, the covers and the inside pages are all in reasonable condition. My concern to help keep things that way led me first to make a digital copy and then, in the interests of providing a document useful for local historical research, to index the contents.

What relevance, one might ask, has this Perennial Diary and its diarist got to the River Deben? The question may be answered first by looking at the life story of Thomas Henry. He was ‘born at White Hall, Waldringfield’ on 16th May 1832.

White Hall, Waldringfield in the later part of the 19th century. (WHG)

The right hand side of the house is visible from the River Deben

The house, of course, is clearly visible from the river, at the southern extremity of Waldringfield.  Thomas Henry’s father, George, himself the son of Thomas Waller of Ramsholt, had come to live at White Hall as a newlywed, having married Anne Edwards whose parents were tenants of Thomas Waller at Wood Hall in Sutton. Already we can see that, through this family, at least, communities on both sides of the river were closely linked; indeed, they had been since the middle of the seventeenth century when White Hall Farm (and Church Farm) in Waldringfield on the west bank of the Deben came, through marriage, to the Waller family who lived on the east bank.

Church Farm, Waldringfield in the early twentieth century.   (WHG)

Readers of Robert Simper’s recently published book ‘The Lost Village of Ramsholt’ are told that in the early part of the nineteenth century THW’s paternal grandfather, Tom Waller, the above-mentioned Thomas Waller, farmed Sutton Hall whilst his brother, William, farmed Ramsholt Lodge; legend has it that they had a bridge built across Shottisham creek ‘to allow movement between their farms’. Robert goes on to mention that the brothers had shares in the Woodbridge sloop, Resolution, which was seized for smuggling, only leading ‘one’ to ‘guess what else they moved across the Creek’.

(image courtesy Golden Duck)

There is mention in the Perennial Diary of THW going to ‘to St Catherine’s Dock to see W.N.Waller’s ship & to Tower [of] London’ on Boxing Day, 1850. I have yet to confirm or refute that the ship was the sloop ‘Resolute’; it is a question of finding and researching the right documents – a researcher’s work is never done.

When Thomas Henry was two years old his parents were blessed with another child, a daughter called Georgiana. Unfortunately, father George died shortly after her birth – ‘father to THW died’, 14th August 1834. As a consequence, Anne and her two small children went back across the river to live with the maternal grandparents, the Edwards, in Sutton, presumably at Wood Hall.

Wood Hall, Sutton in 2013, nearly 200 years since Thomas Henry’s childhood.   (GT)

The occasion – the New Year’s Eve wedding reception of the author’s daughter. The journey from Waldringfield to Sutton (via Nacton Church) was made, in style, by road, rather than crossing the river by boat!

Little is known about the childhood of Thomas Henry and Georgiana, although it is likely that there is more information just waiting to be discovered by a researcher. Thomas Henry’s own story is picked up by his Perennial Diary when he records his arrival, at the age of eighteen, at Cirencester Agricultural College – ‘Arrived at Cirencester Agric:College’  on 17th August 1850. The Diary shows that he was ‘examined for [entry to] Clare Hall by Mr Dobree’ in February 1853 to study for a BA and that he went ‘into residence at Clare Hall, Cambridge’ in October of that year.

The more observant amongst you will, no doubt, be asking how it is that Thomas Henry was recording, in writing, these mid-century events when the actual Diary was not available until it was published in 1889.  One has to assume that many of the entries in the Diary were made using other conventional diaries as ‘aides-memoire’. That would certainly explain the fact that on some pages the entries are all written with the same ink and with the same nib despite the events being decades apart. The whereabouts of any conventional, annual  diaries are not known.

On 13th August 1856 Thomas Henry became ‘married to Jane Pretyman at Ramsholt Church’. Jane was the daughter of John Pretyman whose entrepreneurship and influence on life in Ramsholt are also described by Robert Simper.  John Pretyman was responsible for restoration of Ramsholt Church about 1850. 

Ramsholt and All Saints’ Church circa 1880 as painted from the marshes by one John Moore. This picture came the author’s way on one side of a thank-you note about five years ago – the notelet had been purchased in the Church  – the whereabouts of the original painting are now unknown

According to Robert Simper, John Pretyman owned a schooner, Antelope, which was used for coastal trading. The Pretyman family home was Ramsholt Lodge (which ceased to be in 1962); in its prime it was situated just inland from Pretyman point. There is no reference in the Diary as to where the newly-weds first lived but there is an entry dated 09.09.1858 which refers to THW making the ‘first arrangement with Kersey about Coprolites’, a record relating to the digging for coprolite on his land in Waldringfield. Robert Simper believes that THW and Jane lived in the Valley Farm house in Ramsholt ‘for a while’ after they were married and that is confirmed by Kit Clark.

