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.

This letter from the past is 200 years old, a beautifully written letter in perfectly legible script, addressed to the Treasurer of the Congregational Fund

Click on the image for a larger view

Robert Maitland,
Kings Arms Yard,
Coleman Street

from Newton Abbot, Devon, and is dated Feby 6th, 1797.

The two postmarks are

  1. a very over-inked and smudged town stamp of Newton Abbott and
  2. the charge mark of 8, covering the cost of a single letter a distance of over 150 miles. This was the rate in force from 1796 to 1801. Newton Abbott is 188 miles from London.

The postmark is very difficult to read on the back of the letter, in a different handwriting

[Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]

I have reproduced the letter as it was written, including odd spellings and abbreviations — for instance 'addresfing' for 'addressing' and 'exprefs'for 'express'. This is the old form of the 'long letter s' when it appears as a double letter in a word. It is the only way to show it on the modern keyboard


[Click on the image for a larger view]


In consequence of a Letter recd Decr. 28th, I take the liberty of addrefsing you as Treasurer of the Congregational Fund in behalf of the Independent Society in this Place.

From the period of the departure of the Revd Mr. Inglis to Michaelmas last, the Congregation was in a destitute state; and not frequently favord with occasional supplies. About which time the Presbyterian Minister of this Town on account of the reduced state of his Congregation, resigned his Pulpit, upon which the few remaining Members of that society made a proposition of uniting the two Congregations; this was agreed to on the part of the lndependents, on the exprefs condition that they should give up nothing for which they originally separated —

Accordingly the two Congregations United in an invitation to me, then residing at Kingsbridge — indulging the hope, (by div. blefsing) the Union of the two Societies would enlarge the sphere of usefulnefs, and send to establish evangelical truths. I accepted their unanimous Invitation.

Although the Congregation is encreased in Number, (and harmony should continue) we hope will still encrease, the Subscription for the support of the Minister is small, amounting only to £30 per Annum, with a Donation of 8 pounds per Annum formerly given to the Presbyterian Meeting.

This Sir, is a brief statement of the circumstances of the Congregation, which we beg leave to lay before the worthy Members of the Congregational Fund humbly requesting their afsistance, in behalf of a Congregation which has long been on the decline in this place, and confiding in their wisdom to appoint what in their judgement may appear fit, which will be thankfully recd by

Your humble Obedt
Robert Crook

PS. Whatever may be thought proper by Gentlemen to allow is requested to be remitted to Mr John Muir and Company, No. 60 Friday Street to Acct for Mefsrs Jardine & Dickson, Newton Abbott."

The background to the letter goes back another 200 years, to a group who were unhappy with the established church.

Congregationalists, originally called Brownists, follow a form of church government first defined in 1580 by Robert Browne, whereby each congregation manages its own affairs. In the 17th century they were known as Independents, the most famous of them probably being the Puritan leader Cromwell and many of his Ironsides. They objected to the ceremony and adornments of the Anglican church, preferring a more simple form of service. The puritans were ruthless in carrying out their preferred views, and when Charles II was restored to the throne, he wanted more religious freedom.

Clarendon was adviser to King Charles and his idea was to have a national church broad enough in its view to embrace all shades of opinion. Unfortunately this was not possible because the role of the bishops in the Anglican Church was unacceptable to the non-conformists. When the religious settlement came, it did not follow Clarendon's ideas. The successive Acts passed between 1661-1665 which became known as the Clarendon Code were repressive legislation, far removed from his ideas of tolerance.

In 1797, 130 years later, the dissenters, or non-conformists were still there, so there must have been a way around the Conventicle Act.

The Established Church provided for the minister by the collection of 'tithes', which was a tax of one-tenth of the annual proceeds of land, or personal industry taken to support the clergy and the church. It was often 'in kind' — not necessarily money. The 'rebel' church ministers had to depend upon voluntary contributions from the members of their congregations to support them. In a case such as this one at the end of the 18th century, a small congregation was unable to provide the necessary funds.

I find the letter quite sad, to think that the minister had to write a begging letter for funds to enable him to live and carry out his duties. But at least he had recourse to some help. This must have been a similar scheme to Queen Anne's Bounty, which provided funds for the low-income Church of England clergy with small parishes.

As a point of interest, in 1972 the Congregational church in England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church in England merged to form the United Reformed Church, which is also consultative only, with no control over individual churches.

Although it does not concern the postal aspect, I think I will now try to trace the other end of the story. I should be able to trace John Muir, and Jardine & Dickson and find out if 60 Friday Street, Newton Abbott is still there, I would not be a bit surprised to find records, or even an early photograph, of the building. After all, the town in which we lived had 350-year-old pubs still in daily use. Anyone reading this who has any contact with Newton Abbott Devon, and would know about Jardine & Dickson of 60 Friday Street, please mail me.


Concise Oxford Dictionary
Hutchinson Encyclopaedia
The Story of the British People in Pictures (Odhams Press).

3 December 2002