The Museum of Cambridge is currently digitalising a series of diaries written in the 1840s. They are by Josiah Chater, a young drapers apprentice who lived in Market Street. Following the hard work of our team of Research Volunteers, we have completed a whole year of diary transcriptions in just five months of setting up the project. To put that into perspective, that is over 43,000 words of mid-nineteenth century handwriting typed up onto Microsoft Word, a feat that the young Josiah Chater could not have possibly imagined.
The project is a wonderful window into the lived experience of Victorian Cambridge. At the time of writing his diary, Victoria had been sat on the throne for six years out of her 63-year reign, and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol had only been published the previous year. Josiah tells us all about his day-to-day activities of being an apprentice in this period, and the results are not always what they seem. Despite his class, Josiah enjoyed lots of food and fashion. He often records going to local tailors and shoemakers with friends. He is also keen on self-improvement, borrowing books and attending lectures at the Guildhall. His writings also provide interesting insights into the happenings around the town. There is a local election in 1845 which captures the town’s attention and takes up ample room in his diary, including fights between the different political groups and election corruption. He writes in his diary about the opening of the local railway station, with several trips down Hills Road to see the trains arrive and depart. He even gets to ride on them when returning home to Saffron Walden. And then there is the weather. Josiah keeps a daily record of what the weather was like in Cambridge. Other themes include leisure, such as swimming, crime, medicine, including remedies for colds, and what Cambridge was like during the festive season.
Within half a years’ worth of transcribing, the small Research Volunteer team has recovered this lost world of Victorian Cambridge. Josiah kept a diary for nearly forty years (ending his diary keeping in 1884). There is still a long road ahead in producing a full transcription. Nonetheless, it has been very enjoyable to read the first year of his first diary. Volunteers note how level-headed Josiah is for his age, but someone who still had an appetite to for ‘rare fun’ with friends.
You can find out more on Josiah Chater and his experiences in Victorian Cambridge by following the Museum of Cambridge on our social media channels. Join us for our weekly #ChaterTuesdays where a snippet from Josiah’s diary will be published online.