The transcription of The Diaries of Charlotte Grove (later Downes) together with the content of this website are copyright © John Lane & Valerie Lane Kay
The manor of Ferne, or Fern, is situated in the vicinity of Shaftesbury on the Wiltshire-Dorset borders. From the late sixteenth until the late nineteenth century it was the seat of the Groves, prominent land-owners who had profited in Tudor times by their association with some influential local families, particularly the Arundells of Wardour and the Earls of Pembroke. In May 1782, Thomas Grove married a daughter of Charles and Bathia Pilfold of Horsham and Effingham, and on February tenth the following year they produced their first child, a girl whom they named Charlotte, after her mother.
Charlotte Grove was born into interesting and dangerous times. In 1783, following several years of war, Britain finally recognised her former American colony as an independent state; some six years later the storming of the Bastille sparked the Reign of Terror in France. The British ruling classes were afraid these revolutionary ideas might spread and endeavoured to suppress all ideas of reform - although as history demonstrates, the greatest threat from across the English Channel was not revolution and the guillotine, but the ensuing military success of Napoleon Buonaparte.
The British class system therefore continued much as it had done before and for Charlotte, the daughter of landed gentry, a life of privilege was more or less assured. She grew up at Ferne, though no doubt at times stayed at any of the other family estates in Wales, Norfolk or the Mildlands. She was sent to boarding school - almost certainly at Bath - and by the early years of the nineteenth century she had grown into a most eligible young woman. While she attended balls, dinner parties and other social events, her unmarried status allowed her more time for charitable works in the nearby villages of Berwick St John and the Donheads. There may have been other earlier suitors, but after a fruitless attempt at a match in 1810 with Warden Sergison, an army colonel some twenty years her senior, if Charlotte held lingering hopes of marriage, they would have faded with the passing years. Then, in the spring of 1826, came news of a sudden and distressing accident. Recording these tragic events in her diary Charlotte had no conception of their significance - and that her life too, was about to change.
Wednesday, 24th May. We heard the sad News that Mr & Mrs Bingham were overturned from their Gig & too much hurt to return Home particulars We know not
Sunday, 28th May. Our Friend the Revd P Bingham died at two Oclock this Morning……………. I wish We have as kind A Rector & his Wife to the Poor as Mr & Mrs Bingham have been –
Within a few weeks, the Reverend Richard Downes appeared upon the scene and was shortly awarded the living of Berwick St John. Within a year, he and Charlotte, now aged forty four, were married. Had she not kept a diary, Charlotte’s life, before or after this happy event, would doubtless hold little significance for us today. A younger sister, Harriet, in her diaries of 1809 and 1810, had written about her own ill-fated love affair with the girls’ first cousin, Percy Bysshe Shelley - although a great many of these references were later erased. Charlotte’s diaries, from 1811, neatly continue the family chronicle and this, together with some thirty-three other journals are now preserved at the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives. Unfortunately, and for reasons that will almost certainly remain unknown, as many as fifteen years have not survived. This is disappointing, particularly as they include some “key” years - notably 1827, the year of Charlotte’s marriage, and 1830, the peak of what became known as the “Swing Riots”.
As the squire’s daughter, with her connections and associations among the influential and wealthy - and later in a further role, as the village rector’s wife - Charlotte came into contact with a great many people. All are meticulously recorded. There are tenant farmers with their wives and families, farm labourers, doctors, shopkeepers and wine merchants - and of course, there are clerics of every description. Often upon the same page, sometimes within the same entry, the poor, the destitute and the unfortunate rub shoulders - if only figuratively - with members of parliament, baronets and their ladies.
The diaries are important not only to family historians, who may find as we did, references to their own ancestors. A wealth of information resides within these pages, describing the social history of the time - etiquette, dress, diet and disease, agriculture, transport, literature and crime and punishment. There are also the great houses, such as Wardour, Coker Court, Rushmore and Donhead Hall; and the families living in them – Arundel, Helyar, Pitt-Rivers and Wyndham.
Charlotte was an avid, although sometimes critical, reader. Her favourable references to the novels of Jane Austen are fascinating - particularly as Charlotte’s narrative itself displays striking similarities to Miss Austen’s works of fiction! Miss Arabella Knightly, Miss Dionysia Long and the Miss Bennets of Norton all once lived and breathed. Others might easily have come from the pen of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters or even Dickens – characters such as Peregrine Bingham, Colonel Peachey and General Pine Coffin; or Laetitia Popham, Charlotte Eyre and Miss Arethusa Lush. We might imagine scenes from a novel or screenplay in which Captain Frederick Jackson cuts a dashing figure in splendid army uniform, as he escorts the Ferne ladies to church; or the arrival from London of the young and pretty Mrs King, aged perhaps only sixteen and already turning heads, as she alights newly-wed from her carriage.
For the most part, Charlotte lived a secure and agreeable life as the wife of a nineteenth century clergyman, where her duties concerning the rites, rituals and festivals of the Church of England sat comfortably amidst numerous dinner parties and other social events. An enviable existence perhaps, but we should remember that for everyone, rich and poor, the hold on life was tenuous. A lack of medical knowledge, poor sanitation and an absence of contraception meant illness and bereavement were commonplace. Charlotte herself was not immune and she records many such tragedies with heart-rending simplicity.
Of course, there were always other lesser crises to be overcome or the occasional dilemma to resolve. A droll example of the latter was the apparent difficulty in finding a suitable curate. Included among these gentlemen was Mr Rolles, who rather confounded Charlotte with his wealth, his lifestyle and his inaudible sermons; or Mr Snook, a gentleman with a name one might reasonably expect to find in The Pickwick Papers; and then there was the unfortunate Mr Newenham Travers, who, suffering bad health and having lost a limb, just “would not do”.
Diaries for the years 1847-1856 are missing and in 1857 Charlotte, now widowed, is found relegated to a cottage in the village. Others reside at the Rectory, in what was once her own “dear home”. At Ferne there is a new regime occupying the house and park, that of Charlotte’s nephew Thomas Fraser Grove. The world is fast changing about Charlotte and this is reflected in her last two surviving diaries. Within the space of just ten years many of the once-familiar characters are gone, replaced by new names - names that inexplicably have less appeal to the reader. A few years before her own death, Charlotte reflects upon much happier times, poignantly illustrated in an entry concerning the village school – the school she and her husband Richard established in 1835 and had overseen together for some twenty years:
Wednesday, 24th June 1857. the Miss Griffiths called & invited me to their School treat, But it put me so in mind of dear former times, I could not attend it –
Charlotte lies buried alone beside the south wall of her church at Berwick St John. For someone embodied with such tremendous energy for life, as demonstrated in her writing, her reading, her propensity to walk miles every day and her abiding interest in those less fortunate than herself, her headstone and the inscription upon it are heart-breakingly simple –
“Charlotte, Wife of the Rd Richard Downes”
Towards the end of her life Charlotte was asked to sit for her portrait, commissioned by her nephew, Thomas Fraser Grove and painted by the artist Thomas Musgrove Joy. Desmond Hawkins, in his invaluable book, The Grove Diaries, concludes his chapter about Charlotte thus:
“The hanging of her portrait at Ferne makes a fitting conclusion to a life so closely associated with the house and its fortunes. If the portrait of Charlotte has survived its whereabouts are not known. Ferne was demolished in 1966. Her diaries have proved to be the more durable record of her existence”.
John Lane & Valerie Lane Kay, Colchester, September 2008