Eunice and Ron Shanahan have shared with readers of the Victorian Web this material from their website, Letters from the Past. Click on thumbnail of letter (not the postal markings) for larger a image.

The contents of this old letter makes my flesh creep - so I have to remember that all the modern equipment we take for granted was not available in those days. The letter written by J. Spalding is dated ‘London Feb 15th, 1838’ addressed to her sister Mrs Charles Scott, Kilblain Street, Greenock. It has three postal markings:

Postal Markings

Left: On the back is the Vere Street General Post London Branch Office Maltese Cross. single frame 24x24mm Maltese Cross handstamp with 5mm high letters ‘VS’ at the top, the year at the bottom, and the day both sides of the month, applied in red ink was a paid stamp in use from January 1837 to June 1838. This type of postmark is only seen on letters originating in London, addressed to places outside of London. The four General Post Branch Offices - Lombard Street, Charing Cross, Vere Street and Borough, were issued with distinctive handstamps, to identify them. The Vere Street Branch Office covered the north west corner of London - around Bond Street and Oxford Street.

Middle: On the front address panel — additional ½ boxed London type IIIB (which is the boxed ½ with the fraction bar top right to bottom left touching the frame both sides.) This was issued 13-3-1837 and in use until 1838.

Right: Manuscript 1/2 rate London to Greenock distance 429 miles via Glasgow addressed to Mrs Charles Scott, Kilblain Street Greenock.

The Letter

The writer has used every scrap of available space for this long letter, finally writing across the lines to get the full value for her postage. If she had written on an additional sheet of paper and enclosed it in this page, it would have cost two shillings and fourpence halfpenny to send it, double the rate. At first glance a ‘crossed’ letter like this is difficult to read, but once you get used to the idea of blocking out unwanted letters, it is legible. The language used is quite flowery, and when I checked the finished article in the grammar checker on the word processor, it threw out most of the lady’s sentences, commenting that long sentences are too hard to understand. So much for modern education!

My Dearest Helen,

Before this reaches you the sad, sad intelligence of the death of our dear Jane Turner will have reached you. She departed this life on Tuesday about half past twelve o’clock midday after severe suffering. I have never felt my feelings more deeply tried by any event out of my own family circle. The scene I can never forget and I trust the Almighty will sanctify on the hearts of my young people, this most striking dispensation.

Note: What on earth does that last sentence mean? Surprisingly, the grammar check did not throw it out.

Mr Turner left this on Tuesday evening by the Rail Road to endeavour to reach Liverpool in time to meet his poor wife. God grant that he may be enabled to do so, as there is every reason for wishing that she may be spared the misery and fatigue of the long land journey."

This was an interesting statement, as according to the railway mania information London was connected to Birmingham in 1838, but Birmingham was only connected to Liverpool in 1840, two years after this letter was written. Possibly Mr Turner could cut some of the journey by going by rail to Birmingham and then by stagecoach to Liverpool. The reference to his wife being spared the long land journey is possibly pointing to their travelling by the steamship to Greenock, but then she continues:

Indeed I must confess for my own sake, I also pray that she may not come here. I have already undergone so much mental and bodily suffering that I should dread much this dreadful meeting.

We are to learn from Mr Turner as soon as he knows his afflicted wife’s wishes whether the dear’s remains are to go to Scotland or to be laid in the grave here. I feel the greatest anxiety about our excellent friend Mr Turner, he had been up for two nights, and was much indisposed with a bad cold, bowed to the earth with anguish of mind, the loss of his beloved child, and the miserable foreboding of all he had before him on meeting his poor wife, whose life he fears will be endangered in her present weak state of health, was altogether more than he could bear.

Oh! What a blessing it is to us that he came to London at the time he did, when his dear child could speak to him and tell him all her feelings. Had he come after Saturday last, she could not have communicated anything to him, as she became quite delirious in the evening of that day, and only a short time before her death had short gleams of recollection permitted to her. During this lucid interval she uttered expressions of faith and hope and looked so bright and smiled so beautifully that with our hearts bursting we could not help smiling with her.

Her Papa and all of us, she knew perfectly and always named us when she looked at us. I never saw so sweet and amiable creature as she was from first to last. She was so grateful and pleased with all our attempts to serve her — one of my women, named Fanny she was very fond of, and from the first night that she fell ill, Fanny slept in the room beside her on a sofa drawn close to the bed side and was constant in her attendance. Poor dear Jane was so fond of her that to the hour of her death she constantly called for dear Fanny! I do not know what I should have done without this poor girl’s assistance.

Mr Turner has expressed the greatest gratitude to her and he told me he would do anything in the world for her that laid in his power."

The next paragraph is the one that makes me uncomfortable. But since photography did not really being to take off until the 1850s, what other options would be open to capture an image. In the in the 1851 census, there were 51 photographers recorded in the whole of England and Wales.

Yesterday afternoon we got an artist to take a cast of our lovely young friend’s head, shoulders and a hand. Her features were so high and fine that she will make a likeness I have no doubt. We ‘mind’ to have a sketch taken on paper of her countenance the day before her death, but it was not like her and I thought the Bust would be a great treasure to her friends afterwards.

She finishes the letter with all the details her sister would want to know about the family and visitors.

Mrs Sinclair has been here and went upstairs to see the last of her young friend. She is a kind, excellent person — I like her very much. Anne Spalding took her home in our carriage. Mr John Ferrier has also called just now to enquire about our afflicted friends — his wife was here yesterday but I did not see her.

Two letters have come by post for Mr Turner from his wife, he desired that the Doctor open any that might come and I am thankful to observe that Mrs T intended to proceed by Liverpool so that her husband would meet her on her arrival there. She mentions in her letter that little Tom was complaining, of course she will feel anxious to return as soon as possible to her home — I request that you will write to me as soon as you hear that they have arrived. I feel most anxious to learn everything concerning their melancholy return to Greenock and how both of them are in health.

I had a kind letter from James today of the 19th January, he is anxious that we should visit Italy in summer, the Doctor has written to him a long letter touching on the subject about which we feel not slightly anxious.

God bless you all, I cannot write on any other subject this evening, but I shall write to you soon. We are all well, give your dear husband and all around you very best love, kiss them all for me,
ever your affect. Sister

J. Spalding.

Each of my old letters seems to send me off in a different direction to check on the details. This one involved research into photography, railways, and shipping between Liverpool and Greenock. I found a timetable of 1850 which gave a monthly list of Steam Packet Sailings Glasgow to Liverpool, showing which vessels sailed on which days, and including this footnote:“Passengers leaving Glasgow by the railway trains at the hours listed above, will be in time to join the vessel at Greenock.” So by that time at least rail/ship connections were commonplace.

Letters such as this explain the appeal of postal history — new information about the postmarks is always being added. Often examples can be found with dates either earlier or later than have previously been recorded. There is always the chance that you may find one that is different, or one you have not seen before.

As a bonus, the contents provide glimpse into private lives of ordinary people who lived so long ago. This letter is a good example of the expression of feelings at the time, and shows why Charles Dickens novels and public readings were so popular with the Victorians. I was always highly suspicious of the outpourings of public grief in the deathbed scenes of Dicken’s novels, but from this letter, it seems as though he had it right!


R Hawkins Date Stamps of the General Post Branch Offices in London 1829-1858.

Hodgson & Sedgwick The Scottish Additional ½d Mail Tax.

The Hutchinson Softback Encyclopedia.

The History Today Companion to British History.

Last modified 11 December 2002