Skip to main content Skip to navigation

William Upcott's Life

"I propose from this time to keep an exact journal of my actions & studies, both to assist my memory, and to accustom me to set a due value on my time."
- William Upcott (opening of the diary)

Authenticity and Honesty:

Despite being a diary, Upcott's authenticity throughout it can be called into question. Particularly 'sensitive' parts of his life are kept hidden with a series of crosses - and he even makes a point of saying that certain places will not be spoken of in the diary. His secrecy raises the question of just how authentic his diary is. How much of his diary reflects reality? What else might Upcott have omitted/kept hidden from the diary?

"The crowd was at that hour immense I did not think it worth while to join them, or scarcely to cast a look toward the Serpentine. - but was persuaded I felt as great gratification to go to XXX. - as even they could to see the skaiters. As soon as I entered, my old friend P. caught my attention. was a little surprised at it. because I made no appointment to meet him there. - charmed with the symphony not a little hurt at not seeing XXXXXX in this place (a profound secret which shall not be mentioned here)." (Upcott, F12v)

Genealogy and Family Ties

A large part of the project has been investigating Upcott’s family, allowing us to figure out who he means when he refers to someone as his ‘Aunt’ or ‘Uncle’. This proved difficult but, with the help of Ed Pope, we made some progress. Most of the research was able to be done on Ancestry. This was difficult, given the vastness of the database, but we ultimately managed to find the majority of our information on there. We also took a trip to the Oxford archives to look through birth, marriage and death certificates, this was also useful given that we knew a lot of Upcott’s family resided in the area.

The collection of marriage, birth, and death certificates on Ancestry allowed us to understand Upcott’s familial relations. With names that are more common we were able to source the from locations and periods relevant to the material Upcott wrote on.

This marriage certificate from March 1784 in Magdalen, Oxfordshire between Delly Wickens, Upcott’s mother and John Peck illustrates some of the historical material that was used to navigate Upcott’s family tree.

Upcott was the child of a correspondence between Delly Wickens and Ozias Humphry. Born in 1779, Upcott was cared for by various different people, but spent the majority of his childhood in Oxford. He seems to only know family on his mother’s side.

E.P., Elizabeth Peck, is one of the main recurring figures in the main part of the diary (she is not mentioned in the travel journal). She is Upcott’s half-sister, daughter of Delly Wickens and John Peck. They have a fluctuating relationship and Peck seems to be a great source of joy and disappointment for Upcott. He seems to enjoy her company but they have seen bumps in their relationship too, such as when Peck is enamoured with one of Upcott’s old friends (‘P’) in 1809. Elizabeth Peck’s brother, John Peck, shares Upcott’s disapproval of P. It is unclear whether John Peck and William Upcott are blood related – Upcott often refers to John Peck as Elizabeth Peck’s brother, but never Upcott’s own.

The side of the family that Upcott seems on best terms with is the family in Eynsham (he refers to this as Ensham). Upcott appears to have a good relationship with the Stanley family. His Aunt, Hannah Wickens, is the older sister of Upcott’s mother (Delly Wickens). She is married to William Stanley. Together, we believe they had six children. The first two, Delicia (died as an infant) and Lydia, were born in Blockley. The family then moved to Eynsham, where they had Hannah, Ann, Mary and Sarah. Upcott seems closest with his Uncle and Aunt, as well as cousins Lydia and Hannah. He is disappointed when he hears of Ann’s marriage to John Bulcraig in 1809.

Upcott is also close with his Uncle and Aunt in Uxbridge. His Uncle James is the brother of Upcott’s mother. He is married to Hannah Simons and, together, they have three children – Sarah, Hannah and William.

Throughout the early sections of the diary, Upcott constantly refers to an ‘Oxford Uncle’.


An Introduction to Upcott’s Early Sociability with Women

The diary that William Upcott kept from 1803 to1809 includes a record of multiple but fleeting and often superficial relationships with women of his class. As well as charting Upcott’s own social fears and anxieties, the diary also observes the practices of sociability by his contemporaries, encapsulating how conversation and conduct were shaped by a society deeply marked by class and gender. This paper will examine Upcott’s own relationships and his often-derisive commentary on those of others, as he criss-crosses London and travels through the midlands in search of family and friends.

