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Documents containing both practical and literary insight into the life of a working farmer’s wife are extremely scarce; even the large collection in the Museum of English Rural Life library has proved unproductive. There is, however one such document in the Hampshire Record Office which offers insight into the inner world of a farmer’s wife of the ‘middling sort’, as well as illustrating all her practical responsibilities in the day-to-day running of the farm. Because of the scarcity of material in this field of research, it is a very valuable contribution to the limited knowledge we have of this group of women. This book examines this evidence and sets it against the background of the time.
The author was Mary Bacon (1743–1818), a farmer’s wife who lived approximately seven miles north of Alton in Hampshire, and a contemporary of Jane Austen. This, her legacy to future historians, is a very unusual, if not unique, document in the form of a ledger in which she made entries from 1789 to 1807. The book illustrates her work on the farm and adds a further dimension by giving an insight into her literary taste and religious meditations, showing, through her own reading list and copied written material, a background of both education and rusticity. She used an old account book belonging to her uncle Augustin Kinchin, a yeoman farmer, in which to make her entries. At first glance the book appears to be a ledger but only about half has been used for this purpose. As a result the document gives a remarkable insight into the work and mind of a farmer’s wife and contributes to what is known of both eighteenth-century reading and agriculture.
The ledger illustrates the role of a farmer’s wife in her everyday life and as an assistant on the farm. It includes accounts which were usually kept by men, but in this ledger it was the wife who entered sales of wheat, oats and barley, butter, wool and honey, her records ranging from the cows and horses her husband purchased, to household items such as the exact number of nails needed to repair the house. It is not surprising that she mentioned the weather in her ledger as diaries, newspapers, and letters written in the eighteenth century habitually contained such news. It was a subject as popular then as it is today. She also recorded farming reports, dates of fairs, and some indications of sale of stock. Her very full inventory, which includes all the brewing equipment she used, yields a colourful, detailed and very useful description of the entire contents of a late eighteenth-century farmhouse. A large section, ‘My Book of Receipts’, contains her favourite recipes together with cures to give family and friends for their sick animals and their own illnesses. ‘Twelve True Old Golden Rules’ is a conduct book in miniature, instructing a middle-class woman, who is doing much of her own housekeeping, how to look after her house economically.