Violet Jacob’s diaries from India 1895 – 1900

Life in the Raj

A year ago I went to India for the first time. My wife was talking about her book, Dance with Fireflies, the story of her Anglo Indian grandmother, at the wonderful Kumaon Literary Festival. We were based in Nainital, a town, in the foothills of Himalayas that grew around a beautiful lake. Nainital was one of the British Hill Stations in the days of the Raj. It’s where the British administrators escaped the summer heat and still has some of the old Victorian charm.

One of the Festival topics was the British legacy in the area. There were opposing views, but its clear that social divisions grew and life for many Indians was difficult. So my mission was to find diaries and journals from the time and hear directly what different people thought. My first find was the Diaries and Letters of Violet Jacobs.

Violet describes life in the Raj between 1895 and 190o. She was from a landed and wealthy Scottish family. Her privileged childhood helped her develop a talent for writing and painting. She would go on to become a relatively successful published poet and author.

Violet married an officer in the British Army and was stationed in Mhow in ´hot and dusty´ Indore, Central India, an area ´ruled´ by local Monarchs but like most of India, was answerable to the Raj. The diaries are a combination of letters to her mother and diary entries ´to remember the sights and sounds of this beloved country´. Although Violet bound all these records together, they weren´t ´discovered´ until the 1980s.

Its clear that Violet loved India. She was a curious explorer and determined to see the real India. So she travelled by train and horse to discover the villages, the people and the history. She painted the amazing local flora and temples as she went. She visited Hindu and Muslim festivals and sought out Buddhist remains. She also met Royalty including a memorable visit to Bhopal in 1898 unusually headed by female rulers; meeting the Shah Jehan, the Begum of Bhopal and her daughter. I liked her account of wearing the Purdah and being able to make faces at the British officials without them seeing.


In 1899 she visited Kumaon lakes  being carried by Dandys from Kathgodam up the hills to the lakes. A journey I remember well (but by taxi not Dandy).

It’s a brilliant descriptive journal but does avoid the political realities of the time. The privilege and hierarchy is the acceptable and unchallenged norm. Violet is kind and generous and dislikes the ´British´ areas of India but there remains an air of superiority. Violet observes the differences and tensions between Muslims and Hindus though doesn’t attempt to understand life from the average Indian perspective. Equally she doesn’t tackle the role of women in the Raj or any in the Indian communities. Overall a fascinating and real account of a different time.

I loved India, the people and their positivity. Everyone has to go there at some point in their life.

Nainital / Mallital October 2015


The 2016 Kumaon Literary Festival is taking place 11th – 15th October

Our Indian adventure was brilliantly organised by Charlie Gilbert at Indigo East

My wife’s book Dance with Fireflies by Jane Gill is available from

The journals of Celia Fiennes

celia pic

I came across Celia Fiennes about 20 years ago on a visit to Broughton Castle near Banbury.

She was an amazingly independent and curious woman who travelled around England from around 1682 to 1712 in a series of ´tours´. Her published journals are a fascinating read if, like me, you love real observational history.

Celia was born into an old and dispersed aristocratic family that included Viscounts and Barons. They were fortunate to have castles and homes throughout the country that partly mapped out the journeys. Her descendants still live in Broughton Castle.

The journals are descriptive and observational but not strictly diaries; there’s very little personal information and views. Even though she and her relatives where part of one of the most fascinating periods in English history.

It’s the descriptions of estates, towns and cities from 300 years ago that make this so absorbing.  She is interested in the architecture (she liked neatness), occupations, folklore and particularly local minerals, as its seems she had some investments in mines.  The waters (Spas) were fashionable at the time and these were a focus of many visits. She experienced the ´waters and rituals´ at Bath, something I experienced myself just a few weeks ago! In 1697 she travels through Warwick, a town I know well and describes the aftermath of a great fire that destroyed the church and much of the town. The ‘old buildings´ that I have walked past many times must have just been built or being built, like a modern day re-development.

I have been to many of the same towns and houses and can imagine Celia riding through, side saddle curiously taking in the same details as I do.

It seems she kept notes of her travels and at some later stage edited them into journals. There are lots of spelling errors and the occasional mix up of places and people which add to the authenticity.