Research drawing on networks of communication in London, and provincial social institutions, and on contemporary discourses of British sociability have helped provide a more nuanced understanding of the character of the British model of friendship and acquaintance across the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Although sociability was valued and practiced across different nations and cultures, it was not a universal experience and took distinctive national and, as the Upcott’s Diary illustrates, still more local forms. The diary records the practices of sociability of young members at the lower end of the middling orders in London, and in his peregrinations in the provinces, especially recording details of the interactions (and often courtship) between male and female in these less elite social circles. It is a record of a young man who is deeply apprehensive about his social standing, attempt to navigate London society, venturing repeatedly into the provinces, and moving between different social orders.

When discussing Upcott’s relationships with women, Curtis and I encountered a small problem. That ‘small problem’ being the multitude of the task. Although Upcott repeatedly asserts that he is “determined to lead a single life” this does not stop him from indulging in numerous ‘relationships’ with women. This includes escorting his favourite lass from Pall Mall, Mrs Concybeare’s niece; a clever young woman whom Upcott describes as an agreeable and lively companion; a young woman from Staffordshire who visits Upcott in London where they spend their time agreeably at the theatre and on walks at least once a week; the young woman from Oxford who he goes to see The Pantomime of Mother Goose and the Golden Egg; and a range of other young women with whom he goes to the theatre or other entertainments.

Upcott’s hostility towards marriage is a recurring subject throughout the diary. Although he clearly enjoys the company of women, he is averse to the idea of marriage, likening the confines of marriage to a death sentence. Writing about a now married contemporary, Charles Roberts, Upcott writes “But he poor fellow, like the rest of my former associates, is fixed in a marriage nooze, - and two female children are the consequence.” However, Upcott’s animosity towards marriage is not an unusual characteristic of less elite social circles. By the late eighteenth century, a complex set of attitudes towards marriage existed. Although there were certain religious imperatives for marriage, there was also a sense of caution. In contrast to the elite where marriage served as a arrangement of property, the middling orders had a more precarious attitude. They were less focused on large scale capital and land transactions, and for some there was the possibility of a romantic attachment (and a growing culture of the companionate and romantic marriage to encourage this). However, as Upcott makes clear, the issue of social status and what individuals bring to relationships was still imperative to the social dynamics of courtship in less elite circles. For example, in 1806 Upcott ends his intimacy with a young woman named E. Barry. Upcott explains “She demanded reasons. - Unfortunately, they were too powerful to be denied. such as connection, family, fortune, &c. – besides, I have so long determined to lead a single life, no temptations shall induce me to alter my condition.” As an aspiring young man navigating urban London society, Upcott often sought out those he perceived to ‘cultivated’ - part of more elite social circles – meeting his aspirations for a more refined and civilised life. At the same time, He felt his illegitimacy and financial instability as a social burden and he expressed some discomfort with being in social situations that he regards as too far above him (although this is less of an issue in one-to-one male relationships, it surfaces when he is invited into elite domestic circles).

William Upcott’s Sociability in the Travel Journal

William Upcott’s trip to the Peak District took place between July and August 1823, 14 years after the final section of the diary in 1809. Between 1809 and 1823, it is clear that Upcott’s life had undergone some changes. One of these was the introduction of ‘AB’, whose name is Anne Berry. Berry and Upcott do not appear to be romantically involved, yet she is the principal legatee in Upcott’s will. Berry had not made an appearance in the earlier diaries, suggesting Upcott met her sometime between the 1809 and 1823.

Perhaps, the more notable change, however, is Upcott’s new demeanour. The travel journal shows a more confident Upcott – he appears to be a young man who has established himself. Most of this is down to his collecting network. Upcott was appointed to the London Institution in 1806. It was here that he found some success as a librarian, interacting with professionals and helping them run various errands. Through his connection with the subscribers to the Institution and Upcott’s passion for collecting and literature landed him in a well-connected position within the collecting network. By 1823, Upcott is established, and he has status. His visits enroute to the Peak District are centred around collecting – as evidenced by his interactions with Matthew Robinson Boulton, James Watt Jr. and ‘Dowland’. The collecting also becomes part of the sociability as he talks about collecting, helps Watt Jr. examine his book collection at Aston Hall and also meets a few other collectors around Birmingham (one of whom is Catherine Hutton). Naturally, this status also resulted in a newfound confidence for Upcott. At the start of the diary, Upcott is shy, nervous and self-conscious when interacting with those of greater social standing. However, on the trip, Upcott’s new confidence is palpable, such as when he introduces himself to Mr Pritt.

Upcott’s sociability on the travel journal is thus notable in three ways. The first is that the main source of sociability, for Upcott, is collecting. The second is that Upcott has a greater status in the collecting community than before, and he clearly has more of a (positive) reputation. Finally, Upcott’s increased status means that he seems more confident in social situations with people of higher social status than himself.