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The American Diary of Jane Tonge Thompson, English Emigrant, 1839 - 1840

Delve into the compelling diary of an English emigrant and discover a unique portrait of life in early nineteenth-century America.

Julie Bayliss

A boxful of women’s diaries emerged from the strong rooms at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust recently, gathered in a search for interesting life stories. Amongst several slim, pocket-sized books was a hardback book, plain and seemingly unpromising, except that it was larger and thicker than the rest. A further auspicious sign was its format, that of a ruled notebook, rather than a conventional diary. Its owner was unconstrained by a pre-printed journal, which would have limited each daily account to its strict boundaries.

The diary is dated 1839, and the diarist is Jane Thompson. Roused by what she has seen or heard, Jane sets aside time to record what amazed, amused or challenged her. Taking a penful of ink, she inserts the date herself, and with a steady hand and even pressure, begins to write freely and frankly. Domestic or overseas, personal or public, large or small scale incidents do not escape her pen.

It is the 1st of December 1839:  ‘A Rainy Sunday. Began to read “Toqueville [sic] on the Democracy of America.”  […]  It makes me melancholy.’  This heartfelt reaction to the French aristocrat’s analysis of politics and society in America was the first hint of Jane’s sadness and its cause, as well as the sphere within which she and her husband lived and moved.

The second entry, on the 2nd of December 1839, also concerns political matters:  ‘Congress met.  “The shades of evening fell upon them” ere they settled to do anything.’ This suggests that Jane had an intimate, privileged level of access to the workings of Congress, and by noting them, a keen interest also.

Further research using material held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust revealed that Jane was the wife of Pishey Thompson, bookseller and historian. Jane left England in 1818 to live with her husband in Washington D.C., America. Pishey worked as a reporter for the National Intelligencer, a newspaper which in its time was a leading source of news from Capitol Hill. He was also appointed treasurer of the American Colonization Society in 1837, a national movement which, with the aid of Federal Government, helped free slaves to settle in Africa, in a colony named Liberia.

Washington D.C. in 1839-40 is a city, as Jane describes it, in the grip of an unusually icy winter, her twenty-second there, with food shortages, overpriced goods and quarrelsome shop assistants. She writes about bank clerks turning grey-haired with stress, dealing with angry young Democrats, hostile towards such financial institutions, which they blamed for the economic troubles the country was suffering. She records street fights and one German family’s frantic attempt to defend their home from attackers. It is a city where ‘our dirty theatre’ is scarcely full, usually with a badly behaved audience, a city which has its own peculiar etiquette that Jane can neither adopt nor comprehend. 

In mid-January, Jane reads a British Royal Navy Officer’s attempts to understand the social mores of her adopted nation, which only heightens her feelings of remorse at leaving her native country: ‘Reading Capn. Marriat’s [sic] continuation of his Diary. It makes me sad; holding up a glass, as it were, to show me my own folly in emigrating.’  […]  ‘Now at 54, after 22 years of Repentance and Regret, how can I take the pleasure I did then or even judge of pleasure.’

Jane still records news from England. Her diary entry for the 29th of December 1839 quotes the editor of the New York Herald:

‘Declaration of Love, by Queen Victoria

The Queen of England has at length publicly declared her purpose to have a husband, not being able to wait longer. God bless her! She shall have a husband.  […]  As leap year is at hand, we presume every pretty woman may now declare in the same way, and thus take the trouble off the man, of blushing, and stammering that he wants a wife.’

By contrast, Jane’s entry for the 16th of January 1840 finds her ‘Trying to behave well, and to please my husband, hardly can manage this.’

She does not elaborate on this statement, but her husband’s business is known to have encountered difficulties, and he later became bankrupt.

On the 28th of January 1840, she writes, ‘a certain gentleman reproaches me with wishing him to die in a “workhus” in England.’

As well as financial problems, the couple had other struggles. Jane and Pishey are thought not to have had any children together; however, Pishey fathered a son with another woman whilst still married to Jane. The child was born in 1824 and survived.

In 1826, Jane published a collection of poetry, Solitary Musings, as Jane Tonge Thompson, having interposed her maiden name. One poem, entitled On the Funeral of an Infant, suggests that its author had first-hand experience of the loss of a baby.

On the 27th of January 1840, Jane enters one sentence into her diary:

‘Seventeen years have elapsed since the death of _________ ‘

This enigmatic entry, commemorating the death of something or someone Jane deliberately chose not to name, suggests that life had stopped at that crucial point and time had since slipped away. Could this note indicate that she had indeed lost a child around 1823, before the poem was published, and before her husband’s illegitimate son was born?

Jane’s melancholic state of mind may explain why she collected newspaper excerpts of obituaries and horrific incidents. She pastes into her diary an extract from a newspaper dated the 5th of December 1839:

‘Railroad Accident, on the Baltimore and Philadelphia Rd at Elkton. Mr. Henry Knight, well known in the theatrical world was severely maimed. […]  Whilst the cars were in motion Mr. Knight attempted to get on one of them, when his foot slipped and he fell across the track, and had a leg severed from his body by the cars passing over it.’

