These letters graciously have been shared with the Victorian Web by Eunice and Ron Shanahan; they have been taken from their website. The letters give an insight into the daily lives and concerns of 'ordinary' people without whom history would not exist. The letters are a wonderful example of how much history may be gleaned from such sources.

This letter is another of those windows into the past, which have a present-day link. It is undated with two postal markings

  1. the town namestamp of CRANBROOK (the office where the letter was handed in) and
  2. a manuscript charge ‘4’ which was fourpence, the cost for a letter carried a distance of less than 15 miles. Cranbrook is only about 5 miles from Biddenden, and I am surprised that the letter was put into the post at all, as I would have expected local servant or clerk to have been sent off to deliver it. The postmark of Cranbrook is uncommon, as it is a small village, and not much mail would have survived for a couple of centuries.

The letter is addressed to Richard Beale Esqr River Hall, Biddenden, and in the lower left hand corner there are the two letters ‘B.B’ within two straight lines but I have no idea of their significance. They were obviously put there by the writer of the letter and it must have been understood by the addressee. (Possibly another person in the household with those initials?) Could it be a postal direction an abbreviation for Biddenden Bag or Bye Bag ?

The writing is quite clear to read, with the exception of a couple of words, like – typically — the address at the top of the letter, which looks like Swifts Friday Mo (crossed out and replaced with ) Evng. There is no date anywhere on the letter, but the watermark on the paper is 1816 so the letter could not have been written before that, and not after 1839 or it would not have cost fourpence to post it ( that rate was in force from 1812-1839).

So now to the letter, which concerns the tenancy of a farm. I was unable to trace any information about the writer of the letter, Mr F. Austen, but it is likely that he was some kind of agent for the farms.

Click on the image to see the full contents of the letter at full size

“My dear Sir,

This morning a man of the name of Avery came to me to request I would recommend him as Tenant for Mr Husseys farm in parish of Biddenden – now occupied by — Day. — Avery is grandson to old Pankhurst – who he says would advance money for him, — not a very eligible Connection — I told the man that I had a previous application made to me a long time ago to use my Interest for a person to become Tenant — and had made application to that purpose — he tells me he was at the farm a day or two ago and Day told him he could not use it longer than Lady Day next.

Note: Lady Day is the Feast of the Annunciation, which is observed on 25 March. It is one of the four ‘Quarter Days’ in England, on which some tenancies begin and end and quarterly payments fall due. The other three are

Midsummer Day — 24 June
Michaelmas — 29 September and
Christmas — 25 December

have by this post written to Mr Hussey the acting Attorney for the estate at Tunbridge Wells — reminding him that Mr Toke had promised me he would write to him in favor of the man you recommended (whose name I said I believed was Witherden — but I almost forget if I am correct in this.)

I think you had some Correspondence with Mr Toke on this subject and probably would do right either to see him or write to him again on the subject –

If you wish me to do anything further let me know – as I shall be happy to oblige you.

Yours very truly
F. Austen ./.

He then added this postscript,

P.S. To keep Avery quiet – I told him that should the person I had already written about decline the farm I would think of him.”

I made contact with the present-day Beale family, through the internet, and they have given me a great deal of information about the Beale family and their connection with this old house. The Parish records of Biddenden show that the Beale family was living there from 1558 when Elizabeth I was Queen, and they lived in River Hall from the time of King Charles II. It was passed from father to son (with one exception) from at least 1600 to 1900. During that time there were six owners named Richard Beale: the one to whom my letter is addressed was the fourth, and he was the exception. He was born in London in 1771 but returned to Biddenden and married Frances Witherden there in 1792. Note the reference in the letter to a prospective tenant of that name, presumably a relative). He took charge of River Hall in 1814 on the death of his uncle Richard, and lived there with Frances and their ten children. He died in 1836, and his widow left the house allowing their son Richard to take it over with his family whilst she moved into another Beale property in Biddenden, Elmstone House.

The present-day Beales also sent me this photo of River Hall, as it is today. They no longer live there; in fact two of the present generation have emigrated to America, and it was through them that I made the contact. They are quite amazed that a 200-year-old letter concerning their forebears in a small English village in Kent should have ended up in Australia. The world certainly does seem to be shrinking.


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8 December 2004