I am delighted to welcome my first guest of the year to All Things Georgian, Elizabeth Larby, who, apart from being the archivist at Gresham’s School, Norfolk, has also come across a fascinating diary which she is going to tell us more about today.
The diary is safely stored at Norfolk Records Office, but Elizabeth has also transcribed it and added additional information. I have added links at the end of this post if you’d like to find out more about this fascinating gentleman.
Intrepid Mr Marten set off with his wife Emma, daughter Sarah and servant from the Custom House steps in London aboard the ‘Hero’ steam packet on 7th September 1825 for a voyage to the depths of Norfolk of 24 days duration. The trip – intended for the ‘heath and pleasure’ of the family – took them initially by sea to Great Yarmouth, on to stays in Cromer and Norwich, and finally to a few days of Georgian country delights with friends.
Who was author of the 1825 diary?
Robert Humphrey Marten was born on 21st March 1763 in London, the second eldest in a typically large family for the period. His father Nathaniel was a Mile End pastry cook and his mother was Martha Clarkson. The family attended local Congregationalist (Independent) meetings and family prayers and religious instruction were commonplace in the home.
After assuring himself of her ‘pious principle’ and sampling her sensible conversation, Robert married Mary Reeves in 1789 at Bethnal Green.
Sadly, their happiness was short-lived, and Mary was taken ill during the following year and died in June. By the end of the year, however, on the advice of his father, the young man was once again considering marriage.
Having renewed his acquaintance with Miss Elizabeth Giles, Robert proposed and was accepted. He and Elizabeth were married on 12th July 1791 at Milton-next-Gravesend Church. Living on a small income, the couple had to practice economy in the home and no frivolous Sunday parties were allowed, instead they lived according the advice of their church, working and praying hard, remaining cheerful despite their straitened circumstances.
The first of Robert’s five children, Robert Giles, was born on 22nd June 1792. Improving finances allowed a move to No. 64 Great Prescott Street in London, a comfortable house with a small garden. By this time Robert had become a partner with the maritime insurance company Smith St Barbe & Marten, marking a great step forward for the ambitious 30-year old. To the firm’s main business of insurance, Robert added the care and disposal of salvaged ships, a big money earner during the ensuing wars with France.
By 1805 Elizabeth’s health was declining and a change of air recommended, encouraging a move to Broadway House in the village of Plaistow and a daily commute by two-wheeled chaise for Robert. A gardener and various servants completed the now well-to-do household.
As more dissenting families moved into the area the need for a suitable place of worship became more pressing and Robert was one of the founders of the meeting house in 1807. As well as being a leading light in the chapel, Robert was well known for his generosity and charity in the area and worked tirelessly in support of many causes.
On the death of his second wife Elizabeth in 1811 Robert wrote of twenty years of ‘mutual happiness’ with the mother of his five grown up children.
Another two years passed before a new bride was chosen for her very high character and approved by the children. Emma Martin, who accompanied Robert on his 1825 tour, became his wife on 8th July 1813.
By 1825 the demands of business and philanthropy were taking their toll on Robert’s health in the form of headaches and nervous exhaustion, hence the need for a break at the seaside with its recently discovered benefits to the constitution.
The discovery of Robert’s journal and identify
In 1983 I was looking around for a new project, having completed ‘Poppyland in Pictures’, an illustrated guide to the history of tourism in Cromer whilst working as a volunteer at the local museum. My college history tutor suggested I might see if the Norfolk Record Office had any interesting texts that I could edit and bring to the public’s attention and the little calf-skin diary came into my life. I was immediately struck by the charm of Robert’s writing and the strong element of social history as he described the sights and sounds of Georgian England on his travels.
I soon became fascinated with the diarist and keen to find out more about him than the little he reveals in the diary pages. Robert was clearly a caring man, his benevolence well in evidence in the journal with small acts of kindness to local children and helping a distressed widow on board ship, as well as involvement in missionary work with Norwich worthies. Although a serious man, Robert clearly had a cheeky sense of humour, and there are several instances of his amusement at the canny Cromer locals and their efforts to profit from their visitors!
At this stage though I knew little more than his name so decided to try advertising in The Lady magazine in case he was known to one of their readers. As luck would have it, a family friend of Robert’s great great grandson John W. King just happened to be browsing its pages and came across my plea for information. John soon came up trumps with a family tree and autobiography of my diarist giving all the information I wished for and more.
Newly armed with material on Robert and his background, I set about researching the people and places mentioned on his travels in detail to help bring the tour to life and provide some context.
The diary’s charm and historical value
Robert’s diary is illustrated with contemporary engravings as well as his own careful pencil sketches and it was fascinating to compare the scenes he recorded in Cromer to that of today and find that some have actually changed very little. Cromer was just emerging as a holiday destination for discerning visitors and still retains its charm as a seaside resort – walking on the pier and cliffs enjoying the views, picking up shells & fossils on the beach, enjoying the bracing sea air and tasty seafood are common to the Marten family’s experience and that of today’s tourists.
Norwich still has plenty to interest the visitor, with its old buildings, cobbled streets, churches and markets, but we would perhaps not want to visit places on Robert’s itinerary such as the new prison buildings and factories, the evidence of a changing, industrial society. Yarmouth has probably changed the most with its mass tourism appeal, amusement arcades and funfairs, and is certainly less smelly than when the Martens visited when the town’s prosperity was based on its herring fisheries!
The later Georgian era was called the first great age of popular travel, when the activity was no longer restricted to business or necessity, and was starting to become a pleasure in itself and even associated with idea of an annual holiday. During the last quarter of the 18th century travel books were amongst the bestsellers, and, like the eagle-eyed antiquarian, Robert is always on the lookout for the picturesque view complete with crumbling ruins. The tour ends with a stay in a country house where the family enjoy some typical Georgian delights including shooting, a musical evening, riding, and some fine dining.
Robert Marten died of a coronary at his home in Plaistow, aged 76 on 11th December 1839. In many ways he mirrored the changing society in which he lived and recorded in the pages of his Norfolk journal, sharing common roots in 18th century England, but showing symptoms of the great transformation afoot in the 19th century.
With his sense of order and tradition and preference in all things for the ‘solemn grandeur’ he admired in Norwich Cathedral, he was typical of the 18th century gentleman. Yet, with his interest in the inventions and industrial expansion of the day, the diarist was also very much a man of the 19th century.
For more Marten family history go to https://www.morganfourman.com/articles/robert-humphrey-marten/
British School; Bishops Gate and Bridge, Norwich