A Chronicle of Small Beer

The Early Victorian Diaries of a Hertfordshire Brewer

by Gerald Curtis

Phillimore, 1970


A Chronicle of Small Beer draws a clear and detailed picture of the life of the country gentry and clergy in the first half of Queen Victoria's reign. It is based upon the diaries of John Izzard Pryor, a Hertfordshire brewer, who in 1828 at the age of fifty-five retired to Clay Hall, an unimposing mansion with a moderate estate on a hill above the village of Walkern, near Stevenage. Here, for the next thirty years, he kept a careful record of his activities.

Gerald Curtis has used excerpts from these diaries to illustrate many aspects of life in this age. After an introductory chapter which explains the social standing of the Pryors in Hertfordshire, the chronicle sketches the lives of John Pryor and his family. There follow chapters covering law and order, politics, social occasions, the neighbours, local and county administration, travel, servants, doctors, taxation, sport, farming and the Church. The author has grouped the extracts in this way to throw light on major developments of the period, but the informality of the diary also brings out those trivialities which are so much the fascination of social history.

Although early diary entries depict a countryside on the verge of revolution, the only serious threat to the security of the gentry lay in disease; the cholera that stalked the land made no discrimination between rich and poor, and despite the progress made during Pryor's lifetime, medical skills of the time were still rudimentary.

But most apparent of all is the character of the man himself. John Pryor is revealed as a shrewd business man who spent a good proportion of his days working at his accounts, for in his experience money was earned by hard work, sober judgement and thrift. Fundamentally good-hearted, his attitude to the poor was kindly if unimaginative, and though a fond parent, he adhered to the accepted Victorian principles in bringing up his children. At heart a countryman, Pryor was a keen farmer and much of England's more pleasant landscaping can be attributed to the efforts of him and his contemporaries. Yet perhaps above all he emerges as essentially a man of his times, and this book is as much a reflection of the Victorian era as it is his biography.

[From the Dust Jacket]

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