Thank you to my friend and publisher Richard Webb (a distant relative of Celia) who kindly gave me a new ‘illustrated journeys of Celia Fiennes’ edited by Christopher Morris and inspired me to re-read the journals.


Two diary presents


An extra benefit of my new blog is that when it comes to birthday presents, it´s made life a bit easier. So last week I received these two diaries. Violet Jacobs diaries & letters from the Indian Raj and from my Father in Law; Francis Kilvert´s diaries as a nineteen century clergyman. Similar times, different continents. On y va.

The Drew Diaries

I’ve kept a diary for over 35 years. It´s my one consistent habit in an otherwise non-routine life. I have always been a curious observer.

So began a fascination with not just my own diary but those of other people. Why keep them? What’s in them? What sort of people keep diaries?

This is a blog about my diaries, other people´s diaries & journals (some well known, some unknown) and the people that keep them.

Love to hear your stories….


DD and dog amd pint

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, and Revolution


Samuel Pepys is my favourite diarist and an inspiration so when in London last week I had to visit the exhibition. It’s in Greenwich, along the river east of the city. Greenwich is grand place with the old Royal Naval College, the National Maritime museum and the Royal Observatory and the surviving tea clipper – the Cutty Sark. It’s an apt place to meet Pepys.

What makes Pepys so special? I like him because he reminds me of myself. He is from a modest background but he is ambitious. He is an observer and a listener. He is curious to learn and experience new things. He loves women, music, clothes and theatre. He wants a career and works hard to get his social mobility. When reading his diaries I feel it’s me wandering around London, just as I do now.

Of course his fame is largely down to the incredible events he witnessed over the 9 years of his diary (1660 – 1669); the restoration of the monarchy, the plague, the Dutch wars and the Great Fire. But for me it’s observations and opinions of relationships and everyday life that are the most interesting.

It seems quite extraordinary for the time that he kept such candid diaries.  And so deliberately; he wrote in (Shelton’s) shorthand and had codes for his sexual exploits. He wanted them to be secret but in leaving them to Magdalene College, he knew (and hoped) he had made an historical mark. His diary opens with disappointment that his wife isn’t pregnant and I wonder if the diaries became his legacy in the absence of children.

The exhibition is designed around the key historical events so it’s a story of the events as well as Pepys descriptions. But the diaries bring the events to life. His eye witness accounts of the Great Fire tell more than any history book. It’s not just the chronology of events but the reaction of the people, the government and his peers. We can assess the response and the priorities including his own famous decision to dig a pit with Sir William Penn to bury his wine and parmesan cheese.

In the exhibition there’s a brief mention of his life around the theatre, his home, his health, his wife and his career.  But read the diaries to fully appreciate his life. Claire Tomalin´s biography is my recommendation.


Overall it was great to see a celebration of a fellow diarist.


My pen obsession

An interview with Janespentopaper blog 2014


One of the fringe benefits of writing a diary for 35 years is an unhealthy obsession with stationery; journals, pens, pencils, labels and glue. The latter may be surprising, but I now know the different adherent properties of different glue stick brands.

But it’s the writing implement that takes most of my attention. I’m not known as a particularly detailed person but when it comes to writing I am unusually obsessive.

At work I only use a mechanical pencil in brown workbooks with a decent grade of lined off-white paper. I only use 0.7 leads as 0.5 leads are too fine and 0.9 (which I have flirted with several times) can smudge. I lose pencils so I don’t have an unnecessarily expensive one but it does need to be reliable, a proper shaft (ooh), a decent rubber and a good grip. On Amazon there are an unhealthy number of reviews of the many options – and they make good reading. All of which had led me to a Faber-Castell Grip Plus with Pentel replacement leads.

My diary is a different matter and I been through different phases over the years.  A diary is much more important than work notes so it has to be ink. The key things have been neatness, an easy flow, no blotches and a good solid colour. For years I used a Waterman fountain pen with a medium nib and blue ink. My blue preference is probably down to the ink we had at school. It still seems right. I used to always carry 2 identical Watermans around with replacement ink in a small metal box. I still have them. But ink is inherently messy and pens have developed incredibly from dry old Bic biros that scratched the page. So I moved to a pen around 10 years ago. I have tried just about every make and variant and still do – testing against my 4 criteria. I don’t use a roller ball; they have a false sort of fountain pen look. I prefer a fine tip as this makes me write slower and with more space and hence neater. But many fine tips are made cheaply and break. I recently bought a batch of V5 Hi-tech point 0.5 and for the moment I’m sticking to these.