Once again, we see strong links continuing between communities on either side of the river.  Robert Simper reminds us that probably in the 1870s the curate of Ramsholt’s All Saints’ Church was the Rev Henry Canham who was also the chaplain of the Workhouse at Nacton and a resident of Sandy Lane, Waldringfield. Sunday afternoons entailed his being rowed from Waldringfield to the south side of Shottisham creek  – weather allowing! There are several entries in the Diary relating to THW exchanging duties with Canham at Nacton but also, on 16th July 1880, an entry which reads ‘took possession of Canham’s House and Land’.

In 1861 (26.05.1861) Thomas Henry had been ‘ordained Priest’. First, he became curate at St Matthew’s in Ipswich but on the 15thOctober 1862 he ‘received offer of Waldringfield living’ and on December 22nd was ‘instituted to Waldringfield Rectory’ (now a private residence). He was to be succeeded in his living over a period of 150 years first by his son, Arthur, then his grandson, Trevor and, finally, by his great grandson, the late John Waller – a well-known mariner of the Deben.

THW on the front lawn of Waldringfield Rectory into which he was instituted in 1862.  (WHG)

I have referred to the preparation of an index; this has almost 3,200 entries which provide links for all sorts of historical and genealogical investigation. One of my own interests, as a retired medic, lies in matters medical. As we, the WHG, prepared our recent publication “Waldringfield, a Suffolk Village beside the River Deben’ I became intrigued by the story of Georgiana Waller, not THW’s sister (born 1836) but one of his daughters (born 1866) who was pictured always in a bath chair or an invalid carriage and who was said to have become incapacitated ‘after being crossed in love’. No sensible medic would deny the role of psychology in the generation of ill-health but there must be more to it than that, I thought.

(image courtesy Golden Duck)

Georgiana Waller, fourth from left, seated in an invalid chair.  (KC)

Thomas Henry and his wife Jane had eleven children; there are entries in the Diary relating to each of them but only by indexing has it been possible to build up some sort of chronological storyline for each of them, including Georgiana.

Under Waller, Georgiana there are upward of sixty entries. From the first sixteen we are able to tell that she was born on 17th November 1866, that she suffered measles in 1886 when she was 19, that she was musically talented and that she was physically active in 1890, visiting places in the UK, getting to the top (600 feet) of Rodborrow in Stroud and sailing round to Wolverstone, for example.

The first sixteen entries under Waller, Georgiana in the index of the Diary.   (GT)

The following year, 1891, aged 24, she consulted a local specialist (Dr Bartlet) about her eyes – no details given.  Three years later, in 1894, she was consulting about her eyes again, this time with Dr Britten Archer, a London ophthalmic specialist.

The travelling continued through the early 1890s as she had brother Thomas (the photographer) living in Newcastle and another brother’s (John) in-laws living in Chester. Her youngest brother, Arthur, was a curate in Bridgewater and she visited him, also.

However, according to the Diary, by 1897 Georgiana had a masseuse, Nurse Phillips, followed in 1898 by Miss Fox and then by Miss Mayhew. About this time, also, she required an operation on her feet and ankles ‘under chloroform’. No details are given but the procedure was carried out by local doctors, Henley, and Hollis, the latter being known to the WHG through researching the Cement Works.

THW’s Diary entries show that, at the end of June 1899, ‘Farrow’s new van’ was required to take Georgiana and other members of the family, including brother Alfred’s wife and children, to Beacon Villa in Felixstowe for a two-week holiday. Ten months later, the 25th May, 1900, she was off to Felixstowe again, this time to “Fernside’, Montague Road. (‘Fernside’ is not there now but it lends itself as another possible line of enquiry. Was it a nursing home or a hotel, or a private home? How big was it? When was it built and when was it demolished? To whom did it belong?)

Just under four weeks later Georgiana’s father and her GP brother are documented in the Diary as talking about her with a Dr Ferrier; within four days she went directly from Felixstowe to the National Hospital for the Paralysed (Now the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery), Queen’s Square under the care of the said Dr Ferrier. She was visited there once by her parents, in November, but did not return home for almost 12 months.