Jane devotes diary entries to the Lexington paddlewheel steamboat disaster of January 1840, returning to the topic over subsequent days, adding new information when she receives it, noting in particular the fate of English passengers who were amongst those who perished: 

‘The Boat left N.Y. at 3 P.M. on Tuesday last, 14th, at ½ after 7 was discovered to have taken fire from the flues, had set fire to Cotton Bales, carried on Deck and stowed up to the Chimney. […] The Engine stopped in about 15 minutes after the fire commenced, the fire made it impossible to tend it; the Boat burned in two, and the helpless passengers crowded each end, until the flames reached them, and they were compelled to leap into the water, into the arms of Death…  only 4 persons it appears survive out of 170 souls. It is hoped that there may be a mistake in the number, for the last man, taken up 40 miles from the spot where the fatal accident took place, was understood to say that there were about 75 passengers; but he was in such a state of exhaustion, as not to be quite understood. The others saved were two of the hands of the Boat lashed to a spare, and a Captain Hilliard taken from a Cotton Bale. This person says the boat burned until 3 O clock [sic] the next morning and then sunk [sic]; he looked at his watch as it went down.’

‘A Mrs. Russel Jarvis and two children were known to many here, as she had resided some time in this City.  Captn. Hilliard saw her with one child, on a bale of cotton calling frantickly [sic] upon the passengers to give her the other, then struggling in the water.  These were soon gone.  Further accounts state amongst many other particulars of thrilling interest, which I will not record, that one boat was drifted ashore with bodies frozen to death in it.  A Sloop certainly passed within two miles of the burning boat, the Captn. did not change his course, because had he done so “His Sloop would have lost the tide”!!!!  […]  Bodies are found, much Burned.’

On board were Dr. Follen, first professor of German at Harvard University, Unitarian minister and abolitionist, and ‘Two Comedians I had known at our theatre […]; H.J. Finn and Charles Eberle.’

Jane Thompson's Diary 26 March 1840 Newscuttings
Jane Thompson's diary, stitched clipping on Dr Follen, 18 January 1840 (DR442/1/12)

Using a sharp needle and white thread, Jane evenly stitches the top of a newspaper obituary into her diary, pulls the thread taut, carefully avoiding puckering the page, and ties it off at each end. She must have considered the plangent lines from Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell a fitting epitaph to Dr Follen, and worthy of retaining. She leaves the bottom of the extract unstitched, so that it can be lifted to reveal her writing underneath, to be re-read, along with the rest of her diary, ‘some day in England, if ever that day should come.’

Fortunately for Jane, Washington D.C. also affords her some pleasures, and is a standpoint from which she observes many events. It is a well-connected city, with the Thompson household receiving visitors from across the Atlantic, bringing news of technological developments, such as the new science of photography.

Jane marvels at an early photographic image, striving to find the language to describe what we now, almost two hundred years later, name easily and with familiarity:

20th December 1839:  ‘Dr. Jones brought me the wonder of the world to look at in a view of the Hotel de Ville in Paris – taken by means of this newly discovered act of photogenic representation. It is magical. Dr. Jones states that this is only one of the most ordinary drawings, and uses some with a purchased apparatus for making such, from Paris. It seemed to me as if looking upon the reality of the scene. The figures supporting the device and surmounting it looked as if backed by, or standing in, air. A microscope only, enabled me to see the features of the figures. They are very beautiful, as pieces of sculpture, to our eye accustomed of late to see only such things as the Public Buildings of the Country present.’

Jane seems to enjoy playing an active part in her community, and encountering its eminent residents, using her needlework skills for the benefit of the poor. She proudly notes, ‘At the first fair held in this City, many years ago, the first article sold was a bag I had made of Liverpool shells, green silk and chenille, in imitation of one made for me by Betsey Taylor. Miss Abby Adams, neice [sic] of the Ex-president purchased it.’

Jane Thompson's Diary 26 March 1840 Business card
Jane Thompson's diary, business card, J. Hall, draper, Boston (DR442/1/12)

Jane’s diary is a compelling blend of personal memoir and wide-ranging chronicle of daily life, society and politics from Washington D.C., a tale of emigration and regret, homesickness and illness borne over decades, from a woman living in two worlds, the old and the new.  She ruefully records both in her diary.  Jane’s sensitive observation of the world around her, and her compulsion to write comprehensively about what she has experienced, have given us a unique portrait of life in early nineteenth-century America, from the wonderful vantage point of its capital.  Her elegant and expressive prose makes the diary a pleasure to read, and bring Jane vividly to life by disclosing her inner thoughts and feelings, although she still carefully conceals some secrets.  The above represents only a part of Jane’s diary, and there is more to be revealed.  Had Pishey not kept her diary, if he had not met and become friends with George Flower of the family of brewers from Stratford-upon-Avon whilst in America, to which some of his and Jane’s effects passed on his death, it would not have later entered the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for safekeeping, and the chance to discover more would have been lost for all time.

Jane Thompson's Diary 26 March 1840
Jane Thompson's diary (DR442/1/12)

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