Scope and Contents
The collection consists of a diary (1766-1793), four commonplace books (1761-1802), and four notebooks of poems (1769- 1788).
The commonplace books (1761-1802) contain stories and information copied from English newspapers of the time. There is one book of prologues and epilogues from contemporary plays (1781-1794) with references to two popular actors David Garrick and George Anne Bellamy. Another book contains numerous speeches about doctors. Ayers himself was the victim of an unskilled physician following a fall at the age of one, and he appears to have suffered from the lack of proper treatment for the rest of his life. This may account for his interest in quack doctors.
The four notebooks of poems (1769-1788) appear to be a combination of original works by Ayers and the works of other, sometimes well-known, poets. The poems that have been attributed to John Ayers are written in three different hands. Though Ayers does not mention his poetry writing in his diary, he does quote the poetry of others in it. Also, some of the themes of the poems attributed to him, such as death, love and inconstancy, and the misery of life, are themes that recur in his diary.
The diary (1766-1793) is numbered with 98 pages, the first eight of which are missing. John Ayers recounts events of both his public and personal life, along with his own thoughts on these events.
Ayers gives a detailed picture of the work of British customs officials in the last half of the eighteenth century. He mentions the capture of French ships during the Seven Years' War. He also mentions the prevalence of smuggling along the Yorkshire coast throughout the late eighteenth century. Ayers describes the customs service as poorly run and administered. The money was often stolen by the officers themselves, who were over-worked and under-paid. In the course of his career Ayers encountered many unscrupulous officials. He resigned his post in 1792 with no regrets.
Though Ayers lived during the time of the American Revolutionary War, it is never mentioned in his diary. He does give accounts of travel during this time for someone of his station, whether by coach or horse, and often on foot. Ayers traveled in the counties of Durham, where he lived, Middlesex where his mother lived, Northumberland, where his friend George Craster lived, and Yorkshire. Through his friendship with George Craster (-1772) a man of some wealth, Ayers enjoyed and recounts a little about the country estate parties and shooting parties of this period.