Sir David Ferrier, MD., Fellow of the Royal Society, was no ordinary doctor. He had been Professor of Neuropathology at Kings College Hospital and had been responsible for much of the mapping of the brain which eventually led to the conceptualisation of brain surgery and the understanding of epilepsy. There is a ward named after him at the hospital in Queen’s Square.

Information and picture from Wikipedia

However, despite his expertise he seemed unable to sort out Georgiana’s problem.

Sixteen months passed between her return from Queen’s Square and a visit to London on 8th October 1902 by her eldest sister, Mary and her youngest sister, Kate to consult with Mrs Louisa Atkins MD at 38, York St., close to Portman Sq., about Georgiana’s condition.

The last seventeen entries under Waller, Georgiana in the index of the Diary.  (GT)

Now Dr Atkins was no ordinary doctor, either. First, she was a woman, qualified MD in Zurich in 1872 and Licenced to practice by the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland. At the time of her training there were no medical schools for women in England. In 1902 she was in private practice which, according to her obituary, she conducted ‘from Northwood (where she had a house built) and her consulting rooms in London’. Until the late 1880s she had been on the staff of the New Hospital for Women in London which had been set up by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (EGA) and, prior to that, shortly after becoming licenced, Dr Atkins had been the Resident Medical Officer at the Birmingham Hospital for Women. She is said to have been the first woman doctor in Birmingham.

Perhaps what Louisa Atkins is best known for is an attempt to ‘whistle-blow’ on the standard of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s surgery toward the end of the 1880s, stating to the Board of Governors that, to quote, “I firmly believe that the performance of abdominal sections at this Hospital will be injurious to the patients, to the cause of medical women and to the Hospital itself….I could not justify it to my own conscience to allow any patient of mine to be operated under the present system”. Unfortunately, EGA was adamant that the New Hospital for Women should be an all-female institution, but it was male surgeons at other hospitals who had all the experience. This was a bit of a Catch 22 from which Dr Atkins resigned, in line with another lady doctor and one of the visiting male surgeons.

About the time Dr Atkins was parting company from her colleague at the New Hospital for Women, Alfred Waller was an assistant house physician in Birmingham. One has to wonder if that is how he came to know about her. We will never know why Dr Atkins was chosen or what therapy she was offering. We do know that Georgiana took residence first in West Kensington to be near Dr Atkins’ London consulting rooms and later in a hostel in Northwood to be near her there.

We also know that it didn’t work, because in 1907 Agnes reported that Georgiana was ‘no better’, despite having gone through another feet-straightening operation under chloroform. It was 1910 before Georgiana sought help from another eminent neurologist, Dr Wilfred Harris, a product of my alma mater, St Mary’s, but a bit before my time!  Georgiana was in residence at Dr Harris’ private rooms in Wimpole Street for a short period before moving to another address close by. However, within two months of seeing Dr Harris she was back ‘home at last’, as her father wrote with relief, back home in Waldringfield. Thirteen years had passed since her problem with the feet and ankles had first become manifest. 

So, what was the problem?  Well, the answer evaded an eye specialist, two leading neurologists and one leading lady doctor. We know it was nothing congenital such as neural tube defect because Georgiana appears not to have had any problems prior to 1891 when she was 24.  We also know that there was no familial ill health. We have no details for her sister, Eleanor, who died as a newborn and neither do we have much information about Anne Elizabeth who was seven years older than Georgiana but died at the age of 25 in 1884. We know from the Diary that Anne went with her mother in 1883 to see a Dr Gervis in London, to whom I have found reference in the BMJ of 1883. He specialised in diseases of women and particularly diseases of the ovary. It is possible that Anne had ovarian disease. Those are the only two instances of ill-health in the family apart from Jane Pretyman Waller’s cataracts and the occasional ‘bad headache’ complained of by THW.

Georgiana’s problem, then, was acquired. As far as we can tell it involved the extremities of both her lower limbs and possibly her eyes. It ought to be pointed out here that long-term immobility of limbs may be complicated by contractures i.e. bending-in of the extremities and maybe the operations under chloroform were carried out to correct such contractures.

The one medical fact which stands out is the entry in the Diary recording Georgiana’s infection with measles at the age of 19. The recent global rise in anti-vaccination activity and the availability of modern diagnostic techniques have led doctors to learn about longer term complications (classically 5-10 years) of this viral disease. These include thickening of the cornea, malfunction of the eye muscles resulting in squints and a long-term inflammation of nervous tissue, mainly in the brain but also in the spinal cord. Also, for instance, there is talk of the possibility of an increased risk of multiple sclerosis following measles.

