Lester Diaries

The Lester Diaries 1761-1802

The Lester Diaries refer to nine, hand-written volumes of daily diaries or journals, kept by Isaac Lester (1718-1778) and Benjamin Lester (1724-1802). These diaries together span the period from 1761 to 1802. The Lesters were brothers and partners in a firm or trading house known as Isaac and Benjamin Lester of Poole, Dorset, engaged in the trans Atlantic Poole-Newfoundland cod fishery and trade. Isaac's diary covers the years continuously from 1765 to1779, and Benjamin's 1761 to1802. Both merchants kept their diaries assiduously until they died though there are various time gaps in them. In the case of Isaac these are usually short-term, a few days or a week, omissions occasioned by such events as illness. A large hiatus occurs in Benjamin's diary 1771-1779, either because he failed to make entries during this interval or because these portions were lost or destroyed. The two diaries overlap for the years 1765-1771. During a brief interval towards the end of his life, when his health was failing, entries in Isaac's diary were made by Benjamin. This accounts for the discrepancy in the year of his death, 1778, and the end of his diary, 1779. Except for the gaps noted above, the five volumes of Benjamin's diaries run from 1761 until three days before he died in January, 1802. Benjamin's diary begins in 1761 but the years from 1761 to 1766 have not been digitized.

The Lester Diaries form part of a larger collection known as the Lester-Garland Records or the Records of the Lester and Garland Families. The originals papers are held by the Dorset History Centre (formerly the Dorset Record Office), Dorchester, Dorset. The collection was donated by the Reverend G.H. Lester-Garland, 5 November, 1970. These papers include a wide array of personal and commercial records relating to members of the Lester and Garland families of Poole dating from the early 18th century to the late 19th century. The19th century component relates mainly to the Garlands, the Lester heirs in the Poole-Newfoundland trade. These families were united from a close business association but especially by the marriage of Amy Lester, daughter of Benjamin, to George Garland.

The Lester Family of Poole

The Lester family of Poole was founded by John Lester, the grandfather of Benjamin and Isaac. John was a London carpenter who settled at Poole in the late 1600s. His son Francis Lester became a cooper at Poole and a trader in Newfoundland cod and seal oil. On their maternal side the Lesters had multiple kinship links with the Taverner family of Poole and Newfoundland. The Taverners were prominent adventurers, seafarers, fisherfolk, explorers, pioneers and Newfoundland planters of the 17th century. Taverner females mothered and married some of the most important Poole-Newfoundland merchants of the late 17th and 18th centuries, among them the Whites, Masters and Lesters. To a large degree the Lesters were raised, educated and experienced in the Newfoundland trade through their Taverner kinship connections.

Isaac Lester (1718-1778) and his Diary (1765-1779)

Isaac Lester was the fourth and Benjamin the sixth of nine children born to Francis Lester and Rachael Taverner, the daughter of William and Rebecca Taverner of Bay de Verde, Newfoundland. Francis Lester carried on a coopering trade on Poole Quay and also became involved as an importer and dealer in cod and seal oil. When his father died in 1737 Isaac took over the family coopering trade and became a major dealer at Poole in train oil. Benjamin meanwhile was then a mere youth of 13 years. He was taken to Newfoundland and tutored in seafaring and the cod fishery by his Taverner relatives.

Little is known in detail about Isaac's early life. It is possible, and indeed likely, that as a youth he made some trips to Newfoundland. In the early 1750s he owned property in Trinity Harbour and at least three ships in the Newfoundland trade. Isaac married Amy Bowles but had no children. The Bowles family of Poole, like the Taverners and Lesters, had trading links with Newfoundland. Thomas Bowles was a planter at Old Perlican in 1681. A Captain Thomas Bowles, possibly Amy's father or brother, had a pew in the Church at Trinity in 1751. This same individual owned a ship the Charming Molly in partnership with Isaac Lester and also had fishing room at Trinity. Indeed it seems that through his marriage Isaac was able to acquire most if not all the Bowles assets in the Newfoundland fishery which he was then able to merge into a business partnership with Benjamin. When he died Isaac's share in the Newfoundland trade was purchased from his widow by Benjamin and the new firm was styled Benjamin Lester & Co. Isaa c's cooperage business was meanwhile inherited by Benjamin's only son John.

Isaac and Benjamin formed their business partnership in the 1750s. By the mid 1760s, when their respective diaries were being kept, the Lester firm was in a phase of expansion and beginning to compete seriously with the largest of the established Poole and other West of England mercantile houses in the Newfoundland trade. Until he died Isaac managed the Poole end of the trade. This involved a wide variety of tasks including the organizing and dispatching of sailing ships, supplies (especially manufactured goods, salt and foods for use in the fishery in Newfoundland and trading with Newfoundland residents), hiring sailing and fishing crews for the firm, and servants for Newfoundland settlers, marketing staples of the Newfoundland trade (salted and dried cod in Portugal, Spain, Italy, France and other areas, train oil and seal skins in England), marketing fruit and wines imported from the fish market countries, repairing ships in Poole, corresponding with bankers in London, brokerage houses in Iberia and Italy, grocers and dealers in England and Ireland The four volumes of his diary document in detail this important phase of his life.

Gordon Handcock
Professor Emeritus in Geography
Memorial University of Newfoundland