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 dated 8 December 1817. Although it reads like something from Jane Austen, it was written by a 19-year-old young man, Thomas Codrington, to his 18-year-old fellow university student Charles Ward, at Brasenose College, Oxford. They were both accepted into Brasenose on the same day, destined to become clergymen.

Postal markings are a manuscript charge mark 6 — for a distance between 25 and 30 miles, and a very faint undated Swindon horseshoe town mark. It is a pity it is not a better mark, as these are not very common. The letter is sealed with black sealing wax and the impression is of a small flower with the inscription QUE TU LA POSSEDES which is French and means 'may you possess it' or 'so you may possess it'. It is possibly the family motto.

'The Oxford college Brasenose takes its name from the bronze nose, or sanctuary knocker, first recorded in a document of 1279, that at one time was attached to the main gate of Brasenose Hall.' This was one of the academic Halls of Mediaeval Oxford. However, the College Arms shows that the college was founded in 1509.

The letter is from Thomas Stretton Codrington of Wroughton (at that time a small village in Wiltshire), and begins with information about a common acquaintance. I have left the spelling as he wrote it — these are not typing errors!

Wroughton Dec 8th 1817

Dear Charles,

I have been so long in answering your last letter, more for want of something to communicate than of inclination, and I am sure in spight of all your intreaties and complaints, you have much worse correspondents in Mary Anne and Ellen. I am glad to hear that Dr. Goodenough has added new dignity to his former too honourable person; and I understand from Bristol that he is already turning it to use in his gallant conduct to the young ladies and that there is an additional number of Fair Ones eyeing him with an inviting air and setting their caps at him but that his attentions are principally attracted to the unrivalled charms of Miss Hope, whom he has been frequently seen gallanting through the streets of Bristol so that report is gone abroad, and the scandal of his neighbours has dubbed her the Doctor's Lady.

Note: 'set one's cap at' means to try to win a man as a husband or lover, by wearing a cap that would attract attention.

He then continues with local information, which must have been very embarrassing for the person concerned:

I could not help laughing at your story about Elliot Snr mishap, I daresay all the female spectators both young and old were highly delighted at so unexpected a disclosure of his Twangadillo. It was time indeed when things were come to such a Pass for the Clergyman to interfere, for I daresay for amusements of this description, the benches in the Theatre would have been deserted for those in the dining Room of the Grammar School.

The regular assemblies have begun, and I understand they are not so well attended but more select than last year; we have not been to them yet. I have to congratulate you on the birth of another niece, we had the account yesterday from your brother Rawdon who said that all was going on well. We were all at your house for two or three days last week and were witness to all the gaieties of Marlborough!

Note: I have a picture of Marlborough High Street at the time this letter was written. — the main features being a cow wandering in the middle of the road being harassed by two dogs, and people walking towards the church in the shade. It is hardly what one would describe as lively, and hard to imagine what gaieties would have been available.

Marlborough is an old town 74 miles out of London on the Great West Road, the A4. It was a main stopping place for travellers to Bath and Bristol, so there were — and still are — many hotels and Inns. It was a good place to prepare for the hardships ahead on the journey over the exposed Marlborough Downs, which was renowned for bad winter conditions, when coaches were known to be snowed-up for days.

The letter then continues :

I should be obliged to you if you would inquire at some of the Druggists shops for a medicine called Seidlets Powders, which I am advised to take and indeed I would recommend to you as it has all the good qualities of Salts without any of its disagreeable taste in taking it; they are sold either in bottles or boxes at 2s 6d or 3s a piece, and as I know they are sold in Oxford I would be obliged to you to bring me one with you.

Note: Seidlets Powders — OED Seidlitz powder — aperient medicine of two powders mixed separately with water and then poured together giving effervescence, (named as substitute for mineral water of Seidlitz in Bohemia)

An e-mail contact in Spain advised me that 2/6d or 3/- seems rather a high price. One dose of Seidlitz Powder consisted of 15 grains of Sodium Bicarbonate, 120 grains of Rochelle Salt and 25 grains of Tartaric Acid. All of these ingredients would have been very cheap. Charles Ward should have had no problems in buying them in the Oxford Druggists, as trade directories of the time show that there were 6 chemists & druggists, and 6 surgeons & apothecaries within walking distance of Brasenose College. The Seidlets Powders became a very commonly used substance, and is in fact sold nowadays under various trade names in Australia. This anonymous verse shows that the product was easily recognised :-

Here lies the body of Mary Chowder
Who burst while drinking a Seidlitz Powder;
She couldn't wait till it effervesced,
So now she's gone to eternal rest

The letter then refers to the University studies:

I suppose you are looking forward perhaps not with pleasure to your Collections, I hope you will get well through them, and that you will take up your quarters here in your way home, which I expect you will do soon. We are going to spend this week at Captain Wilsons at Purton, and are now in a hurry to set out, so that I hope you will excuse this beautiful epistle and believe me

T.S. Codrington

Note: I am indebted to the Brasenose College Archivist, Mrs. Elizabeth Boardman, for all the background information about these two men. She advised me that Collections are interim examinations to monitor progress, which do not form part of the degree but which must be passed; they still take place in some subjects, but bear no resemblance to the type of examination which Charles Ward would have taken; his would have been oral examinations in which he disputed with another student before the examiner(s). The records show that during his time at Oxford 1816-1820, he took eight sets of Collections which, even though he took his final examinations in Mathematics, show that he was still expected to study classics and divinity.

The writer of the letter, Thomas Stretton Codrington, was born in Wiltshire in 1798, the son of the Rev. William Codrington. He took a third class degree in 1820 and was awarded his B.A. in the same year;. He became vicar of Wroughton in 1827 and died in 1839.

The friend to whom who wrote, Charles Ward, was born 28th April 1799, also in Wiltshire, the son of John Ward, gentleman, and matriculated (the formal ceremony of admittance to the University) as a member of Brasenose on 22 June 1816. He achieved a second class degree in Mathematics in 1820 and was awarded his B.A. in the same year. The 'Brasenose College Register' (1909) records that he was a Minor Canon and Precentor of Bristol 1824-1835 and Rector of Maulden, Bedfordshire, 1825-1879. He died on 15 March 1879.

I find it quite amazing that all this information is still available nearly 200 years later. I also have a picture postcard of the Dining Hall at Brasenose, which I bought at an Australian Stamp Day and it is somewhat different to the Hall at my old school — but that had only 50 years of history not 500.


Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable

Oxford English Dictionary

16 November 2004