James Fretwell's Diary

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In the preface, dated January 12th 1738-39, to his Diary James comments that while the life story of some of the leading lights of his time, and before, had been recorded in writing, those of less illustrious standing rarely saw fit to pen for posterity accounts of their own lives. This observation was made in his fortieth year, a time traditionally to take stock, and, in current terminology, coinciding perhaps with a mid-life crisis. It may be argued, of course, that in James's time "mid-life" was closer to 30, but whatever the underlying reason, James sorely rued the general lack of written family records. He therefore set out to at least remedy this deficiency as regards the people and events of his immediate and extended family and his circle of acquaintances.

Conscious of his modest literary talents, and since he would

"not be so exact in methodizing every part as if it were designed for public view..."

we are given to understand that this was to be a very personal account, for immediate family consumption only.

Prior to the start of the Diary proper, James "fills us in" on the background to the family, giving accounts of his and his mother's families, going back a few generations. The actual entries span the years 1718-1760. For the years 1718-1738 James relied on notes he had kept up to that time. From then on he would have maintained the diary as an on-going project. It is interesting to note, despite his exhortation for more people to recognise the value of keeping meticulous records of family affairs, that the frequency of entries drops off considerably after 1738!

The final Diary entry is dated 31st December 1760. Our Diarist lived a for a further 13 years, which begs the question as to why such an abrupt ending. It may be that James assiduously continued with his family chronicle, and that the manuscript has been lost (or is awaiting rediscovery!?). The spasmodic nature of the entries in the latter part of his life suggest that he may have lost interest, or had not had the time to maintain his Diary on a more regular basis.

It was James's hope that succeeding generations would think fit to preserve his notes, and

"...thereto annex an account of such things worthy of note...in the day of your pilgrimage..."

so that future generations would have a true account of their predecessors. Nothing has come to light to show that any of the later family members fulfilled his wish.

What the Diary Tells Us

James's Diary, by his own admission and intent, concentrates its focus on his own family. In this respect it is a far more intimate account than that of another Fretwell-related Diarist, John Hobson, and from a genealogical perspective, much more useful.

On each re-reading of the Diary more is understood about the life and times of James. Notwithstanding the inherent dangers of interpreting attitudes and events from such a distance in time, the following may be confidently posited from James's account.

Geographic Horizons

 James's life was circumscribed by a relatively small geographic area. Apart from a short time in London in his youth, and occasional business trips away from "base", he did not move far afield. The map on the right shows the principal places cited by James in his Diary. Two distinct enclaves can be identified - representing the  respective "home territory" of the Fretwells and the Woodhouses. The map on the left,  showing the whole of Yorkshire, puts into the span of this territory into perspective.


Family Affairs

Whether from choice, a sense of duty, or economic dependence, the Fretwells and Woodhouses appear to have been a very close-knit bunch, and this is particularly so within James's immediate family. He had a especially strong bond with his beloved mother, but James also took a lively interest in all the family's comings and goings, and was genuinely concerned for their welfare. By far the greatest proportion of the Diary entries refer to the marriages and births, visits to and by, and the deaths and burials of family members.


James and his siblings received their earliest education from their mother. James draws a comparison between those, like his mother, for whom this responsibility was undertaken as a labour of love, and others who neglected their teaching duties. Apart from reliance on mothers for educating the children, other family members were asked to assist. Thus we find various Aunts taking on the role of teacher, and for some time James undertook to oversee the education of his 'slow' nephew.

Having mastered the basics at home, and 'graduated' from Dame School, James and his brothers continued their schooling away from home -  at Kirk Sandall, Stoney Stainton, and Doncaster -  which meant that they were boarded out. The next stage was to find appropriate apprenticeships, which were negotiated between the family and the chosen "Master". James went to London, while his brother found a place closer to home.


James's family was principally involved in the timber  trade. The Woodhouses included tradesmen and "professionals" among their ranks. However, the range of occupations tended to be limited, with incoming husbands likely to follow the same trade as their fathers-in-law. Regardless of the callings in life, there was a degree of dependence upon relatives for training and apprenticeships as the following table shows.


