Thomas Hebbes’s Pocket Diary

This year we begin a series of posts looking at new acquisitions. Almost all the books in the Wren Library were presented to the College, and the tradition of giving books to the College continues to this day. As well as donations of books, the College has been presented with various financial gifts by alumni in recent years to support the acquisition of rare books to complement the existing collections, and the Library now adds around 20-30 books to the shelves of the Wren every year through the generosity of these donors.

The first day of the year is traditionally the first day of a diary and so the first post in this series is about Thomas Hebbes’s diary ( newly acquired and digitised here.

Thomas Hebbes was an undergraduate at Trinity from 1752, he became a scholar and graduated with a BA in 1756 followed by an MA in 1759. He served as a chaplain at Trinity from 1758 to 1760 before going on to be Vicar of Hernhill, Kent until his death in 1766.

This small diary is printed for 1753, down the left page there is a column for appointments with the day and date printed with space for memoranda in a second column; on the facing page there is space and printed columns for the week’s accounts. Hebbes wrote this diary in 1755-56 amending the date at the top, he may have brought the out-of-date diary cheaply. He begins in February 1755 clearly marking the year in the top left corner, and ends in January 1756 when he leaves Cambridge in a coach for Kensington on 3rd February.

‘Lost at Cards’, p.9

Though the College has extensive records of college business and members, the personal diary of a student is a rare gem.  Hebbes’s life as an undergraduate and young man of some means is realised in wonderful detail through the careful record of his spending.  Hebbes’s life extends beyond Trinity College, he records trips to Royston, Saffron Walden, London, Chesterton and Stirbich [Stourbridge] fair. Though Hebbes would have taken most of his meals in College he chose to spend extra on breakfast and had a subscription at Dockrell’s Coffee House. He demonstrates his taste for among other things fruit, which he buys in the form of lemons, plumbs [plums], peaches, grapes, cucumber, cherries and currants. He also enjoys oysters and coffee, chocolate, liquorice and tea. Other expenses including paying a boy to light his candle, paying a barber to comb a wig and having his watch repaired. Each give some insight into the way he lived, but also illustrate a little of his character. There are many references to gambling, Hebbes frequently won and lost at cards and bowls, but he was also generous, there are equally as many references to giving to the poor.  In December he sends a Christmas box to his mother.

Insight into Hebbes’s academic life comes from his written appointments.  As well as birthdays he also records ‘declaims in Chapel’ and presents an epistle to the Master of Trinity and records meetings with scholars from other colleges. On Wednesday 14th January he simply writes ‘Huddled’ which refers to a Cambridge University term which is when men who are academically undistinguished are examined orally for their degree in a group. A reference to paying the moderator’s man for huddling appears in his expenses. The buying and selling of books and a hood and gown are also listed. On 19th and 20th January 1756 he records ‘Examined in Ye Theatre by four moderators’.

‘Examined in Ye Theatre’, p.6

Thomas Hebbes died in 1766, but his diary remained in his family. Among his penned lists of expenses and notes is a poem in a different, juvenile hand. Ellen Hebbes writes in pencil nearly 80 years after Thomas wrote his diary: ‘To the memory of Ellen Hebbes who departed this life 1853 aged 13 years’.

‘To the memory of Ellen Hebbes’, p.29

But Ellen had not died as she appears in later census records. She writes on the previous page:

Ellen Hebbes is my name, England is my nation, Salthill is my living place and Christ is my salvation. When I am dead and in my grave and all my bones are rotten, take up this book and think of me before I am quite forgotten.  

‘Ellen Hebbes is my name’, p.28

As well as practising her writing in pencil, elsewhere in the diary she also lists the names of her siblings in ink.  Copying Thomas Hebbes’s style she writes her own name and date in under his memorandum.  

‘Ellen Hebbes February 13, 1851’, p.36

And so Ellen Hebbes is not forgotten she and her siblings are remembered with Thomas Hebbes in the Wren Library.

Printed diaries evolved from the printed almanac, typically they contained religious festivals, details of tides and lunar cycles gradually allowing space for owners to keep notes.  The almanac was popular and widespread by 1600. The ephemeral nature of these books makes them quite rare. Thomas Hebbes’s diary opens with a table listing ‘Any Number of Portugal Pieces‘ and closes with a instructions for successful shopping, ‘Directions for Marketing’– giving detailed advice on how to choose beef, mutton, pork, fish and cheese. This is followed by a Bill of Fare, for every month of the year. Dishes are listed as first course and second course. January begins with ‘Soups of Pease, Gravy, Herbs, Fish, Vermicelli etc’. The final pages are missing so we cannot know what we could expect to enjoy after August!

‘Soups of Pease, Gravy, Herbs, Fish, Vermicelli etc’, p.51

The acquisition of this book for the College Library contributes a rare glimpse into the life of a Trinity student in the 18th century.

5 thoughts on “Thomas Hebbes’s Pocket Diary

  1. Timothy Underhill

    Thank you for digitisting this interesting material – my very first reading matter in 2021! What a pity he didn’t list the books he mentions, but good to find a reference to ‘Maps’ Nicholson (image 46). Tim Underhill, Cambridge 01/01/2021

  2. Pingback: Thomas Hebbes’s Pocket Diary – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  3. These little verses, like the one left by Ellen Hebbes, are fascinating and remarkably long-lived. There are number of standard verses you see adapted over and over again, and they seem to have been particularly popular with women readers. There is a very similar little verse in a book in the Northern Congregational College Collection at the John Rylands Library, catalogued in the VLS as part of the Dissenting Academies Online project (, dating from the seventeenth century, so some 200 years before Ellen Hebbes adopted it:

    Ann Rouse her book / God give her grace in it to look / but not to look but to understand / for learning is beter than house or land / when house and land is gone and spent / is then lerning most excelent. / Ann Rouse is my name and England is my nation / Newbold is my dwelling plase and Christ is my salvation.

    I started collecting examples of these a few years ago, so I’d be delighted to hear of other examples.

  4. John Hebbs

    A fascinating insight to the life of Thomas Hebbes. I would love to know his connection to Ellen Hebbes and to David Hebbes, Comptroller to the Kitchens at Windsor castle under George III. There appears to be an error in the date of Thomas’ death as he died on 30th December 1776 while still vicar of Hernehill, kent and was buried in the 4th aisle of Hernehill church on 6th January1777. This may have been because his Curate ran the church as he was a lecturer at Kensington and examining chaplain to Dr Egerton thru the Sees of Bangor, Litchfield, Coventry and Durham.

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