[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.]

We have two letters addressed to Burrell Massingberd in 1717: this letter and one dated June 24 1717, addressed to Hon. Burrell Massingberd Esqr, at Ormesby Near Horncastle, Lincolnshire.

This letter is written by Polly Massingberd on 20 October 1717. It is hard to believe it is more than 270 years old, as it is so clearly legible. It is marked ĪPost Pd.ā But there are no other postal markings, and there is no indication of where it was posted.

The address is typical of that time

Burll. Massingberd Esqre at Sr. John
Chesterās at Chichley to be left
at the Post Houfe in Newport

Sir John Chester would have sent a servant to the Post House to collect the mail, as this was then the customary practice in the country areas.

I have quoted the letter as it was written. Notice in particular the written word "ye" meaning “the.” The English alphabet used to have a letter a Runic symbol called thornā to represent the combination th. This symbol (which is no longer a part of the alphabet) looked like the letter "y". So, although it is now mistakenly pronounced and written — as “yeā” it should in fact be pronounced as "the". Spelling was not so regimented in the eighteenth century, and it was also common practice to use contractions (for instance vex'd for vexed, cou'd for could etc).

Modern readers might also find themselves confused by a second form of the letter s — the long s that resembles an f — which can make reading the letters difficult. But to return to the letter...

My Dear

This is according to yor defire to acquaint you that Sistr Mundy continues much as when you went yt she had had no ill symton since ye first night, she is well enough to work all day & sleep a nights but not to Leave her room & ye learnād say she cant pofsibly hold up above 2 days longer, but now aprehend no danger.

I wish I could give you as good an acct of my self but indeed I have been as ill as you expected, but am now pritty well recoverād. I send you two lettrs inclofed, one came from Ormefby in a blank paper, I wifh you wouād prevent yor correfpondants directing thither for they cost a great deal....

Note: the postage rate in force from 1711-1765 was 3d for a single sheet if the distance was under 80 miles from London and 4d if it was more than 80 miles. A double sheet would cost twice that and if the total weight of the letter was more than one ounce it was 12pence or 16pence for each ounce. In this case it would probably have cost 16pence as the letters enclosed would possibly have pushed up the weight to one ounce.

The letter continues with local gossip...

Mrs Jenings was to se me yesterday. They tell me Mr P P is not yet married but will be very speedily, every body inquirs about ye match between Miss Pen & Sir Ev: & tis generaly believed.

I hope to hear of you before I see you for I am much concernād to know how yor journey agreed with you & if yor cold has left you, having nothing to wifh but yors & my own health to make me yor very happy as well as

yor very Affect & Faithfull Wife


Defire ye ufual complements to all where you are, pray tell Mrs K I have recd ye edging, like it, & return thanks".

She has then added this paragraph:

"My Dear

Ye lettr wch came from Ormfby (Ormesby) being upon so large a sheet of paper yt I couād not well wrap it in this & seeming to be under a cover I venturd to open it knowing ye hand & hope you will not be angry at me for so doing. Its looking like verfe tempted me to read it, & hope youāll receive it soon becaufe I doubt it requires a very speedy anfwer befides instructions to sistr Aym. Indeed it was no curiofity that inclinād me to open it, but I am vexād at my self for fear you shouād be difpleasād.

Ever yours P.M.".

It seems she is somewhat in awe of her husband — maybe he was short-tempered as she is so worried about displeasing him.

A visitor to this website has kindly supplied me with a lot of information concerning the writer of this letter. This is from a similar letter written by Mr Toller, but addressed to Burrell Massingberd Esq. at Mrs. Woolaston's at Shenton near Hinckly, Leicestershire, by Coventry bag.

Toller writes that he is often troubled with enquiries from Massingberd's friends about where the latter is and when he is coming to town. He then discusses the latest plays and operas, and comments that "the Town is govern'd by Humour more than Reason."

In a postscript he offers his service to Mrs. Chester. The latter must be Catharine, daughter of Sir John Chester of Chicheley Hall, Bucks, Bart., who is mentioned on page 672 of the Pedigree of Toller of Billingborough and Ryhall (Chester-Chicheley, vol.2). Catharine's mother was Anne, daughter and heir of William Wollaston of Shenton, county Leicester, Esq., which is the address on my letter. Catharine (1697-1755) would have been 15 at the date of my letter. According to the Pedigree she married John Toller on 18th September 1718 (when she was nearly 21 and he was 33). Like you I originally thought that the initial in Toller's signature was an "I", but clearly it is a "J"!

John Toller was born 10th April 1685 and baptised on 22nd April. He matriculated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on 15th April, 1702. He was admitted to Lincoln's Inn on 10th December, 1705, and called to the Bar on 2nd July, 1712. On the death of his father in 1732 (who had been High Sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1707), he inherited Billingborough Hall, Lincs., and Ryhall. He became a serjeant-at-law on 10th May 1736 and died on 14th November, 1737, leaving three children: Frances, Catharine and Brownlow, who were born in 1724, 1727 and 1730 respectively.

In the letter Toller congratulates Massingberd on rumours he has heard about the latter's forthcoming marriage. In fact Burrell did not marry until 1714, when his bride was Philippa Mundy, of Osbaston Hall, Leicestershire (a few miles north east of Coventry). A charming letter survives, addressed to Philippa on this occasion by her friend, Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Burrell died in 1728, leaving Philippa (or Polly as your other letter reveals her to have been known, at least to her husband). I see, incidentally that she addresses your letter to her husband at Sir John Chester's at Chichley, a further indication of the close relationship there must have been between the Toller, Chester and Massingberd families.

The Massingberd family lived at South Ormsby, Lincs. It is said to have been delightfully situated. The mansion house had been bought by Sir Draynor in 1638 and stood in a well wooded park. Burrell and Philippa's older son, William, was baptised there on 5th May, 1719 and their younger son, Francis, towards the end of March, 1721. Philippa was still alive in 1738, when her son William sent her a letter from France.

3 December 2002