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.

Click on thumbnails for larger images.

This letter is a rambling screed written by an educated man to a college friend. The writer is John Smith, a ‘man of the cloth’ in Edinburgh, to William Aldam Junr. Esquire, Mr. J Beaumonts, Northampton Sq. London.

There are four postal markings two on the front

  1. Additional ½d Edinburgh(of the type in use from 10 June 1829 to 11 August 1836
  2. Manuscript charge 1/1d cost of sending a letter between 300 and 400 miles, (1812-1839) and Edinburgh was 396 miles from London.

Note that the letter is dated inside a day after it was posted: obviously the writer had got his date wrong. Also on the address panel on the outside, someone has written May 28 — but this could have been written by William Aldam to note either when he received it, or replied to it.

There are two date stamps on the back,– the image also shows the wax seal used to close the letter:

  1. Edinburgh date stamp May 24 1832;
  2. London morning duty stamp 26 MY 1832.

It took two days' travel to cover the 396 miles, and the mailcoachmen had to keep to the strict timetable for the whole journey.

I have been unable to trace any information about the writer, however, the addressee is a different story, as he is well documented. William Aldam Junior was born 1813 and died 1890. He was at Trinity College Cambridge when this letter was written. He led a successful and active life, and was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1839, a Liberal Member of Parliament for Leeds, Chairman of Quarter Sessions, Yorkshire, West Riding, 1877-90. He was later "Chairman of Aire and Calder Navigation Co., and chairman of finance committee of West Riding council, until his death"; a Magistrate & Deputy Lieutenant of Yorkshire & High Sheriff, 1878. He was also “a railway company chairman and frequent investor who used his position as MP to help push through legislation, and to sit on many railway committees; In Yorkshire he attended board meetings, examined tunnels, planned stations and analysed accounts." (Beckett, Aristocracy, p.255.)

And now to the letter which is closely-written but easily legible, and covers three of the four sides of the paper. The first paragraph sets the tone for the letter, which contains many references to the Reform Bill which was being widely debated between people holding very different views on the advisability or otherwise of altering the franchise.

Edinburgh May 25th, 1832

My Dear Friend,

It is now a long time since I ought to have answered your last very agreeable letter. I am afraid, your own ardour not permitting you to make any allowance for the sluggishness of others, that you may have concluded that I have no intention of writing, and therefore you may have put me in Schedule A * of your correspondence. Allow me to protest against disfranchisement; or if protest is too strong a word, let me entreat you to delay the clause till the end of the discussion, I feel that I have been acting an unworthy part with you, as well as almost all my friends in the south: I regret it much, and must really strive to amend my ways.

* There were 4 "schedules" in the Reform Bill.

  • Schedule A was the list of boroughs which were to lose both of their seats
  • B was a list of 2-seat boroughs which were being downgraded to 1-seat boroughs
  • C was the list of brand new 2-seat boroughs
  • D was the list of new 1-seat boroughs.

Hence, if your correspondent thought he was on "Schedule A," it rather implies that he has been "completely" removed from circulation.

The letter then continues with a couple of paragraphs explaining why he has not written.

My present mode of life is the most torpid imaginable: I have no call for vigorous exertion; nothing but the same dull round. Though living in a great city I see but little society. I read like a mill-horse; think now and then; and write as little as possible. I am afraid that I am an indolent being by nature, I wish I could be brought into some scene of active labours, Oh for a kirk, though it were in some remote glen, that I might be roused to action.

One cause, however, in my remissness in writing is the dissimilarity of our pursuits, Somehow or other I cannot bring myself to write down a long story about what I am almost sure you take no interest. Supposing I were to entertain you with a recital of an exploit in preaching how I laboured in committing my sermons, not being able to attempt anything extemporare — how I set out on my travels — how I was entertained in the Saturday evening by the Minister and his wife — how I quaked on the Sunday morning and felt some premonitory symptoms, not unlike those of cholera — how I thundered — and how happy I was when all was over; never hangman happier — and supposing the letter to arrive when you were immersed in a calculus of variations, you would think my affairs — to me important — you would think them incommensurable quantities, things not to be compared, differentials of a different order.

Trinity College, Dublin. This photograph has been graciously shared by Dublin Turist Co.

The next paragraphs show just how much studying was available to people in the middle of the 19th century. The subjects that he mentions and the books that were available surprised me. Yet, the library of Trinity College, Dublin, still has a copy of one of them, The Advancement of Society in Knowledge and Religion by James Douglas, which was published in 1825.

