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Diaries of a golden age

Keith Gregson is inspired by a merchant's chronicles

The Golden Age of Agriculture (c1846-c1880) features on many GCSE syllabuses covering British social and economic history. The discovery of a set of hand-written diaries enabled me to formulate a lively lesson. Joseph Liddell, an agricultural merchant and insurance salesman, lived and worked in Newcastle upon Tyne during the 19th century. I found three of his diaries (dated 1869, 1873 and 1880), for 10 pence each at a jumble sale, and decided to use extracts as a primary source.

The lesson, conducted with a mixed-ability Year 10 class, started with an examination of the main reasons for the Golden Age. We used a diagram from the textbook Three Centuries of Change (Collins) which reveals seven main reasons - improved transport, the work of the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS), steam machinery, the introduction of Peruvian guano, development of fertilisers, better drainage and scientific research. Pupils were then encouraged to look at the following diary extracts and to decide which reasons for the Golden Age fitted each best.

* Front of diary, 1869 Seeds - Railway charges from Kilmarnock to Gateshead, one shilling and nine pence; Gateshead to Annfield Plain, seven pence

* July 14 1873

Caught the 10.05 train to RAS Show at Hull via York and Selby. Interviews with Woofe of Mr Hornsby and Sons, with Mr Child about millstones - wired Haughton and Thompson to send a Number One Rake to Jonathan Bowrey, Middleheads, by North East Railway promptly

* January 14 1873

At First General Meeting of Shareholders in Langdale's Manure Company Limited held at the Turk's Head, Grey Street Newcastle at 12.00.

* March 20 1869

At sale of Peruvian Guano at Eagle Nest Hotel, Sunderland

* Price list 1869

Hornsby's Champion Ploughs pound;2 12 shillings.

Ashby and Jeffrey's Celebrated Double Action haymaker pound;10.

Discussion of the extracts included the nature of shillings and pence, Peruvian guano (the excreta that amuses all), wiring and millstones.

Working in pairs, pupils wrote down which of these statements best applied to the extracts:

* There were railways in the 1860sThe horse was the main means of transport for agricultural goodsRailways transported agricultural goods.

* Merchants visited the RAS show for fun Business was carried out at RAS showsRAS shows were not very successful.

* People in farming were interested in manureFertilisers were of little interestThere was a meeting in Newcastle to discuss manure.

* Guano was sold in SunderlandGuano was used in the Golden Age of AgricultureThere was no interest in Peruvian bird dirt.

lJoseph Liddell sold agricultural machines Few machines were soldIf there were more machines sold in the diary, this would show them to be important.

Pupils working at higher levels also considered the following questions: Do you think the diaries are a useful source for studying the Golden Age? Which reasons are not mentioned in the extracts? Do you think the diaries are a reliable source? This allowed them to explore the concepts of utility and omission in history. They were able to realise that their own knowledge was vital in helping them to decide which reasons the extracts did not mention (eg drainage and research) and other problems. Did Joseph deal in steam machinery or were these basic old-fashioned implements? Did we need to look at the diary in more detail? If transport was a major factor in speeding up business why do textbooks rarely flag up the telegraph service?

The diary writer was not "on a mission" to sell himself. He does jot down little things, such as visits to the theatre and horse-race results, but basically the diary is a record of business dealings. As such it is a fairly factual yet highly reliable source for an historian studying 19th-century agriculture. One pupil noted the diaries' value compared with those of some war leaders who set out to write their diaries "for posterity".

Keith Gregson is a historian and teacher in Sunderland

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