Deep in the archives of the municipal Treasure House in Beverley lies a cloth-bound volume of handwritten diaries, the work of Robert Sharp, schoolmaster, village constable, shopkeeper and tax-collector, who chronicled the daily round and common tasks about him in the east Yorkshire village of South Cave from 1812 to 1837.
Academics knew of the manuscript’s existence, and occasionally quoted from it in books or lectures. But this unique document, infinitely more entertaining and informative than many more literary accounts of rural life, seemed destined to gather dust rather than readers until a local history lecturer, Janice Crowther, and her librarian husband Peter set themselves the Herculean task of transcribing its 4 million words.
Modesty being their besetting sin (or virtue), they asked only for an opportunity to bring the diaries to a wider public. After months of painstaking work, transferring the text on to an ancient Amstrad, writing footnotes, compiling an index, excising around 7 per cent of the content (including, wisely, the poems) and preparing filmed copy, they hawked the finished product round commercial publishers. There was not the slightest interest, which turned out to be a godsend.
Through her former Ph. D. external examiner, the redoubtable academic Joan Thirsk, Janice Crowther sparked interest in the British Academy. The result is a beautifully bound 726-page book published for the Academy by Oxford University Press: a case, if there ever was one, of love’s labours realized. Unusually, the first printing of 500 copies of this volume in the Academy’s series of social and economic history sold out within months.
Another printing was put in hand but happily the second impression did not fly off the shelves quite so quickly. I say happily, because had it done so I would never have found it in the Postscript catalogue of remaindered books, reduced to £9.99 from £40. Like most Yorkshiremen, I had never heard of my fellow
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