A look into Bodmin and Lanivet’s rural and social history has been uncovered thanks to a series of detailed journals kept by a farmer in the 20th century.
Thrown out into a skip, destined for landfill, the precious accounts from life in the Bodmin and Lanivet area in the 20th century were close to being lost forever. Thanks to a project to bring these stories to life, we are now able to read, in the writer’s own words, about the life of a 20th century farmer.
Carol Miller is a key member of the team behind the project, who explained how the journals came to be and what their discovery means for local history. The journals belonged to John James Morris, a farmer from Lanivet who wrote about life in the Bodmin area at the time. The very first diary entry was written in 1912, and continued up until the 80s.
“They were found being chucked out in Zelah,” Carol explained. “A boy, who was about 12 at the time, told his mum Jo what he had come across, and knew even at that age how important the journals were. They went over and decided to save them.”
Forty-two volumes of the journals, plus some notebooks, were saved and put into storage by Jo. Eight of the journals made their way to a lady in Lanivet. In the summer of 2018, nature enthusiast Carol was part of a group involved with the University of Exeter and became friendly with Jo, also a member, during a butterfly conservation trip. Jo told Carol about the journals, and how some of them were in Lanivet. In 2019 the rest of the diaries arrived in Lanivet, and Carol took the diaries into her own home for safekeeping.
Since the project began, Carol herself has managed to put together a catalogue of the local people mentioned in the diaries,from 1912 all the way up to 1925. “The diaries show what John did day-to-day,” Carol said. “They cover an array of social history from the local area. For example, in one entry, John goes into Bodmin and gets his hair cut, and then goes off to buy some tea. What’s very evident is his interest in astronomy, the weather, regular health, world events, local and national events - these things are all mentioned in the diaries.”
The John James Morris Diaries project initially received £12,195 funding from the National Manuscript Conservation Trust, plus fundraising events, donations and grants from Lanivet Parish Council and Lanivet United Charity helped raise £20,000 to preserve and conserve the diaries. The diaries have now made the journey to Impact Heritage in Sussex, before they make their way back home to Cornwall to be taken care of by Kresen Kernow and to tell John’s story to locals and visitors to the county for years to come.
“John was a local farmer, and of course there are still people that know him from the latter part of his life,” Carol said. “His brother was a naval writer during the First World War, and John was given an exemption because he was a farmer and it was only him and his dad taking care of the farm. He was born in 1894 and died in 1983, so his diaries have covered a large part of local history."
At the start of his 1923 journal, John writes: “Those into whose hands this ‘journal’ of mine may fall had better preserve it, as it may be of interest in the years to come. I would give anything to see a journal kept in my grandfather’s or great grandfather’s time, to have a picture of the conditions then, but none were kept by them.”
It won’t be long before John’s journals will be returning to Cornwall. Carol helps to run a page on Facebook called John James Morris Diaries, which you can join to keep up-to-date on the progress of the project.