If you look through the catalogues of any record office in Britain for something labelled ‘diary’ in the eighteenth century, it is most likely to be a pocket diary. These small printed books, with spaces for users to write in their appointments and accounts, have been described by historian Amanda Vickery as ‘by far the commonest form of personal writing I have encountered, yet… almost entirely neglected as a genre’. Pocket diaries have been seen by historians as largely secular items, designed to display their users’ social and economic status in the polite world of eighteenth-century Britain. Although they encouraged self-discipline by inviting users to record their expenditure, they have been considered as an almost complete departure from the intensely introspective reflections common to earlier long-form diaries, with their brevity not particularly suited to piety. Our evidence suggests, in contrast, that pocket diaries can be seen as religious objects designed to act as prompts to piety, and as evidence of the continued importance of time-discipline as a religious act in the eighteenth century.
Diaries combined information useful in the secular world with religious teachings and practical information that would aid disciplined and efficient religious practice. Wheble’s Ladies Pocket Book or The Polite Repository, which had annual print runs of 7000 copies, contained calendars of days for buying stock and receiving dividends, as well as ‘Tables of all the moveable and immoveable Feasts, Fasts and Holidays in the Year’, as per the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. A copy of the 1794 Christian Lady’s Pocket Book located in the archive of a Keighley woolstaplers family, the Spencers, listed the places and times of worship in London, as well as a table to calculate hackney coach fares to each of the major dissenting chapels. Later diaries included considerable religious teachings in their introductions. ‘The Methodist Pocket Book’ for 1801, owned by a member of the Spencer family of Keighley, included the dates of parliamentary terms and bank transfer days alongside conversion narratives, stories of ‘Providential Escape’, lists of psalms and biblical quotations for each day, all packed into a book measuring only 5 inches by 3.5 inches. The small size and portability of the diaries allowed users to consult religious teachings whilst out and about, similar to the use of pocket bibles and prayer books which were produced throughout this period.
Diary-makers actively sought to assist their readers in daily worship and in the regular observance of Sundays and other holy days, often overtly presenting time awareness as a significant aid to piety. Editions such as the The Christian Ladies Diary and Pocket Companion, used by Anglican clergyman’s wife Elizabeth Atkinson in the 1820s, included bible quotes for every day of the year, specific ‘Meditation for the Sabbath’ and longer prayers as well as a bible quote on New Years Day. The poetic introduction ‘To the Patronisers of the Christian Lady’s Pocket Book’ (1794) used metaphors of the passage of the seasons and of the sun to impress mortality on its readers:
‘Behold, the varied seasons as they roll,
Confirm the truth, and moralize the soul!…
Nature’s glories fade, and pass away:
From life’s full vigour, to the silent tomb…
Age, to its close, may draw enfeebled breath,
While youth, untimely, falls a prey to death’.
But, its readers need not fear, as:
‘This little Book important truths shall teach,
Its plan instruct you, and its pages preach.
Each day progressive it presents to view,
To mark its moment, and your conduct too’.
However, users may not have passively accepted these teachings. As Vickery notes, there could be ‘a range of responses’ by users, from conformity to active disregard of the format or pious agenda set out by publishers, expressed by writing over pages. The customisable nature of the diaries could for some reflect an even greater engagement with faith. Anglican clergyman’s wife Elizabeth Atkinson used the nonconformist Christian Ladies Diary and Pocket Companion, perhaps because she approved of its daily bible quotes. However, as the edition contained no reference to feast days, she herself wrote dates such as ‘Easter Sunday’ in the margin, adapting the diary to reflect her own calendrical priorities. These were personal items, which could be used to record evidence of one’s pious practice, as well as accounts and rounds of socialising.
Jennie Batchelor, ‘Fashion and Frugality: Eighteenth-Century Pocket Books for Women’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 32 (2003),
Sandro Jung, ‘Illustrated Pocket Diaries and the Commodification of Culture’, Eighteenth-Century Life 37.2 (2013)
Amanda Vickery, ‘A Self off the Shelf: The Rise of the Pocket Diary in Eighteenth-Century England’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 54.3 (2021)
University of Leeds Special Collections: BUS/Marriner/6/Marriner Box 3, ‘Wheble’s Ladies most elegant and convenient Pocket Book, For the Year 1781’
University of Leeds Special Collections: BUS/Marriner/6/Box 3, ‘The Christian Ladys Pocket Book for the Year 1794’
University of Leeds Special Collections: BUS/Marriner/6/Box 3, ‘The Methodist Pocket Book’, 1801
Durham Record Office: D/X 946/46, Diary of Elizabeth Atkinson, 1822
The Polite Repository, or Pocket Companion (1791), Eighteenth Century Collections Online