The trials of Thomas Turner (1754-65)

Part 1: Tying the Gordian knot

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Little, ah, little do the sons of riot and debauchery know how great, how far beyond description, is the pleasure that is found in the company of a virtuous wife.

Every diary offers a unique window onto its time, but the clarity of the view is of course affected by the personality of the diarist and their preoccupations. Sometimes the glass is tinted, dirty – or even warped.

This week I’m visiting the engaging diaries of an 18th century rural shopkeeper and former schoolmaster based in Sussex, England, Thomas Turner (1729–93), whose writings from 1754–65 offer a wonderful snapshot of rural life at the time. Sometimes he is preoccupied by mercantile matters; at others he is berating himself for drinking too much or keeping a note of how much he won at cards – or conversely reporting on his dutiful attendance at church; he writes regularly of figures in his community; and frequently he is pondering the state of his marriage. This last is our focus this time, notable for the real human feelings (good and bad) to be found here.

A side note on the diaries. Turner filled more than 100 volumes with his thoughts and accounts (in all senses) and the originals are at Yale. The first published selection was in 1859, in an issue of Sussex Archaeological Collections.1 This caught the eye of no less a luminary than Charles Dickens, who wrote about Turner in the 6th April 1861 edition of his magazine All the Year Round (an episode of Great Expectations is in the same issue):

Turner… sold grocery, drapery, haberdashery, hats, nails, cheese, brandy, paper, tobacco, and coffins; and in the parlour behind his shop he made entries not only as a tradesman of his dealings with his customers, but as a husband, vestryman, neighbour, and a man of his home life, and his dealings with society a large.

Dickens also spots the details of Turner’s personal life:

His first wife, with whom he records all his quarrels, and of whom he records also his hearty liking and affection, was a prudent, thrifty woman yet even she was sometimes brought home on a servant’s back, after he had slipped away, as far gone as he dared to be, leaving her behind to make his excuses.

Turner set up shop in the village of East Hoathly in 1750, and married Margaret ‘Peggy’ Slater, daughter of local farmers, on 15th October 1753 when he was 24 and she was 20. They only had one child, a boy called Peter, who was born on 19th August 1754, but sadly Turner’s diary entry for 16th January 1755 reads: “This morning about 1 o’clock I had the misfortune to lose my little boy Peter, aged 21 weeks, 3 days.” And that’s all he says on the matter.

By the summer of that year, it was clear that the couple were squabbling regularly. Here are some snapshots of Turner’s diary entries agonising over his relationship…


Sat. 30 Aug. This morn my wife and I had words about going to Lewes tomorrow. My reason for not going was on account of my owing Mr. Roase some money, and was loath to go till I could pay him the balance. Oh! what a happiness must there be in a married state when there is sincere regard on both sides and each party truly satisfied with each other’s merit; but it is impossible for tongue or pen to express the uneasiness that attends the contrary.


Thurs. 1 Jan. This day my wife and I had a great many words, but for what reason I cannot recount, though doubtless if we could be proper judges of our own actions we should find that we are both but too much to blame and possibly should find all our differences to arise from so trivial a cause that we both might have cause to blush. But oh! was marriage ever designed to make mankind unhappy? No! unless by their own choice. It’s made so by both parties being not satisfied with each other’s merit… I have almost made as it were a resolution to make a separation, I mean by settling my affairs and parting in friendship, but is this that for what I married?

Tues. 10 Feb. Oh, what have I here to say—the old story again repeated—more words again between me and my wife. Sure it is a most terrible and unhappy circumstance we cannot live agreeable together. Where the fault is I cannot be a competent judge, for as I am a party concerned, prejudice in my own favour may make me partial…

All that I know is I am happy in having that person, who of all the sex I ever had the greatest respect for, for my wife. But again how unhappy to have that only one in whom all my earthly facility was centred to be of such an unhappy temper as not only to make me, but herself also, miserable… Maybe it is I am all in fault. It cannot be she… she is all charms, and I am the ungrateful.

Fri. 15 Oct. This is the day on which I was married, and it is now 3 years since. Doubtless many have been the disputes which have happened between my wife and myself during the time, and many have been the afflictions which it has pleased God to lay upon us, and which we have justly deserved by the many animosities and dissensions which have been almost incessantly continued and fermented between us and our friends from almost the very day of our marriage, but I hope I may now say… we now begin to live happy… if I was single again and at liberty to make another choice, I should do the same, I mean, make her my wife who is so now.


