A Merry Christmas – from George Leslie Adkin’s 100-year-old diaries

In these grim, grey days between Christmas and New Year, why not enjoy some beautiful reflections on life from a diary written one hundred years ago? Why ever not?

As part of the lead up to the anniversary of the Great War, various institutions around the world are posting content from newspapers, diaries and photo albums to reveal the lives of ordinary people who were affected by the global conflict.

As I so often mention, online diary projects are a particular favourite of mine. There are quite a few challenges inherent in presenting diary entries on the web, especially those written in the past via a very different medium. Although the medium itself has enough constraints to enable a small set of constant structural elements to be carried across (a date, some text, written in the first person), there’s often other more fiddly bits to include, like attached photographs and illustrations.

The most common way to present historic diaries online is therefore to show the actual text, usually manually transcribed – although often scanned from a printed source and processed with optical character recognition – indexed in some meaningful way, alongside scanned images of the pages themselves. This “best of both worlds” approach allows the reader to study the text in a clean, clear way, whilst also revealing nuances to the way the diary was originally written. These nuances often include the handwriting of the author, the type of book or sheets used to capture the thoughts, and any other elements as mentioned above, like doodles or clippings.

One such project which has kicked off a mild fascination in me is New Zealand museum Te Papa‘s presentation of the wonderful diaries of geologist, photographer and historian George Leslie Adkin. Although Adkin went on to write scientific papers and work in various national institutions, it is his diaries which are currently being published one hundred years on which really caught my attention.

Adkin was born in 1888, meaning that the diaries currently live on Te Papa’s blog are the words of a man in his mid-twenties, discussing all the issues most important to him: working hard on his family’s land; occasionally making short trips around his native New Zealand to understand the history and geology of the land; but most of all, professing undying love for his dear Maud.

I could write a thousand more words about Adkin – the excellent biography, An Eye For Country by Anthony Dreaver, was one of my favourite books that I read this year – but for now, why not spend a few minutes browsing his diary entries from the Christmas week of 1913, during which Adkin visits Maud and has all sorts of summertime fun.

Proceedings kick off on the entry from 24 December, 1913, with a typical exclamation: “Hooray for Hastings and Maud.”

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Reached Hastings just before 7 pm – Maud down to meet me – a perfectly radiant vision, so well + happy + wearing a cream + blue costume + hat with blue “bird-tail” bow.

Later…

After some tea, Maud + I walked down town together to do the sights + have a good time. Xmas Eve + streets crowded – shops busy. Maud was most vivacious + gay + proud I was to have her by my side.

Then, having had a wonderful Christmas Day, Adkin writes:

After tea Maud + I walked round the garden – sat under the mulberry tree + spent some time in sweet converse under front gate arch – the evening was perfect, the sky clear + the air soft + cool. We had a delicious time – truly a Merry Xmas.

On Boxing Day, Adkin took some photographs – including a striking portrait of his darling Maud, about which he notes:

Maud in same exquisite style in front gate archway – a perfect dream.

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Later on:

To avoid the heat we left Nelson Park + walked over to the Botanical Gardens – Maud was very pleased with the gardens + thought them pretty. We found a sheltered seat + sat in the cool shade for some time + enjoyed ourselves. To Maud’s great amusement I christened her “Softy”, referring not, as she would persist I meant, to her head, but to her waist + person in general.

Maud + I spent the evening in the drawing-room very happily, brining to an end a most enjoyable, successful + never-to-be forgotten day.

Are you sobbing yet? I think this love story is one of the most beautiful I have ever read. Adkin’s unbridled outpourings of love and admiration for Maud are just something else.

On December 27, Adkin writes:

Took it easy under a tree on the beach + told each other funny tales – then returned to trap + had afternoon tea. Took a photo of Maud having tea, + she took one of me the same way. Left at 4.30 pm + had a very pleasant drive home in the cool – Maud in great spirits – I kept her laughing merrily, especially when I stopped trap + tried to drink out of the preserve-pan which held our water supply – she made me laugh so much myself that the water ran down my neck.

On 28 December, it sounds like Adkin is ‘helpfully’ busying himself in the kitchen (I think I’ve been this sort of useful before, too):

Made myself generally useful + took a photo of Maud preparing vegetables for dinner in the kitchen.

But later, with their Christmas holiday together coming to an end, Adkin writes:

After return home + supper Maud + I held a private “watch-night” service together in the drawing room, Ralph leaving us undisturbed after Maud whispered to him “Ralph dear, it’s our last evening together”. We retired at 11 pm after a very happy time.

Alas, all good things come to an end. And on 29 December, 1913, heading home after “four glorious days,” Adkin writes:

Dear little Maud – so sweet, loving + pretty. God keep her till we meet again.

After a train journey during which he catches up on some new books, Adkin is back home to business as usual:

Mother met me at Levin station. At home I found shearing in progress. H Morgan + Gil doing the rest of the Johnson-Roland-State Farm-cull hoggarts.

Sigh. I hope you all had as merry a Christmas as Leslie and Maud.

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