Hartley, Dorothy (rural historian)

Reference: D HARTDate: 1920s-1980sExtent: 6 boxes
Dorothy Rosaman Hartley (1893-1985), historian, was born on 4 October 1893 at the grammar school, Skipton, Yorkshire, the youngest of the three children of the Revd Edward Tomson Hartley (1849-1923) and his wife, Amy Lucy Eddy (1853-1932). The Revd Hartley was headmaster of the grammar school; his wife came from Froncysylltau, near Llangollen in north Wales, where the family owned quarries and property.

Dorothy was educated at a convent in Skipton until 1904, when her father retired through failing sight and became rector of a country parish at Rempstone, Nottinghamshire. She then went to Loughborough high school and afterwards to Nottingham Art School. Her education was interrupted by the First World War, when she worked in a munitions factory, but in 1919 she entered the Regent Street Polytechnic in London where she was a prize pupil; she returned to Nottingham Art School as a teacher in 1920-22 and subsequently taught in London. During this period Dorothy Hartley began writing. Batsford published her six-volume Life and Work of the Peoples of England, written with M. M. V. Elliot, between 1925 and 1931, and in 1930 Knopf published the Old Book, a medieval compilation.

She had a restless curiosity, and in her 1931 book, Medieval Costume and Life, not only recreated the clothes of peasants depicted in old manuscripts, but used pictures of herself wearing them. She temporarily abandoned English rural life in 1931 to travel by car from Cairo to the Congo, and the photographs which she took on her journey were exhibited at the Imperial Institute. Between 1932 and 1936 Dorothy Hartley toured the British Isles by bicycle and car, with pen, pencil, and camera, writing weekly articles for the Daily Sketch on country people and their trades. Her articles covered such themes as horse-ploughing, bread making, and clog making. They used the calendar months as their basis, and were strongly influenced by the sixteenth-century agricultural writer and poet Thomas Tusser.

Dorothy Hartley was a keen photographer, developing and printing her own photographs. The material gleaned on these travels went into her many other books and articles, which eventually covered many aspects and periods of English rural life. Medieval culture always held a particular fascination for her and she toured Ireland in the footsteps of the twelfth-century prelate Gerald of Wales. This led to her book An Irish Holiday (1938).

In 1933 Dorothy Hartley made her home in a cottage at Froncysylltau and this estate remained her base thereafter. Yet, despite her long residence in Wales, and apart from one book on her Irish journey, she dealt only with English life. During the Second World War she contributed to the publications of the United Nations and began work on the book for which she is probably best known, Food in England (1954), a treasury of information on the gathering, storing, and cooking of food from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries. The clarity and detail of text and her charming illustrations made it accessible to a wide public.

In the post-war years she also taught at University College and Goldsmiths’ College in London, performed on television with Philip Harben, and advised on the BBC Archers programmes. In between these professional activities she juggled with the maintenance of her house in Froncysylltau and its six cottages which were occupied by a constant stream of tenants and visitors. In 1964 she published a major book, Water in England. This remarkable work is full of valuable information on all manner of related phenomena such as holy springs, well digging, leather jugs, spa hotels, and suchlike.

Dorothy Hartley never married; living alone and in a remote place and coming from a generation more accustomed to communicate by the pen than by telephone, letters became her principal form of contact with the wider world. Much of her thought and writing was engaged with the minute details of the relationship between an object and its function-the scythe to the height of wheat cut, the exact width of a linen sheet to the dimensions of the linen press. Part of the great strength of her major books lay not only in her own very exact, decorative yet diagrammatic explanatory drawings, but in the ways these were allied to her text.

Her own collections of documents and illustrations of early agricultural life led ultimately to a monumental photographic bequest to the Museum of English Rural Life, reflecting the pleasure that she had from her correspondence with the keeper and her visits to the centre, from its pre-war conception to her death. Dorothy Hartley died from cancer at Fron House, Froncysylltau, on 22 October 1985. During her lifetime Dorothy Hartley acquired an unrivalled knowledge of the life, work, and food of people living in England since medieval times. She proceeded to document this field through her writings, drawings, and photographs. In a number of books, which have become minor classics, Hartley produced some of the most absorbing and readable accounts of the history and folklore of country life and food ever published. Arguably her best work, and the one for which she will be remembered, is Food in England. This book has continued to be republished, and is as full of magic and potions as any medieval herbal. Mary Wondrausch, ‘Hartley, Dorothy Rosaman (1893-1985)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

[http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/50449, accessed 17 June 2011]

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Associated collections

Mary Wondrausch Collection (D DX1941)

Mary Wondrausch is a potter, with an interest in Dorothy Hartley. This collection contains items related to Dorothy Hartley alongside Mary Wondrausch’s research. A full handlist for this collection can be found here.

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