Thurs. 6 Oct. This day how are my most sanguine hopes of happiness frustrated! I mean in the happiness between myself and wife, which have now some time been continued between us, but, Oh, this day become the contrary! The unhappiness which has, almost ever since we were married, been between us has raised such numberless animosities and disturbances—and amongst our friends—that I think it hath almost brought me to ruin. What the causes of it is I cannot judge.

Sun. 9 Oct. This day have my wife and I taken up a resolution in the presence of our almighty God and Saviour… to forsake our sins and to become better Christians. And, Oh, may the God of all goodness and perfection pour into our hearts His Holy Spirit that we may live together in true unity, love and peace with each other, bearing with each other’s infirmities and weakness…

Weds. 2 Nov. Oh, how transient is all mundane bliss! I, who a-Sunday last was all calm and serenity in my breast and seemed desirous of nothing so much as my eternal and immortal happiness, am now nought but storm and tempest occasioned by the unhappiness that subsists between myself and wife…

[It wasn’t all bad, of course. Many are the diary entries recounting Thomas and Peggy’s social life and their drink-fuelled late night card games with friends. Though in this next episode, is there a hint of him being mocked for his comparative sobriety?]


Thurs. 23 Feb. This morn about 6 o’clock, just as my wife was gladly got to bed and had laid herself down to rest, we was awakened by Mrs. Porter, who pretended she wanted some cream of tartar. But as soon as my wife got out of bed, she vowed she should come down, which she complied with and found she, Mr. Porter, Mr. Fuller and his wife with a lighted candle, part of a bottle of wine and a glass. Then the next thing in course must be to have me downstairs, which I being apprized of, fastened my door. But, however, upstairs they came and threatened as also attempted to break open my door… But as soon as ever it was open, they poured into my room, and as modesty forbid me to get out of my bed in the presence of women, so I refrained. But their immodesty permitted them to draw me out of bed (as the common phrase is) tipsy turvy. But, however, at the intercession of Mr. Porter they permitted me to put on my breeches… also, instead of my clothes, they gave me time to put on my wife’s petticoat. In this manner they made me dance with them without shoes or stockings until they had emptied their bottle of wine and also a bottle of my beer.

[And the squabbling soon returns…]

Fri. 21 Apr. But, oh! how is my pleasure palled by the scurrilous treatment I have this morn received from my wife, and to the best of my knowledge without any the least provocation.

Oh, how unhappy is that life that is continually perplexed with domestic disquietudes and matrimonial discord! … For almost those five years past, nay, even from the very day of marriage have I had such distracting tumults at every short interval of time. Not that I would be thought to charge them all upon my wife, for doubtless, as I am mortal, I am also liable to human frailties and have often, too too often, acted very indiscreet.

[Turner also reveals that he has a difficult relationship with his mother-in-law (‘mother’ here):]

Tues. 6 June. Tho. Davy came back in the even and brought us news that my sister [meaning Peggy’s sister, at death’s door] was very bad, and I suppose he had a great deal of my mother’s nonsense, which she is very full of, having a great volubility of tongue for invective, and especially if I are the subject, though what the good woman wants with me I know not, unless it be that I have offended her by being too careful of her daughter, who, poor creature, has enjoyed but little pleasure of her life in the marriage state, being almost continually (to our great misfortune) afflicted with illness.

Sat. 7 Oct. Not all the entreaties and expostulations could persuade my wife to postpone this journey, though no other reason could occasion this journey than the fantastical, odd, capricious humour of her mother…

… how miserable must [a man] be where there is nothing else but matrimonial discord and domestic disquietude! They drag on life, as it were with a galling and wearisome chain, and are only a burden to each other… But as happiness is debarred me in this affair, I sincerely wish it to all those that shall ever tie the Gordian knot …

[Thomas often describes Peggy as being ill, not without sympathy and indeed it seems to improve his tenderness – although he is sometimes more preoccupied with recounting his own inconveniences as a result.]


Mon. 6 Oct. At home all day and pretty busy, but surely my wife is extremely ill. Oh, what an agony of mind I am in with doubt and fear of my wife’s illness proving mortal.

Weds. 15 Oct. At home all day. My wife continues very ill. It is impossible for tongue or pen to express the trouble I now feel on account of my wife’s illness, and the constant fears that I have she will never get the better of her illness.


Fri. 16 Jan. At home all day. But little to do. My wife, poor creature, most extreme ill; who can paint or describe my trouble? … My soul is quite overwhelmed with grief; oh, the loss of so inestimable a treasure, even that of a sincere friend and virtuous wife!