I am now quoting highly specialised debate which is well beyond my area of expertise, but I am deeply suspicious that Georgiana’s problems may well have been caused by that episode of measles. On the balance of probabilities most, if not all, of the Waller siblings would have suffered measles at some time or another so we have to ask why it was that Georgiana’s infection got a special mention? – it is the only mention in the Diary of what one might call ‘childhood illnesses.’ Did THW record it because it was particularly bad or because it was particularly unusual, occurring in a nineteen-year old? – perhaps both because measles is known to be particularly severe in subjects around that age and older.

Was Georgiana thwarted in love? – maybe – but she also suffered measles in early adulthood – so who knows?

I have been self-indulgent in following some medical links of THW’s documentation, mainly to show how his Perennial Diary, having been properly indexed, might help local historians or historians with special interests to follow many other storylines.

For the Waller family there is a potted life history of each of the siblings and, in the case of the sons, their marriages and their offspring. How, for instance, Thomas and Jane, in their late sixties, had care of two of their grandchildren for the best part of a year whilst Dr Alfred carried on with his general practice in Stroud and his wife Violet, struck by rheumatic fever, rested, quite legitimately, for that was the treatment, in order to minimise its effects. The eldest of those two children was Tommy, their oldest grandchild, who was killed in action in the Great War. The index draws the reader to the date – 22.10.1917, but the actual written entry conveys very strongly the frustrated grief of the elderly widower.

Poor Tommy killed in action in France, my first grandchild

His wife, Jane had died, aged 86, in November 1916

                               Dear wife Jane died aged 86½ at 5.45 pm

For Church historians there is a wealth of material – there are 48 index entries concerning mainly the fabric of All Saints’, Waldringfield, ranging from details of the major renovation, warranting closure, in 1865 through to work on the floor beneath the bells in 1907 – but also there are entries relating to special occasions such as visits of bishops and archdeacons.

We can see that the first annual Waldringfield Flower Show took place in 1908 and that the annual Regatta started in 1906. THW stopped documenting these events in 1910 (Regatta) and 1911 (Flower Show) when he was in his late seventies.

Events at and visits to The Old Rectory amount to about eighty entries; they start in 1862 and range from a visit of the ‘Geological Section’ in 1888  to the installation, over the years, of various carpets and stoves, a new kitchen range in 1890 and even painting and wallpapering by his ‘girls’. Would you believe that? I never got my daughters wallpapering.

“girls papering & painting Dining Room    1908.05.14

There is a whole miscellany of items including pony and trap accidents, an earthquake felt at 09.20 on 22nd April 1884, smallpox in the parish in 1867, magic lantern lectures, elections, Waldringfield cricket, the Rix family (Robert resigned as Deputy Clerk in 1901) and the Stollery family (Arthur took office as his Deputy Clerk in 1901).

It is still not entirely clear to me why THW kept this Diary – perhaps someone gave it to him for Christmas and he felt obliged! Of course, we are very glad that he did. Entries relating to his own activities cover several pages of the index and very many of them relate to Church duties, the activities of clerical colleagues in other local parishes, visits of Bishops and of Archdeacons and even rural Deans. It is not quite Barchester Chronicles but it makes one think how society has changed when it is obvious that in the nineteenth century every local parish had a Church, a Rectory and an incumbent, usually with family. THW seems to have kept a close paternal eye on them all including the Doughtys at Martlesham and ‘old’ Pickford at Newbourn.

Noticeable by their near absence from the Diary are references to the Cement Works which fouled the atmosphere and the scenery from 1873 to 1907. Although there are references to annual family dinners with Frank Mason, the owner, there are only two references to the Works in the index – the digging of a drain for the expansion of the Works in 1874 and the loss of a worker’s arm in an industrial accident in 1898.

The digging, or mining, for coprolite fared better in the index but, as you have seen, THW was very closely involved with Kersey in that business from 1858.

I trust that, by writing this, I have been able to give readers some idea of the nature of a Perennial Diary and its usefulness as ‘a valuable research resource’, to quote Irving Finkel.


I am grateful to Joe and Kit Clark and their family for allowing access to this family gem, a ‘memorial to the diarist’. My thanks go, too, to the sources of the illustrations which are attributed, where possible, in brackets by each caption.

Gareth Thomas

Gareth Thomas is a retired Obstetrician & Gynaecologist, and was the Chair of Waldringfield History Group for ten years until 2020.