However after all, I might always have some general matter to tell you of; for instance I have recently begun the study of German. As yet I have made little progress not having had much time, but I can now make out a page or two of prose at a time with the help of a dictionary. The language is rather more difficult than I expected; if I could only apply with a continuity of effort, I think I might overcome it.

I intend resuming my Mathematical and other Scientific studies as I find it will not be inexpedient for several reasons to continue my acquaintance with them. When you write next send me the title of Poinsot's book on Mechanics. Have you seen Ponte-coulant's work on Physical Astronomy , so highly spoken of by the ED. Review?

Note: Edinburgh Review: a Quarterly Whig publication, the answer to the Tory quarterly publication — the Quarterly Review. It was available nationally.

He then mentions a common friend, again stressing his own culpability.

What has become of John Hattersley? I have never heard from him. I wrote to him in the beginning of winter, but I have been favoured with no reply. I regret this much, I own that he had reason to complain of me; but I calculated upon his being placable — a quality very necessary in my distant friends. The thing that vexes me is, that presuming on this disposition on his part I requested him to send me some religious tracts from Leeds, I have heard neither of him nor the tracts; and I feel so placid that I can hardly think of writing again, I hope my letter has miscarried. I should be sorry to lose the man Jonah after so often chewing the cud of sweet and bitter fancy together at Darlington. If you see him soon say that I am still on the face of the earth; that I still regard him with interest ; and I wish he would "let byegones be byegones".

He is honest enough to admit his general laziness, but then tells his friend what to study — a good example of “don’t do as I do, do as I say”.

I was much interested by your account of your studies I was pleased to learn of your conquests in Mathematics. I trust they have been to you the discipline of a clear and manly understanding. But do not be so engrossed with these abstract things as to lose sight of the accomplishments of more literary studies.

I was happy to hear of your readings in Morals, I have seen only the first Vol. of Dymonds work , and thought it very good although there are many things in it which I cannot admit. His views of Education seem very inaccurate not to say erroneous. He is certainly superior to Paley in many things, particularly his standing up for simple principle in preference to expedience. I am inclined to the Scotch (or what we call here) the orthodox system of Morals. It is tolerably well expounded by Stewart and Brown. The will of God is unquestionably the rule of virtue (the immediate and external rule) but Conscience is another onward and mediate. There are external distinctions of right and wrong which are not the creatures of the will of God, but to which the will of God is conformable . Read Brown’s lectures on these subjects — read the whole four vols. if you have time. You will find acuteness of analysis if not strength of combination unrivalled in the English Language.

Have you seen "Saturday Evening" by the Author of the Nat Hist of Enthusiasm, It contains some splendid speculations though in a turgid style, You might read with profit Douglas on the Advancement of Society in knowledge and Religion. Also his prospects of Britain.

The last book, a defence of reform, puts me in mind of our difference on this subject. I am sorry that we do not still possess that desirable quality in friends the "Idem sentire de republica."

I had no idea what this meant, and put a query onto the same internet mailing list, and Mark Harris of London gave me this information :- IDEM SENTIRE DE REPUBLICA. What the tag means literally is "feeling the same towards the State", i.e. in this case having the same political opinions. It seems that the writer and his correspondent have agreed to differ on the subject of parliamentary reform, which was a hot topic in 1832. Mark was correct, as the next paragraph explains why John Smith disagrees with his friend Aldam.

I read over your brief enumeration of the benefits of the "great measure", with attention, but I cannot say with conviction. I still see nothing but danger. Some candid reformers here admit that they do not know whether the new system will work well or no. In fact this is admitted in Parliament; and is implicit in the very style of reasoning adopted by many advocates . It is not because reform is good, but because the people will it that it should be granted. It does not appear to me that the start of change will stop with the Bill or any moderate rectifications after it. — But a truce with reasonings. God grant that we may live in peace; may He preserve us from the guilt and horror of shedding civil blood.

My Dear Sir, I must stop here or run the risk of detaining this letter several days longer . Give me an opportunity of writing soon a more prolix epistle. I am your sincere friend,
John Smith.

PS. John Smith at Mrs Frasers 27 Howe Street. Ed,

Although this is a very long and ‘heavy’ letter from the contents point of view, it does show that letter writing was the real means of communication between distant friends. Think how much easier this would have been if they had been linked by the telephone.

Acknowledgements

M. H. Markus
Mark Harris of London,
David Krein of Iowa,USA,
Hodgson & Sedgwick, The Scottish Additional ½d tax
Alan Robertson Great Britain Post Roads, Post Towns and Postal rates 1635-1839


Victorian Web homepage Political History Social History Letters from the Past

17 January 2005