Sun. 14 June. In the even my wife was taken with an involuntary bleeding at the nose which continued near 2 hours and half, and at times the whole night through (poor dear creature). What it is owing to I cannot tell, whether from my own unhappy temper or that of my friends and relations, but in this day of trouble they seem to stand aloof and as it were staring at me like a stranger.

Sat. 20 June. About 11.20 my wife was taken with a strong convulsive fit which lasted some time… Oh, my unhappy misfortune. I shall lose all that is desirable to me in this world; my only true and sincere friend, a treasure of more value than all the riches this world can afford, she has ever been a virtuous and discreet woman and to me the best of wives.

Tues. 23 June. About 1.50 it pleased Almighty God to take from me my beloved wife, who, poor creature, has laboured under a severe though lingering illness for these 38 weeks past, which she bore with the greatest resignation to the Divine will. In her I have lost a sincere friend and virtuous wife, a prudent and good economist in her family and a very valuable companion (and one endued with more than a common share of good sense).

Sat. 27 June. Yesterday about 5.50 I buried my wife at Framfield, and with her all my hopes of worldly happiness. I am now destitute of a friend to converse with or even a sincere friend on whom I can rely for advice now I have lost the dear, dear partner of my soul…

[But here enters a darker note, as he is accused locally of having a hand in his wife’s demise.]

Weds. 1 July. This day I was informed of the ill-natured and cruel treatment I have privately received from malevolent tongues, who have made, propagated and spread with indefatigable industry and diligence a report that Mr. Snelling at my request (and by force) castrated my wife,2 which operation was the immediate cause of her death… Now from what occasion this palpable falsehood could take its rise I am quite at a loss to guess; as to my own part I know myself thoroughly innocent… neither have I in the least any anger against them for it… as to love and respect for my deceased wife, I want no other testimony than my own conscience, [though] am I not destitute of other evidence: I have even that of my wife’s own handwriting, wherein she says she wants words to express her gratitude to me for my care etc. for her.

Sat. 4 July. At home all day and thank God pretty busy. How do I more and more daily find the loss of my wife to be great; how do I severely know the want of her in the careful and regular management of my family affairs, which are not now conducted with her conduct, prudence and good economy!

Thurs. 30 July. Very melancholy is my present situation… and to think of marrying again is what I have no thoughts of; no, not so long as the image of my dear wife is almost continual in my thoughts…

Tues. 22 Sept. Mr. Foreman, myself, and Mr. Richardson dined at The Chequer on a leg of mutton boiled and turnips and cabbage… I came home very safe and sober about 8.20… Oh, what raptures did I use to approach home with in my dear Peggy’s life when I had been out, but now how different the scene… No pleasing object to meet me with the smiles of approbation and all the other endearments of conjugal love and affection. Little, ah, little do the sons of riot and debauchery know how great, how far beyond description, is the pleasure that is found in the company of a virtuous wife.

[In due course, however, there were green shoots in Mr T’s love life, perhaps despite his own protestations. And sometimes he makes us wonder who he is writing this diary for…]


Sun. 5 Sept. After breakfast I set out for a place called Ninfield Stocks in order to meet my late servant Sarah Waller, agreeable to an appointment previously made, where we both arrived about 10 o’clock. I stayed and talked with her about two hours … Now should those minutes of my journey ever come to any person’s eye, or should my journey come to be known publicly to the world (that I took upon me such a journey, and for no other reason than purely to see an old servant), why I doubt not but they will very readily conclude she was his sweetheart, or if not so favourably disposed in their censure, perhaps the sagacious eye of scandal may see in it something worse. But however, they will be wrong for once in both conjectures…

I positively declare I have not, since that fatal day which deprived me of all, all, this earth can ever give to make me happy (I mean that melancholy day which took from me my wife), ever once made my addresses to any one of the fair sex… Not that I have taken up any resolution to celibacy, for I can with truth declare marriage to be the only state that I found any happiness in… Therefore let the vain and giddy world talk on as freely as they please of me…

Sun. 12 Sept. In the afternoon Mrs. Coates’s maid drank tea with me. This! this is the girl that the world proclaims is to be my wife. But oh, ’tis an egregious mistake, a tiling that yet has never entered my thoughts. Nor did I ever give the girl the least reason to think of any such tiling, for I am sure I have not kissed her, except once, since Whitmonday. But during the time I lived in Lewes she and I, being almost next-door neighbours, were very intimate, but then there was nought of love… My good neighbours, I have not taken up a vow of celibacy, but I am in no hurry.


Fri. 4 Feb. I should prefer marriage before a single life… For in my mind virtue and a sincere love or friendship for each other seems the only basis to build a lasting happiness upon in the marriage state.

