It is summer in 1868, and a young woman has just arrived in the country to stay with relations. 'Dearest mama' wants to know how she is getting on, so 'I have written a kind of Diary for you this week, I thought it would be quite the best way of letting you know how we spend our time, by writing a bit every day'.
The diarist is Susannah Kate ('Kitty') Robinson, daughter of William John Robinson and his wife Rebecca. She was born in 1845, so she's 23 now and has come from the family home at Aston just outside Birmingham to stay at Ewell with her uncle Lawson Robinson and his wife Rhoda. Lawson Robinson was a grocer — a remarkably successful grocer — from London, who had recently moved to a house outside Ewell on Cheam Road. He lived there with his sisters Catherine Robinson and Harriet Campbell Robinson (Aunt Kate and Aunt Hattie in the diary). Another sister, Isabella, had married Stanford Botting (Uncle Botting). Lawson's brother, James Sackett Robinson, also makes an appearance in the diary as Uncle Jim. Other family members make their appearance at different times, including Sallie, a cousin from Essex.
And then there are 'the Shaws, Furners, Townends, Charmans & Martins, five as nice families as I should think it possible to meet with'. William and Sarah Shaw lived at St. Norman's, the next house along, with their daughter Lettice, aged 22. Thomas Cooper Furner came from Tintern Villa on the Epsom Road. James Townend, a hat manufacturer, lived with his wife Sarah at Harefield, just on the Cheam side of Cheam Road; their daughter Annie was the same age as Kitty. The other two families were both farmers — William Charman at Rectory Farm, and Edward Waterer Martin at Nonsuch Park Farm. The Robinsons were also on friendly terms with George Stone, the corn and coal merchant of 24 High Street in Ewell. It was from the low upper windows of this house that they were able to watch the crowds streaming to the Derby — 'conveyances of every description from donkey carts to splendid coaches, four-in-hand, and all so closely packed that the horses never went off the walk & continually streaming by, till it made me stare in amazement, it was next to impossible for a pedestrian to cross the road'.
Conaways, the house in Cheam Road where Kitty stayed, was part of a small estate which Uncle Lawson had developed on the desirable plot between the village and Ewell East Station. The Robinsons had their home on the south side; to the north, at nos. 21-5, stood Essex, Hornden and Orsett House, each one named after a part of the country where the family had lived before its recent rise to prosperity. They weren't quite as large as Conaways, but they were typical of the 'numbers of pretty villas' which, as C.J. Swete had observed eight years earlier, were being built everywhere for London merchants in the environs of Epsom; places where 'a lovely retreat would afford its shade to many a weary one, and refresh him for further toils in building up the nation's greatness'.
Conaways has been demolished, its site now occupied by the cul-de-sac of Conaways Close, but sales particulars in the Morning Post of 17th April 1893 set the scene for the diary, with their 'pretty grounds of about three acres, approached by a carriage drive, and containing seven bedrooms, dressing and bathrooms… entrance porch, good hall, drawing-room 22ft by 17ft (exclusive of bay), dining-room 18ft by 15ft (exclusive of bay), morning-room about 14ft by 12ft 9in… good cellarage, detached stabling for three horses, double coach-house. The 'attractive grounds' were 'planted with trees and shrubs, tennis lawn, kitchen garden, greenhouse, fernery in two compartments… with glass work skirting a shrubbed border'. Not much had changed in thirty years, except that tennis courts seem to have replaced the croquet lawn where Kitty played so many successful matches.
A game of Croquet
Image source: The Graphic 25 June 1870
She was a dab hand at croquet, and singing, and music, and ornamental flower arranging. In fact like many Victorian young ladies, she was something of an ornament herself, especially when in white muslin (from Sutton; the Epsom shops were useless). After Uncle Lawson has taken the train to Victoria, presumably to toil a bit more in building up the nation's greatness, Kitty, Sallie and Aunt Hattie set out for a day's walk; they crossed Nonsuch Park, and even this took a little more than an hour including frequent rests, but fortunately on arrival there was wine and biscuits to revive them. Kitty joined in with summertime activities but 'found haymaking a little harder work than it looks. I turned one row, & then I had had quite enough, & Sallie didn't do more than three yards, so we two sat down & watched the others'.
What would her future life have been for this engaging young woman? She never found out: four years later, in 1872, she died of tuberculosis. The diary passed through the family into the hands of a niece, Margaret Stubbs of London SW5, who copied out the Ewell sections in 1974 and sent them to the Nonsuch Antiquarian Society (now Epsom & Ewell History & Archaeology Society). It is this transcript which is presented here now.
(Thanks to Sheila Ross for the typing, and to Hazel Ballan for uncovering the family history).