The Torrington Diaries

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There wasn’t space to include all the intriguing background information provided by Roger Hudson for his piece on ‘Torrington’s Tours’ which appeared in Issue 69. So we thought we’d share it here with any readers as fascinated as we were by the life and character of the eccentric and aristocratic author of the diaries, John Byng, Lord Torrington, and his tours through the English countryside during the 1780s and ’90s.

The Torrington diaries were published between 1934 and 1938, once the original twenty-four manuscript tour journals at Yates Court in Kent had attracted attention at their auction. (There is a notice published in 1832 recording the death of one of John Byng’s granddaughters, aged 20, at Yates Court so it must have belonged to the Torrington family.) They are one of a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century diaries, journals and memoirs that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century, greatly enhancing our view of the years between 1760 and 1880. Thomas Creevey’s papers appeared in 1903, William Hickey’s memoirs followed in four volumes between 1913 and 1925, Parson Woodforde’s diaries in five between 1924 and 1931, Francis Kilvert’s in three between 1938 and 1940, while James Boswell’s London jurnal, the first fruits from the massive accumulation of Boswell papers, came out in 1950.

Byng summarized his career in a typically self-deprecatory couplet:

His early days were spent in camps,
His latter days were pass’d at Stamps.

Certainly in 1760‒2, towards the end of the Seven Years’ War when British forces were fighting on the Continent alongside those of Frederick the Great of Prussia against the French, Byng was ‘in active service in Germany . . . I was comfortable, for I had only German servants and laugh’d at the ill management of my comrades.’ One suspects that to an extent he was reliving the days of his youth in his later holidays, employing skills learnt then to smooth the inevitable rough edges encountered when touring.

In August 1780 Horace Walpole wrote in one of his letters, ‘I remember I have heard at the time [of his financial crash in 1777] that Lord Torrington was the sole cause of his brother’s ruin.’ The suspicion must be that John Byng had thereafter to sell his commission and leave the Army. His brother the 4th Viscount was obviously hopelessly irresponsible over his finances: whatever his other debts in 1777, he owed nearly £36,000 to his friend the Duke of Portland. Capability Brown had been employed two years earlier to improve the park at Southill, the Byng family home in Bedfordshire, but he stopped work because payments to him had ceased. (Byng called Brown ‘a judicious former of water but too severe on avenues’.) In January 1778 there was a sale of 144 of the Viscount’s paintings at Christie’s, including three remarkable groups of his outdoor servants and horses commissioned from George Stubbs in 1767.

Southill, near Biggleswade, bought by the 1st Viscount in 1693, was let from 1780 and in 1783 the 4th Viscount was appointed Minister (ambassador) in Brussels, the capital of the Austrian Netherlands, a position he no doubt got thanks to the then prime minister at the head of the Fox-North coalition, the Duke of Portland. He continued in Brussels, presumably safe from his creditors, until 1792. Southill and its estate were then sold to the brewing magnate Samuel Whitbread in 1795. His connection to the neighbourhood explains why John Byng stayed so often and for so long in Biggleswade when touring.

Byng’s wife was a trial to him, but so too was her mother, a self-willed spendthrift eccentric, the widow of Commodore Forrest, RN. When her extravagant living, at the rate of £6,000 a year in her house overlooking Birdcage Walk and St James’s Park, exhausted her credit, she was forced to retire to her house at Binfield, Berkshire. There she shocked her children’s young friends with her bawdy jokes. Her mode of life was, according to William Hickey, ‘whimsical in every respect in the extreme’, sitting up all night and lying in bed all day. Byng said he ‘never sacrificed but one day of the year’ at Binfield, regarding her nine o’clock dinners as ‘wrong for the sake of wrong’ and militating ‘against reason, economy and good breeding’.

William Windham, called by Macaulay ‘the finest gentleman of the age . . . the ingenious, the chivalrous, the high-souled Windham’, had gone on a summer tour with Byng in 1774, some time before he cuckolded him. We do not know whether Byng regarded it as insult added to injury when Windham eventually married his wife’s sister Cecilia in 1797. By then Windham had been Secretary at War in Pitt’s cabinet for some years.

Byng’s youngest son, Frederick, born in 1784, was his favourite and he often expressed his happiness on tour when he received letters from him. An inveterate diner-out and gossip, Frederick became a famous figure within Regency society, always known as Poodle, it’s thought because of his curly hair. There is a story of him being hailed by his friend Beau Brummell as he drove in his curricle with a poodle at his side: ‘Ah, how d’ye do, Byng? A family vehicle I see.’

Others of John Byng’s dislikes: Chinese wallpaper, carved decoration inside a house (one suspects he meant elaborate plasterwork), ‘staring temples and obelisks’ in parks, festoon curtains, drawn up in swags, concertina-wise (here for once he preferred a new fashion, for draw curtains, pulled back horizontally), ‘puff’d bell pulls’, the paintings of Rubens – ‘all his figures are coarse and his women are wet nurses’ ‒ the new fashion for seaside resorts, and politics and children as topics for conversation. As a regular, he regarded the militia as unnecessary, their annual exercises and camps merely bringing drunkenness and fighting with them. But he admitted the whist table was ‘a station I am very fond of’, and he loved fishing, both fine and coarse, even with traps, often going out with the Biggleswade barber. Above all he liked ‘seizing every opportunity to renovate myself by country air, to avoid the noise of London, and all that fate has consigned me to in that quarter’.

Byng was critical of other published tour writers: ‘of all the tours I read I like my own the best . . . all the pleasant minutiae [are left out of the rest]. Few tours are sufficiently simple . . . I rather wish to taste the inn pleasures and the natural walk of life . . . instead of grand poetical painting and formal classical allusions.’ At Lamberhurst in Sussex there was, ‘in a clean sanded parlour, a cold fillet of veal and a cold quarter of lamb. After pouring down libations of ale and porter I almost finished a pint of port.’ The total charge for this, plus cheese, and hay and corn for his horse, was one shilling and sixpence. In Forest Row, ‘a leg of mutton, just boiled, added to a plumb pye, with good cheese and half a pint of brandy made me feel as full as an alderman.’ There was though the risk of finding himself at an inn like the Spread Eagle in Settle, North Yorkshire, ‘with mice running behind the wainscot and everything rattling with wind’, or eating an ‘old, fusty gooseberry tart’ in Welwyn, or being irritated by a waiter late laying the table for dinner and then running about ‘like a dog in a dancing school’.

He could list the constituents of a country fair, ‘a learned pig, and a turnabout to make the children sick after their gingerbread’, but also remark on the iron water pipes, 21 miles of them in all, stacked up at Chepstow and about to be exported to France in 1781, when France and Britain were at war and had been for several years. Finally, a visit to Matthew Boulton’s great works at Birmingham, from which Boulton and Watt’s steam engine emerged, ‘affords great pleasure and an happy idea of the improvements of my countrymen’. 


About the contributor

Roger Hudson reckons he must have driven about 185,000 miles in the last fifty years or so, going from London to Newark and back again on the Great North Road. His An Englishman’s Commonplace Book was published by Slightly Foxed last year.

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