Thurs. 23 June. This day two years ago was the day on which it pleased Almighty God to take from me my dear wife, and in the loss of her I sustained a very great one. During which interval of time the world has many times discovered I have been on the point of marriage. But I am clear in this that I have never yet made any offers of love to any one woman (no, not anything like courting) notwithstanding the voice of the world has been so much of the contrary opinion.

[But now a new figure, Mary ‘Molly’ Hicks enters his life.]


Mon. 19 Mar. I dined on the remains of yesterday’s dinner. At home all day; posted my day book. Molly Hicks drank tea with me.

Mon. 13 Aug. I have not spent hardly one agreeable hour in the company of a woman since I lost my wife, for really there seem very few whose education and way of thinking is agreeable and suitable with my own.


Sun. 24 Mar. Molly Hicks… is a girl which I have taken a great liking to, she seeming to all appearances to be a girl endued with a great deal of good nature and good sense, and withal so far as has hitherto come to my knowledge is very discreet and prudent.

Thurs. 28 Mar. In the afternoon rode over to Chiddingly to pay my charmer, or intended wife or sweetheart or whatever other name may be more proper, a visit at her father’s, where I drank tea in company with their family… It being an excessive wet and windy night I had the opportunity—sure I should say the pleasure, or perhaps some might say the unspeakable happiness—to sit up with Molly Hicks, or my charmer, all night. I came home about 5.40 in the morn… Well to be sure she is a most clever girl, but, however, to be serious in the affair I certainly esteem the girl and I think she appears worthy of my esteem.

Sun. 14 Apr. After dinner I set out for Malling to pay Molly Hicks my intended wife a visit… I spent the afternoon with a great deal of pleasure, it being very fine pleasant weather and my companion very agreeable. I drank tea with her and came home about 9.30…

Now perhaps there may be many reports abroad in the world of my present intentions, some likely condemning, other approving my choice. But as the world cannot judge the secret intentions of my mind and I may therefore be censured for want of knowing the true motives of my proceedings, I will take the trouble to relate what are really and truly my intentions and the only motive from which they spring (which may be some satisfaction to those who may happen to peruse my memoirs)… the girl I believe as far as I can discover is a very industrious, sober woman and seemingly endued with prudence and good nature, and seems to have a very serious and sedate turn of mind. She comes of reputable parents and may perhaps one time or other have some fortune. As to her person I know it’s plain (so is my own), but she is cleanly in her person and dress (which I will say is something more than at first sight it may appear to be towards happiness). She is I think a well-made woman. As to her education, I own is not liberal, neither do I think it equals my own, but she has good sense and a seeming desire to improve her mind, and, I must in justice say, has always behaved to me with the strictest honour and good manners, her behaviour being far from the affected formality of the prude, nor on the other hand anything of that foolish fondness too often found in the more light part of the sex.

Sat. 11 May. At home all day; my leg very painful. In the even my intended wife and her sister called to see me and sat with me some time. This may possibly be imputed to the girl as fondness, but I must do her the justice to say I esteem it only as friendship and good manners. For I have never met with more civil and friendly usage from any one of the fair sex than I have from this girl.

Weds. 31 July. From the day last mentioned, I have been so embarrassed with a multiplicity of business that I was not able to continue my journal, being on the 19th day of June married at our church (to Mary Hicks, servant to Luke Spence Esq. of South Malling) by the Rev. Mr. Porter, and for about 14 days was very ill… But however thank God I begin once more to be a little settled and am happy in my choice. I have, it’s true, not married a learned lady, nor is she a gay one, but I trust she is goodnatured, and one that will use her utmost endeavour to make me happy, which perhaps is as much as it is in the power of a wife to do. As to her fortune, I shall one day have something considerable, and there seems to be rather a flowing stream. Well, here let us drop the subject and begin a new one.

And that’s all we know, for his diary (or ‘memoirs’ as he self-consciously writes) ends there. Thomas and Molly went on to have seven children, although only three reached adulthood. Turner’s business thrived, and he took on the local pub too. His grave can still be found in East Hoathly churchyard.

We’ll never get to hear Peggy’s side of the story. And does Turner protest his innocence too much… or is he an honest confessor of his own human frailties? You must judge for yourself.


Available online at Around a third of the full diaries were transcribed and published by David Vaisey in the 1980s, and these are available online (via paid subscription) here.


Snelling was the local doctor. Here Turner uses ‘castrated’ to mean, as he explains later, ‘taking out the uterus’.