Eunice and Ron Shanahan have shared with readers of the Victorian Web this material from their website, Letters from the Past. Click on thumbnails for larger images.

This letter is dated September 25th, 1791 from Hampshire to London, but redirected to Hendon Middlesex. I was attracted to it because I was born in Middlesex, and feel aggrieved that it was one of those counties to disappear under a general re-organisation of local government administration in 1974.

The English county of Middlesex within the Thames Basin was settled in the 6th century as good agricultural land, by the Saxons. As the name suggests, it was midway between Wessex and Essex. Although it is no longer an administrative unit (it is now part of Greater London), the name is still used as a geographical identity, and while there are still letters and other documents around, the past 1400 years of history cannot be erased.

The letter was addressed to

Miss Turner,
Charles Turner Esq.
Wimpole Street,
Cavendish Square, London

but it was re-directed to Highwood Hill, near Hendon Middlesex.

It was written by a family servant. It was unusual in 1791 for a servant to be literate, and the spelling is odd - 'tha' for 'they', 'pleas' for 'please', 'Dutty' for 'Duty', 'she is heard of' instead of 'she has heard of', etc., but it gives a graphic account of life (and death) in the household which is what Miss Turner would have wanted to hear.

My Dear Miss Turner,

I beg ten thousand pardens for not answaring your kind letter befor. I was very glad to hear you and all the family is well. The Reson I did not write befor was when I recived your letter my poor Mistres daughter that was marrid at Millford since we left London was at our house to Lie-in was at the point of death and since is dead.

I had the care of the child while the mother lived, but now we have got a wet nurse but with seting up and breaking my rest I have been very ill. I am much better now

Note: Lying-in was the preparation for childbirth, and death of mother or baby or both was quite common in the 18th century. When the mother died, it was often possible to find a mother who had lost her baby to breast-feed — or wet-nurse — the motherless child. The letter then continues with more bad news.

"My masters father is dead since we come to Southampton, Fanny is goin to Town she is heard of places but I due not know if she is got one. I have not heard from my son this year.

Note: "Town" would be London, where there would be greater opportunities of finding a position as a servant, and she may have heard of a place where there was a situation vacant through a friend or relative. In many cases the position as a servant entailed no privileges whatever, and it would not be unusual for the son to have no time off to go back to see his mother. Also if he was unable to write, or could not afford the cost of posting a letter, well, his mother misssed out on that too! The letter continues:

"Miss Fanny Jarrett is grown a fine child and sends her Love to all the Ladys. Pleas my Dear Miss Turner to give Dutty to my good master and mistres and Miss Emma, and I am very happy to hear tha are all well, and believe me my dear miss Turner your ever affectionate Elizabeth Cowen.

P.s. pleas to give my kind love to Mrs Nailer and Mr Parsons, and I shall be very glad allways to hear tha are well."

From the contents of the letter it can be seen that the news is strictly parochial. There were stirring events happening in 1790-91. In France, King Louis XVI had tried to escape from Paris, but was caught at Varennes and returned. In England, King George III had recently recovered from his first bout of insanity. The Prime Minister, Pitt, had refused to recognise the Independence of Belgium. In America, Benjamin Franklin died, and in India, the Third Mysore War took place, but of what concern was all that to a servant who had not heard from her son for a year...

Postal markings

Click on the image for a larger view

4 in manuscript, the rate for this time was 4d for a distance of less than 150 miles, and Southampton was 77 miles from London. This had been crossed through, as the letter was re-directed, but the corrected charge should have been inserted and there are no other charge marks on it.

Southampton two-line town name stamp applied at the receiving office where the letter was lodged. This type of name stamp was in use from the end of the 18th century, in either one or two lines, and from 1784 often included the mileage from London. It was applied to unpaid mail.

London two-figure receiving date stamp: this type of stamp was applied at the General Post Inland Office and was in use from 1791 - 1794, the code letter "A" denoted the sorting table used.

a faint Dockwra type triangular stamp - PENNY POST PAID W M O, which would have been applied at the Westminster sorting office of the London Penny Post, on a Monday. This office dealt with all places north of the Thames, including Hendon. The stamp is identifed as a Government Penny Post, because the words all face inwards, so that the word at the bottom is always upside down, in this case "PAID". This particular type was in use from 1784 to 1794.

Note: These are illustrations only, enlarged to show the details, not for the accuracy..

The original Dockwra Penny Post was launched in 1680 by William Dockwra and his partner Robert Murray to meet the demand of a local postal service. They had a head office in Lime Street and seven sorting offices. In two years, it had grown to four to five hundred receiving houses, with messengers who delivered between five and 15 times daily, a system which has never been equalled. It was so successful that the Post Office claimed that it infringed their monopoly. As a result Dockwra lost his Penny Post, and in 1682 it was incorporated into the General Post Office, which gained an efficient, organised postal system, including postmarks.

In the original Dockwra triangular postmarks the words always read PENNY on the left side, POST on the right side and PAID at the bottom, and always facing out. There were four types and most examples are in archives, only four are known to be in private hands. So, by the time this letter was written, the Government Penny Post had been running for more than 100 years, and naturally, changes in the system had taken place covering the area and service in general. In 1711, the London Penny Post was confirmed as operating with the cities of London, Westminster and Borough of Southwark, and parts adjacent within 10 standard measured miles distant from the General Post Office in London. Hendon, which is about 8 miles northwest of the GPO was always in the Country area of the London Penny Post.

Last modified 13 December 2002