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.

Cocker letter front

Lettrer cover with stamp, postal marks, and wax seal

This article covers some of 12 letters I bought recently which were written by a needle manufacturer in Derbyshire to his sister at home in Hathersage, in the Derbyshire Peak District. The letters cover the time from January 1845 to September 1848, are all posted in Scotland, and each bears a 1d red imperforate adhesive postage stamp. The postmarks are different on most of them, showing the routes taken to deliver the letters from Scotland to Hathersage, near Bakewell in Derbyshire, England.

The writer was Joseph Robert Cocker who lived with his sister Hannah Cocker at Broom Cottage, and the first two letters are written on paper edged with black for mourning, as their mother had died shortly before. Hannah never married: almost 40 years later, the 1881 census shows she is still living with her brother and his family at Outseats, Hathersage. Broom Cottage which is still there and still inhabited, but not by descendants of the Cocker family. Apart from the television antenna and the trampoline, it is much as it would have been in 1845.

Broom Cottage

Those letters which are addressed to Broom Cottage have a back stamp of Bakewell, which was the Post Town for Hathersage. This seemed illogical to me on looking at the map as Sheffield is a much larger town, and looks to be much nearer. However internet contacts have advised me that there are several reasons for this. The road from Sheffield to Hathersage is often blocked by land slides, and in bad weather is frequently impassable, whereas the road from Bakewell is not blocked. Sheffield is in Yorkshire, and Hathersage and Bakewell are in Derbyshire. The White’s trade directory of Derbyshire in 1829 shows the mail service at Hathersage: “ Post Office, at Mr. Wm. Cresswell’s; letters arrive by mail cart from Bakewell at 8.30 a.m., and are despatched at 4.45 p.m. Money Orders granted and paid from 9 to 6.” However, the last two letters dated May and September 1848 have a back stamp of the town name, Hathersage, so sometime between May 1847 and May 1848 the mail must have increased sufficiently for the Post Office to have its own name stamp. Joseph Cocker must have had great faith in the postal system as in one of the letters, he gave his sister a list of the places and dates.

Glasgow 17 January 1846

My dear sister
I am truly sorry that I forgot in my last to give you my route, however, on receipt of this, write to me at Post Office Dundee — on Tuesday PO Aberdeen, (20th) Thursday PO Dundee (22nd) and on Sunday PO Edinburgh (25th) and they will all meet me at those places.

The letters are chatty and loving, and full of little snippets of information such as

I called at Paisley today and find that White Canton Crepe shawls richly embroidered in the corners are the most fashionable shawls for the season and I have bought one for you which I shall I trust have the pleasure of bringing home and then presenting it in return for a kiss.

This letter will be registered and you will have to sign your name to the printed cover sent with it and return the same to Mr Marsden you will see the place where to sign it.


On Monday morning, we had a heavy fall of snow and in coming to Dundee the roads had to be ploughed to enable us to get through — it is bitter cold — but I feel better for it — I intend to be at home on Wednesday next leaving Aberdeen six oclock Monday morning and getting to Edinburgh at about 7 at night and since I shall start for Newcastle (inside) where I shall get on Tuesday morning — at Sheffield at 10 oclock same night and home next forenoon if the gig comes in good time — you shall however hear from me from Aberdeen.”

In this one, he had travelled by ship to Glasgow, which was probably a sensible move as in mid-winter many of the coach roads could well have been blocked by snow.

Commercial Hotel Glasgow, 14 January 1846

My dear sister

Once more hath the Lord delivered me from the dangers of the mighty deep and here I am to praise His Holy name for past mercies and to trust him for the future.

We left Liverpool about 10 oclock last night and got here near 6 oclock this evening, a run of 20 hours, which is very good —We had a fine passage — and I was not at all sick which was very comfortable.

They are a deeply religious family, and this is reflected in the letters with many Biblical quotes and references. He reports that his journeys are enlivened by visits to his Scottish relatives and by his attendance at church and chapel services to give him strength, as he finds business very slow and difficult. In one letter he tells his sister that he attended three different services during the one Sunday.


Researching the background of the letters has proved equally as interesting as the study of the postal markings. Searching through contemporary trade directories, revealed that at this time there were three needle manufacturers in this tiny Derbyshire village and I understand from Julie Bunting, in Bygone Industries of the Peak, that this made it a very unhealthy place to live because of the very fine particles of metal resulting from the fine grinding of the needles which hung in the air. I was also fortunate to receive an image of packets of needles produced by the firm, for which they received medals at International exhibitions.

Cocker letter

Needle packet covers

However the ninth letter in the series is the most surprising. It is in an envelope with the penny red being hard to see under the barred numeral of 159 for Glasgow; only the left letter is visible, which is a C. The postmarksare an orange-red circular GLASGOW MY 13 1847 with a letter A at the top and a letter F on the right of the circle, then a black MANCHESTER circle MY 14? 184? With code letter B at the bottom, and finally a blue BAKEWELL MY 14 1847.

Glasgow 13 May 1847
My Dear Sister,
Yesterday I sent Mr Eyre Five Pounds requesting him to credit our account with the same — I hope you will have sent a good order for Saturday — not forgetting the sugar as we talked about.

Photograph of the sample of satin found in this letter

I have bought you a slap up satin dress the best manufactured and through a friend at wholesale price. I hope you will approve it — you have a sample — tho’ I don’t know whether you will be able to judge from so small a piece — it is likely that I cannot bring the summer shawl. My best love, I shall soon be hearing from you.
Yours affectionately
Josh Robt Cocker

The sample is still in the letter. Perhaps this is why he used an envelope to keep the sample in place. I find it incredible that this piece of satin which is over 150 years old should still be in the envelope and still in good condition.

I have since managed to buy a letter written to Joseph while he was in Paris in 1851. I never expected to be able to locate one, and it is an absolute bonus as there are two letters included, one from Hannah and also one from his wife Mary. The whole correspondence is fascinating from the postal and social history perspective, giving as it does, a window into the life of ordinary people more than 150 years ago.

Last modified 28 May 2010