There are few things more exciting than reading someone else’s diaries. It always feels a little clandestine – like you’ve snuck into someone’s room and are snooping through their desk. I would be lying then, if I said I didn’t get a little thrill of anticipation when I found out that as a volunteer at Glasgow University Archive Services I’d be helping to improve the catalogue for a collection consisting mainly of personal diaries. The papers of Agnes Hannah Tennant, nee Gairdner, were donated to the archive by her nephew in the mid-1970s and have been available for viewing since their arrival. There was a basic catalogue in existence, created shortly after their arrival, and tentative links had been made to the banker Charles Gairdner and the Tennant family of Charles Tennant & Son’s chemicals. None of this had been verified however, and I couldn’t wait to dive into the beautiful leather bound volumes, some bulging with keepsakes, in order to create an improved catalogue.
The first thing that strikes you about the diaries is the detail of the content. The earliest five volumes created in Glasgow before her marriage between 1881 and 1885 reveal Agnes’ activities on a daily basis. Few would consider having a bath to be worthy of mention in a diary entry but it is precisely this level of detail which gives the collection such value. The entries include not only the traditional activities of a young unmarried woman in the Victorian era such as flower arranging, visiting church and singing, but also clues to her family’s wealth such as trips to Europe and her attendance at many balls. The diaries also record her personal expenditure and reading, combining to give a fantastically detailed view of her life. The loose enclosures inserted into many of the diaries’ front and back not only provide useful pointers to important events and dates, but also intriguing additional content such as the names of her dance partners. It comes as no surprise that this wealthy, respectable young woman describes the parties she attends fairly reservedly with ‘very very nice’ being reserved for exceptionally special occasions (1885). However, it certainly surprised me that she more than once mentions staying out dancing until 3am!
The remaining four diaries span from 1887-1924 and in their pages the perspective and location change from an eligible young woman in Glasgow to a married woman and mother in the south east of England. Married now to William Augustus Tennant, (or ‘Will’ as he appears in the diaries), the first noticeable gap in Agnes’ daily entries coincides with the birth of her first son, Earnest William Dalrymple Tennant in May 1887. The following entry appears after nearly two weeks of silence; ‘Got on to the sofa for the first time, very shaky in my legs but feel wonderfully well. The wee son is very sweet’ (1887). Although the late night dancing is less frequent in the later volumes, evidence of Agnes’ continued socialising and travel abounds, up to and including her sixty-first year in 1924. By this point in her life Agnes had lost a son, Bunny, to the First World War and become a grandmother. The enclosures for these later diaries include colourful theatre programmes, copious calling cards and letters from her family.
While working on the catalogue for this collection we were able to unearth a great deal about a character we knew very little about at the outset. Census information confirmed that Agnes was indeed the daughter of Charles Gairdner, whose papers are also held at GUAS, and that she died in Saffron Walden in 1947 at the age of 83. We learnt that her husband worked for the family firm, Tennant & Son’s chemicals, the history of which her son Ernest went on to write and publish. We were also able to establish a direct link to the University, finding a record in the archive of Agnes and her sister Edith’s attendance at the Glasgow Association for Higher Education of Women between 1878 and 1879. Being able to start placing Agnes with certainty into the context of life in Glasgow and beyond has been really rewarding.
I hoped that the improved online catalogue for these detailed and unique primary sources will encourage others to investigate further. During its creation I have barely scratched the surface of Agnes’ rich social and family life gaining only a glimpse of the fascinating potential in these volumes. Part of the collection’s value lies in its originating at the end of an era in which the voices of women as daughters, wives and mothers were often silenced, yet each diary, crammed full of names, addresses and activities, provides an extraordinarily rich snapshot of a year in Agnes’ life. I sincerely hope that others are inspired to hear more of what Agnes has to say and unlock the potential which lies between these pages.
To view the enahanced new catalogue for the Papers of Agnes Hannah Tennant, nee Gairdner, please click here
Categories: Archive Services