The Honourable John Byng, later fifth Viscount Torrington, was an aristocrat who had strong opinions on a wide array of subjects. He hated injustice, cruelty, had no time for new-fangled fashions and loathed social pretences. His diaries offer his thoughts on everything from absentee parsons and landlords, landscape gardening, food, inns, and enclosures – all of which he seems to detest! His candour and attention to detail give us a fascinating insight into life, travel and tourism of the time. He may not have been able to take to Trip Advisor to voice his opinions, but he knew what made a good inn and a good breakfast.
Born in 1743, he was the nephew of the perhaps better known Admiral John Byng. Admiral Byng was controversially court-martialled in 1757, meeting his death bravely and later being immortalised in Voltaire's Candide. This is the source of the phrase 'pour encourager les autres'. Candide, observing an execution of an officer is told, 'In this country [England], it is thought good to shoot an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others'.
Byng's diaries have given him posthumous renown and cover the period 1781 to 1794. They can be read on the website A Vision of Britain Through Time.
The diary in our collection (ER108) describes a tour through Oxfordshire and Warwickshire in July 1785 during which he visited Stratford-upon-Avon.
Byng's diary is a beautifully crafted record of his journey, presumably created as a 'neat' version of notes he took whilst travelling. It includes many engravings he has pasted in. He has created an appealing title page for his account with a section cut from the title page of a copy of Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essays, dated 1632. Of course to Byng, writing in 1785, this book was a mere 153 years old, but subsequent owners of the book may have been less than pleased by his vandalism.
The White Lion Inn
On his visit to Stratford-upon-Avon Byng stayed at the White Lion Inn. This inn stood on the site where now the Shakespeare Centre stands, on Henley Street. Its proximity to Shakespeare's Birthplace made it the ideal location for tourists in the 18th century and it had previously played host to David Garrick, actor and organiser of the Shakespeare Jubilee held in Stratford in 1769. Upon arriving at the White Lion Inn, Byng notes the bust of Shakespeare in the yard beneath which are written these words “Here Sweetest Shakspere, Fancys Child, Warbled his Native Wood Notes wild.” The first thing he does at the inn is go for dinner, which he reviews highly comparing it to the Piazza Coffee House, Covent Garden, however he does not order the venison due to budgetary constraints!
I order’d Dinner from a Bill of Fare, equal to that of the Piazza Coffee House, Covent Garden— Diary of John Byng (ER108)
Byng visits the Birthplace of Shakespeare and includes in his diary sketches and engravings of the house as it was when he visited and how it would have looked when Shakespeare and his family were living there. He is welcomed by Mrs Hart, a descendant of Shakespeare's sister Joan Hart. According to the diary, Byng says to Mrs Hart, 'Let me see The Wonders of your House'. Mrs Hart shows him "Shakespeare's chair" and tells Byng that it has been handed down through her family and she now cares for the relic. Before the Jubilee in 1769 there was little interest in the chair and other Shakespeare relics on display in the house but Mrs Hart explains that since that occasion she has been offered several sums of money by visitors to purchase the chair! Mrs Hart shows Byng where other visitors have taken souvenir cuttings from the chair and from the floorboards in the birth room, and like many of his contemporaries Byng purchases a piece of the chair.
I bought a slice of the Chair equal to the size of a Tobacco Stopper— Diary of John Byng (ER108)
Later on in his diary Byng notes that he revisited the Birthplace after a dinner with friends and was able to procure the cross bar of Shakespeare's chair, which he then hung in his dining room!
Mrs Hart took my offer, and I carried off with me This curious Morsel of Theatrical Antiquity, viz, the Cross Bar of Shakspere’s Chair; which is now hung up in my Dining Room, in a Mullberry Frame.— Diary of john Byng (ER108)
Find out more:
Mary Hornby and the Shakespeare Relics 'On the Trail of Mary Hornby' a blog by Madeleine Cox
Shakespeare and Literary Pilgrimage Online Exhibition in collaboration with Professor Nicola J Watson, Open University
Holy Trinity Church
John Byng also visited Holy Trinity Church, where he found the carvings on the stalls 'extravagant' and 'indecent'. He explored the churchyard and recommended that the curious do likewise as barely legible headstones to the Hart family survive. Inside the church he describes how the clerk is distracted by a party of visitors, affording him the opportunity to steal a souvenir from the floor near Shakespeare's monument.
I pilferd (in common with other Collectors) from the Roman Pavement, at the Head of Shakesperes Gravestone, a Tesselated Tile, which I hid in my Pocket; And which I should suppose will be honord and admird by every Spectator.— Diary of john Byng (ER108)
Snail Tea !
Among the detailed descriptions of Byng's visits to the historic sights of Warwickshire he is often keen to review and write about his meals and beverages. In the diary he often likes to have strawberries and cream for breakfast, but some of his entries are rather more surprising such as the need for snail tea! Byng uses this interesting concoction to ward off colds.
After Breakfast, and two fine Basins of Snail Tea, which allways is of sovereign Use to my Lungs, We walked down the Village— Diary of John Byng (ER108)
Food on the Move: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery explains how snail tea was made:
This was a noted remedy in the late eighteenth century for colds, lung congestion and consumption, and indeed one which continued into the twentieth century. A recipe from Ireland comments that the snails, the common garden variety, are placed on a large dish and liberally sprinkled with dark sugar. A dish is placed over them to prevent them getting away and the next morning the syrup which has been made is drained off, bottled and a spoonful taken three times a day. A little lemon juice could be added for flavour. (Another recipe from Co. Tipperary commented that after surviving this treatment the snails were boiled in veal broth, before being consumed.)
John Byng's tips for travellers
- 'Bridle the tongue or be sure of the place!' - John and his friend Mr R. make the mistake of talking about their friend one night, little realising he can hear every word through the partition between the rooms. He repeats their words back to them at breakfast, but took it all in good humour.
- The light of the rising moon is best for observing the architecture of buildings.
- Byng very much embraces traditional British weather ! 'Unless there are frequent rains, it is im possible to ride with Pleasure; and wettings by Rain are preferable to parchings by Sun.'
- Drink buttermilk for health! He encourages his companion 'to swallow some health in a Pint of Buttermilk'.
Other reviews by John Byng
- Warwick Castle is 'probably the most perfect Piece of Constellated Antiquity in the kingdom.'
- Provincial dainties such as 'Oxford brown georges' (a doughy type of cake) are nothing better than 'filthy affectations'
- 'On the Downs, above Shipton , is a Roman Camp, around which I rode. The Town of Chipping Norton stands airily, and cheerfully'.
- Kenilworth town 'is neat, well built, and contains many genteel Houses'.
- Warwick is not as cheap or cheerful as Ludlow and he deems it a dull down for people of moderate incomes who form quadrille parties. He thinks it strange '...that there is not A Tolerable Inn at Warwick (for the other great Inn looks like An Hospital)'.
John Byng's diary is one of our favourite items as it gives such a clear sense both of the era in which it was written and the writer himself. We hope you have enjoyed this insight into eighteenth century tourism and that you will be able to follow in Byng and so many others' footsteps and visit Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare's Birthplace yourself.
With special thanks to our volunteer Dr. Mary Wells, without whose transcription we would not have been able to write this blog during the pandemic.