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Gregory Hardiman update 4: September 2022

A most interesting man of the cloth: the Cambridge diaries of Joseph Romilly

I am now waist-deep in background research for “Gregory 1” – the first of my books to be set in Cambridge.  Although I had thought that doing a “local” book would be easier, in reality it’s much harder than I had imagined to get a clear grasp of how the university was structured and worked in those days.  It turns out that doing an English degree at a women’s college in the 1980s does not equip me to write authoritatively about the university in the 1820s – when they had no English degrees and certainly no women.  Several people recommended that I read the diary of bachelor clergyman Joseph Romilly who was the University Registrary (in charge of compiling and maintaining the university’s records) from 1832 to 1861.  Yawn-o-rama, I thought: the dull writings of a dry administrative cleric.  But how wrong I was!

Readers, Joseph is a hoot.  He lives in rooms in Trinity College, regularly visiting his two spinster sisters Margaret and Lucy (“the women”) in the family home in Dulwich until they move to Cambridge in 1837 and the three of them then take a house in Hills Road.  His diary is of course full of the minutiae of college and academic life – we generally hear about who ate in the dining hall each evening, and who was arguing with whom over some appointment or other – but the best bits are when he describes people he meets, and rates the various clergymen in town and elsewhere on the quality of their sermons.  I have also enjoyed the snippets about Cambridge life in the middle decades of the nineteenth century: “Lucy tried to visit Mary Shedd but was driven back by a herd of bullocks. Instead she went an bought a cloak for Mrs Gray out of the goods of Golland the Bankrupt.”

Although a lifelong bachelor (at the time, university academics were not permitted to marry) he was not immune to a pretty face: “Down [in the coach] to Cambridge with a Quaker lady (old and well-informed) and a young piece of light goods who was pretty and sentimental and admired the flowers.”  He sounds rather like Jane Austen at times: “Met Courtenay Smith and his bride (a pretty little creature about 16 – they have married upon love and a small curacy).”  He could also be caustic about the less attractive women he met: “Mrs Trebeck has only one good point, a singularly white skin: she is an ugly cold piece of aristocratical ice [and] her husband is a dull Oxonian.”  And woe betide them if they had over-inflated ideas of their own accomplishment: “Miss Timberlake (the younger and uglier) sang the ‘Ocean Sea’ like a magnanimous mouse in a cheese.”  But gentlemen are not immune to his criticism: “Mr Kuhff (my partner) thought himself a whist player: he is mistaken.”

As for those poor clergymen, we hear that Romilly endured “an atrociously bad sermon from Hughes on the Millennium – never go to hear him again…”.  His sister Lucy is rather sweet on the handsome vicar of Holy Trinity, the Reverend William Carus, but will occasionally agree to listen to other preachers; when she hears a Mr Dale, she reports that he is “much improved [and] has almost renounced metaphors”.  But another Sunday, when Carus is away, his place is taken by a stranger and Romilly is not impressed: “Mr Beamish is an Irishman of a vehement order: a more violent cushion-thumper I have never heard.”

Romilly's turn of phrase is frequently neat and amusing: “Gave breakfast to Morris, who ate as if he did not mean to dine.  Then took Morris into Hall, who dined as if he had not breakfasted.”  (Well, we all have a friend like that.)  And indeed his generosity and hospitality are evident throughout the diary – he’s always taking in waifs and strays, including poor scholars: “Today gave breakfast to Andrew Watson whom I found a well-mannered, pale, shy freshman, a native of Portsmouth, who has been educated in a scrambling way at Edinburgh and Liverpool – knows nobody.”

There is plenty of illness and death in the diary, as of course there was in the decades covered.  On one particularly grim day – 10 October 1840 – Romilly records the deaths of Lord Camden and of the brother of a friend “in Athens of a fever” and the “severe paralytic attacks” suffered by Mr Whishaw, Dr Hewitt and Mrs Elliott, while noting that Professor Smyth has become “totally deaf”.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Romilly kept a careful eye on his own health, frequently commenting on his colds, headaches and dizziness.  His usual doctor, Headly, tries to reassure him regularly, and one days calls with another medical man, Doctor Haviland, who seems to have better luck: “Haviland said that he thought there was very little the matter with me, that it was very wrong and foolish of men to brood over uncomfortable sensations and fancy themselves ill, etc. – so I promised to try and mend and never think about my bodily state.”  Five days later Romilly walks into a door in the dark and gives himself a black eye, and sends for the apothecary to apply leeches.

Unsurprisingly, given the vintage of the diary, some of the views would not pass muster today.  Romilly entertains a Turkish visitor to the university: “Amun Bey was here and thinks little of Englishwomen, for he declare their conversation to be very horizontal – perhaps meaning flat – but he is a Turk and a mathematician and knows no better.”  And when he reads “Oliver Twist” aloud to his sisters – it was being published in serialised form, and people were waiting desperately for each update – he is shocked by the content: “I think the murder of Nancy by Sikes her paramour the most horrible and revolting thing I ever read… one is sorry that the monster Sikes should accidentally hang himself and not be designedly hanged by the executioner.”  I can’t imagine that in a review today…  He’s not a fan of “Robinson Crusoe” either: “After he leaves the island the first time the work is dull, but after the second it is insufferable.”  I tend to agree…  As for Romilly's own diaries, they are anything but dull - an unexpected delight, which is exactly why I am such a research addict.
Joseph Romilly in an etching from a watercolour by Miss Hervé, who came from a well-known family of miniaturists – Romilly notes in his diary that he sat for her in Cambridge in the spring of 1836.  He went for six sittings and received the completed work on 25 March.
Trinity Great Court in the 1830s (by J A Bell), when Joseph Romilly lived there – his rooms were on the ground floor of G staircase (on the right of the image, first to the right of the Great Gateway
One of Romilly's actual, real, genuine, original diaries in the University Library - look how tiddly!  Thank goodness for the wonderful JPT Bury, who transcribed them for the book I read - squinting at this must have taken forever.  Given how often Romilly notes expenditure on biscuits and figs, he must have been very regular...
"A foul deed" - a drawing of Nancy being killed by Bill Sikes (FW Pailthorpe, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
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