It does sound rather dull. It’s a good job I’m married


The Diarist

Interview for janespentopaper blog January 2016


When and why did you start keeping diaries?

I’ve always loved writing and making notes. As a teenager I wrote news stories and detailed sports reports on games I played. I’d thought about keeping a diary for a while as I’d been writing thoughts down at the back of course books. It was in my first year at university when I properly started a journal. I’ve kept it going ever since; for over 30 years. One night I just started writing (after a frustrating evening!). It started off as my confident and an outlet. I had a wonderful family but my parents worked all the time and my best friend sadly died in a car accident. So I didn’t confide in anyone. My diary started as a restrained outpouring of my mind mixed with functional and social details. I also enjoyed the process of writing it, by myself, in my room.

What makes you keep on going?

As I’ve got older it’s also a record of my children being born and growing up, my successes and my failures. It’s a reminder of what I consider important, both personal and in the world. It’s a record of my views.

Another reason I keep writing is that it’s become incredibly therapeutic. If I am feeling down or worried, writing down my thoughts helps articulate and order them. It helps give me a sense of perspective of what’s whirring around my mind and what’s important. I always feel better afterwards.

Another reason is that I’m a stationery nerd so choosing the journals, pens, pencils and labels has become one of life’s pleasures.

What do you write about?

My diary is always a barometer of my mood. And what’s making me feel content or fed up. I write about my family and their ups and downs. Work can dominate at times, sharing my frustrations with decisions, people and processes, but I always remind myself that it’s just work. I observe politics and news and have an opinion and a prediction. It’s interesting looking back. I write about people I see, guessing their story. On holiday I do a daily diary, I get up earlier than the rest of my family so I find a coffee bar and write, observe and record. I also record personal events in detail, so the births of my children, my marriage, graduations and last year the death of my mother. The latter sounds morbid but looking back at my feelings and memories at the time has helped.

At the start of each year I have listed my hopes for me and everyone else. It’s been an interesting measure of a year in our lives.

There’s also a lot of detail that one day someone else will find very tedious.

Has anything inspired you?

I love reading real history – diaries from real people caught up in history. The experiences from wars; on the battlefields and of victims like Anne Frank. Mass observation projects are fascinating. The British government asked people to record their post war lives which have been published. It’s an amazing insight into their lives and their values. Samuel Pepys is a hero. I love the normal day to day gossip he shares alongside momentous historical events of over 300 years ago. I’ve been to see the originals at Magdalene College, Cambridge University. Tony Benn is the purist – obsessive unedited record keeping and one of the first to use multi-media, recording on his tape recorder each night.

How often do you write?

Whenever I feel like it or if an event dictates it. Usually 2 or 3 times per week

Where do you write?

My favourite time and place is a Saturday morning while walking my dog Wilfy on the hills near my home. I take a flask of coffee and a cheeky snack for us both. We stop at one of a number of benches dedicated to local people. I’m most relaxed on Gillian’s bench, named after a local woman. The quietness, the views and the independence all inspire me.

Are you honest?

I generally write on the basis that one day my family may read it, so inevitably this means there is a degree of economy. I’m always truthful, but I do sometimes temper my language and omit anything that could be distressful, but that’s very rare.

Have you changed anything?

Over the past 10 years I have occasionally asked one of my family to write a page; on their life, a holiday or an event. Most years I have also created life questionnaires; favourite music, preferred career, best friend, hopes for the year, that sort of thing. It’s fun to compare over the years.

I occasionally write poetry and draw – especially when I’m by the sea or away on holiday or business.

In recent years I have also started sticking in images and memories, but I try hard to maintain a journal not a scrapbook.

When will you stop?

I have thought about stopping, trying something new but I know that I will never stop. It’s too enjoyable and it’s a passion.