Relationship with James


Richard Fretwell

Gt Grandfather


James Fretwell


Trained as a Carpenter, but chief business was Timber Merchant

John Bower

Husband of Gt Aunt Elizabeth Fretwell


John Bower jnr

Cousin (removed)


Reuben Woodhouse

Gt Uncle (by marriage)

Apprenticed to Mercer and Grocer of Barnsley.
Set up for himself as Butter Trader, Linen Draper and Grocer

Benjamin Fretwell

Gt Uncle

Tanner, apprenticed to Stephen Husband

Richard Fretwell

Gt Uncle

Horse Dealer

William Fretwell

Gt Uncle

Timber Merchant

James Fretwell


Timber Merchant

Stephen Husband



James Fretwell


Legal Clerk Apprenticeship with Uncle John Woodhouse;
Timber Merchant (and ship owner)

John Woodhouse


Attorney, Sherrifs Court, London

John Fretwell


Timber Merchant (and Farmer?)

William Woodhouse


Apprenticed to Upholsterer in London

? Hill


Apprenticed to a Cheesemonger in London

William Fretwell


Apprenticed to a Chandler and Grocer, Doncaster

Thomas Routh



James Wood

Husband of Cousin Ann Wasteneys

Linen Draper and Grocer

Michael Woodhouse



Thomas Foulston

Husband of Cousin Elizabeth Fretwell

Grocer and Chandler

William Webster

Husband of Niece Mary Woodhouse



Fundamental to the Fretwells' lives was their faith. Although not specifically stated, from references James makes to Quakers, we can assume that the family were strongly Anglican. Second only to references to family matters are James's frequent entries concerning attendance at church services, and the merits or otherwise of various Ministers. Records are kept of the choice of Bible verses for sermons and funeral services, and occasionally James has taken the trouble to write them out in full. On numerous occasions, when threatened by some actual or potential danger, James's gives thanks to the Lord for deliverance.


Competent and prudent management skills were essential qualifications for the ideal wife and mother. To her fell the responsibility of providing an efficiently run and harmonious household. Such was the household maintained by James's mother and doubtless her standards were the yardstick by which he makes comparisons of other women in the Diary.

James never married. Did he not find anyone who could measure up to his ideal, as personified by his mother? Speculation, while diverting, must remain just that. There is no hint whatsoever in the Diary to substantiate this theory, or any other reason as to why James remained a bachelor. With no wife to run his household he was reliant, as were single men of his time, upon female members of his family to take care of him. Before her marriage, his sister Mary ran his household. At various times James took lodgings, presumably when there were no 'free' female relatives upon which he could call. But later in life he found lodgings somewhat tiresome and returned to his own house, having agreed to take on his 'unmanageable" niece as housekeeper.


From his own writing, James comes across as a conscientious, caring, and eminently respectable man. It may being doing him an injustice, but he also comes across as a serious, even dour man, lacking any sense of humour. If he indulged in any light hearted pursuits, he does not mention them, except for one instance of accompanying his brother to the Doncaster fair. His taste might have been for a quieter lifestyle, in which he found fulfilment from his family and the few close friends he mentions in the Diary.

Current Affairs

As a business man James we would expect James to take an interest in affairs beyond his domestic environment. There are passing references in his Diary to such events as the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752; local elections; the final quashing of the Jacobites and the the victory over the French forces at Quebec. He talks about the enclosures he made on his lands, and his attendances before the Commissioners at Doncaster regarding the enclosure of common lands. We hear also of the re-opening of the markets for horned cattle in 1756 which had been closed for a number of years due to distemper. One of the last entries refers to the death of George II and the the proclamation at Pontefract of George III.

According to James, he was a sickly child, and the state of his health occupied his mind throughout his life. Thus we have accounts of bouts of illness, and the cures sought to remedy them. He makes reference to one of the scourges of the day - small pox - which afflicted members of his own family. We are also reminded that rabies was prevalent at that time from an account of a mad dog which bit him and his sister.

As is the case today, travel in the 18th century was fraught with danger. It would be interesting to compare statistics for road fatalities today to those of James's time. There are a number of incidents of people falling from their horses, or being 'run over' by horses, recorded in the Diary. That the number of accidents occurred when the rider was 'under the influence' suggest that the current campaigns against drinking and driving would have been well understood in James's time.

Mortality is a constant theme throughout the Diary. James, in tune with  the general philosophy of the day, treats the passing of so many of his family fatalistically. It was God's will and indeed, in many cases death was a blessed relief from the trials of life. Particularly poignant is the dispassionate reporting of so many instances of still births or of babies dying so soon after birth - a stark reminder of the difficulties of pregnancy and child birth in the 18th Century. From the early loss of his brothers, we are also reminded that even if children survived past infancy and adolescence, premature death in early adulthood was a frequent occurrence.

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This page was last updated on 12 June, 2011