IF Julian Fellowes fancies writing a prequel to Downton Abbey, he could base it around the upstairs/downstairs life of Timothy Hutton, a gentleman of the Yorkshire Dales who lived when Richmond was at its most fashionable.

Although not quite Downton, Timothy is buried in the church at Downholme, of which he was the squire.

Timothy’s time has been fascinatingly brought back to life by historian Jane Hatcher through her study of the diaries that he kept up to his death in 1863.

The details in her new book give us a real flavour of what life was like in the first decades of the 19th Century, when Timothy’s home was lit by oil lamps burning the 24 quarters of whale blubber that he sent his carts to collect fresh off a barge at Boroughbridge in 1830, or when his dinners were lubricated by the auhm (a 150-litre cask) of dry white wine he had specially imported through Yarm from Hochheim in Germany.

And there are several hints of below stairs hanky-panky to successfully engage a television audience.

Timothy’s mother was, Anne, a teenage maid who had only been in the employment of his 44-year-old bachelor father, John, for a month when she first fell pregnant in 1774. She gave birth to Timothy’s oldest brother and then two more illegitimate brothers until, in August 1779, when she was heavily pregnant for a fourth time, she married John in Marske church.

That fourth child was Timothy, and his legitimacy enabled him to inherit two of the family’s lesser estates: Walburn, the eye-catching fortified farmhouse near Downholme, and Clifton Castle, near Masham, which he took at least two decades to convert from a 14th Century ruin into a Georgian mansion set in its own parkland.

It was an extravagant conversion. When he felt his castle needed a holly tree, he had a mature specimen dug up and transported with difficulty by nine horses to its new corner, and his diary records how his new icehouse in January 1827 required 93 cartloads of ice to fill it.

Timothy’s two middle brothers died young – one, Matthew, is buried beneath Hutton’s Monument, the 60ft obelisk that looks down on Swaledale from above Marske – and his eldest brother died without legitimate heir in 1841, so Timothy inherited the Marske estate as well. Unexpectedly, therefore, the fourth son came to hold sway over a large portion of the dales.

The diaries show his great involvement in political, judicial and ecclesiastical matters across the North Riding, and how, with his wife, Elizabeth Chaytor, he immersed himself in the social life of Richmond: its fashion shows, horseraces, plays, balls, concerts and visits from travelling menageries. On June 21, 1843, he writes how the American trainer Isaac A Van Amburgh was in Richmond with “his lion and tiger &c &c” although that might have been eclipsed as a spectacle by the show in Bedale on May 23, 1846, where he and Elizabeth witnessed a “grand procession of carriages drawn by elephants, camels and horses”.

Timothy lived in an exciting age where railways were making the country a smaller place. For instance, on May 13, 1812, he wrote: “Heard at Richmond of the assassination of the Hon. Spencer Percival (Chancelor of the Exchequer) in the lobby of the House of Commons.” Percival was actually the Prime Minister who had been shot three days earlier, showing how long the reports took to reach the North Riding in the pre-railway days.

But trains speeded up the world. In 1833, Timothy made his first journey, between Manchester and Liverpool, at an amazing 25mph. In 1836, he travelled from Darlington to Stockton; in 1841, he made it to York, and in 1842, he left his castle at 5am and was ensconced in his London hotel by 8pm.

This enabled him to attend theatres and dinners in the capital, and also to consult Mr Alexander, the pioneering oculist, who performed a cataract operation on his eye in 1848. Five days later, Timothy wrote: “Mr Alexander came and remove the bandages from my eyes & all going on well.”

Timothy’s pastimes included cricket and, perhaps not unsurprisingly for a country gentleman, the hunting and shooting of practically anything that moved on his land. Around May 10 each year, there was a shoot of rooks, which were a threat to his arable crops, and on February 9, 1823, he walked through a heavy snowfall to see a wild swan shot by one of his neighbours who wanted to stuff it.

On June 28, 1834, he saw a hot air balloon fly over his castle – thankfully, he didn’t shoot it, but instead he saddled up and chased after it. It came down a few miles away, at Rookwith, where a couple of local boys climbed inside it and were overcome by the gas. Timothy sent for the Masham surgeon, who applied leeches to one of the boys, while Timothy tried to revive the other.

“We rubbed his wrists, chests and legs the latter we had in hot water,” he wrote. “Applied vinegar and water to his face and temples. I did not get home till one o’clock.”

He rode back the next day, and happily found the boys to be on the mend.

For all his extravagance, Timothy was a kindly employer and a great benefactor to the dale. On December 15, 1820, he wrote about riding into Masham to see the linen mill on fire.

“When I arrived, the whole was nearly burnt down except the walls,” he wrote.

He rode back next day and began a fund to assist those who had lost their jobs. This then led to donations to buy a fire engine for Masham, which Timothy inspected on July 24, 1821.

But the mill never recovered and this episode of our drama ends unexpectedly unhappily when, on November 3, 1842, a servant “brought the melancholy account of Mr Prest (the millowner) having thrown himself into the Mill Dam.”

Timothy’s business interests were wide ranging, from agricultural improvements to leadmining and banking. During a railway bubble, he considered investing in a railroad from Croft to Catterick Bridge, and he was a leading member of the turnpike trusts which built the dales’ roads.

“We were all very much pleased with Mr McAdam’s frankness and candour,” he wrote after a committee meeting in 1821, showing he was acquainted with the roadbuilder who gave his name to tarmac.

In the 1830s, Timothy was a prime mover in the new road along the floor of Swaledale from Richmond to Reeth and a big advocate of, and investor in, bridges. On October 7, 1837, he walked to see his new investment at Lownethwaite begin to span the Swale.

Today, we still use the road and the bridges he invested in. We can see his estates at Marske and Clifton, and no one can pass the fortifications of his Walburn farmhouse or the quaint but isolated church at Downholme without being intrigued.

So although he died more than 150 years ago, there is still much of Timothy Hutton around us, only now, through the new book, we are also able to peer deep into his day-to-day life as if it were a period soap opera on our television screens.

l Timothy Hutton (1779-1863) of Clifton Castle and Marske-in-Swaledale: The Life and Times of a North Yorkshire Gentleman, by Jane Hatcher is £17.50, and is available from Castle Hill Bookshop, Richmond (01748-824243, postage is £3.50), and also from Tennants Garden Rooms Gift Shop at Leyburn, the White Rose Bookshop at Thirsk, and the Masham Community Office.