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Heritage Open Days: Diary of Jane Thompson

One of the more unique items from this year’s Heritage Open Days exhibition received a lot of interest from our volunteers, staff and visiting members of the public.

Philippa Vandome

A rather unassuming looking item on the table, the diary of Jane Thompson (nee Tonge) proved popular due to her exciting writing style. This first diary in the series describes Jane's adventures upon emigrating to America in 1818 with her husband Pishey. From reading Jane Thompson’s diaries it seems she had a rather eventful life. It was lovely to hear one of our volunteers describe her as “like an Austen Heroine!”

Jane Thompson Diary
Diary of Jane Thompson 1818

The diary was transcribed by our volunteer Maddy Rowe, who has done a fantastic job for which we are extremely grateful.

Jane and Pishey

The couple were married in 1807 when Jane was just 21 and embarked on their new life in Washington DC when she was 32. The couple joined the Unitarian church once in America and Pishey was a founding member of the All Souls Church Unitarian. He was involved in several committees like the George Washington memorial committee and president of the first national theatre. Notably he supported George Flower’s slave-free settlement scheme. Pishey travelled back to England and America to find new work. During this time he was employed in small roles by his friends the Flowers family in Stratford-upon-Avon and left his personal belongings, including Jane's diaries, to Edgar Flowers in 1862. 

Jane aboard the ship

Those who joined us over the September weekend might remember reading about a few bouts of sea sickness, going out on the deck in a thunderstorm and this lovely account of Jane standing beneath the American flag while passing a French vessel:

"The air as warm as new milk. Sail in sight. Very near 5 to 7 knots during the night. Very large shoal of porpoises. Another sail standing towards us - wrote a letter home on my knees on deck - the vessel rolled so could not write any way else. Disappointed. She proved to be a French Brig bound for Bordeaux from New York been out 30 days. Sent my letter to sea. Soon as I saw the white flag hoisted. We sent up our “star-spangled banner” and for my part I already felt an American Citizeness as I stood under it for the first time. This was a novel and very interesting sight. I heard every word from their vessel with the trumpet."

"Our star spangled banner"
"Our Star Spangled Banner"

Nearly there!

1st of September 1818 and Jane is getting closer to New York and her new life. Having been on board for 26 days Jane is tantalisingly close to seeing the shores of Long Island: 

“... Captain reach’d me the plummet that I might feel the “Yankee Sand” at the bottom. We are not more than 20 miles from Long Island, but cannot see it tonight, hear snipes fly by, very heavy dew but keep on deck well wrapt up want to see the light at Sandy Hook. Obliged to go to bed without at 11 o’clock.”


We join Jane again on her voyage as she approaches the shores of her new homeland:

“Coming up from dinner find ourselves much nearer the various shipping along the shore, buildings pass, fishing boats. The sight of this before distant country, now within our reach, but so far from our own home and kindred and where I must reside amongst strangers for so long a time, with the chance of the many changes which may happen before I see them again, affected me much, and sent me into my own room to weep ...

The thought of soon seeing my brother [Richard] and family consoles me, I am now firm, as I mostly am, except at intervals. I have never thought myself wrong in coming, on looking at the cause which sends me away. I feel I had no alternative. There is even a luxury in melancholy remembrances, particularly at nights which are so very fine at sea, when all are below but the men on watch. I get to the stern of the ship and sit alone to think, mostly looking back to the pastward thinking of what you are about and the rest of my friends, the time differs more than 4 hours and I calculate the difference which is an amusement.

Friday 4th  Rose at ½ past 5 a very striking scene we are now in a wide sea but near land can see cows grazing on Staten Island and with a glass people coming out of their white houses and fields of Indian corn growing. The Lombardy Poplar is the favourite tree here. I do not like it, some fine drooping willows. A steam packet passes with carriage looking out of the window they are tastefully built with an awning seems much corn on board. Saw the sun rise the first in “this world” – 7am. Health Officer coming from shore we hoist our colours and all ordered upon deck.  ‘Tis only the Officer’s assistant – a physician of course quite a [Gentleman]. Take a person on board with a newspaper, already reporting arrival of the ship want further news of us for daily paper. Health Officer been inspecting us. Mrs Redin being abed he did not see her. Made the child’s being asleep her excuse, made his bow and took his leave. Glad to see his back as we may now proceed he stayed perhaps 15 minutes. 9 o’Clock dress ourselves I put on black to “Shaave Expenshees” of washing at N. York. Isabella and Miss W look like themselves again neatly dressed. Another Yankee boards us for news. They are employed by the printers of the daily papers to go on board vessels just arrived for that purpose this is a “Debble of a Dasher” wore a slapping Leghorn hat, silk stockings, gold seal as large as a small watch.”

Jane Thompson sun rise quote
Sun Rise - the first in "this world"

Having disembarked the ship Jane and the rest of the group including her sister Isabella begin journey across America to Washington DC where they will eventually settle in Pennsylvania Avenue. Will this new home be everything Jane expects?

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