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 primary sources.

In 1774 the Court of the King's Bench decided that delivery of mail must be free within the limits of a post town; but letters to or from places outside these limits had still often to be brought or fetched under local arrangements by means of village messengers, private servants, or carriers in the employ of local postmasters. Except in the case of certain small towns, not Post Towns, which seem to have been given a grant for the purpose, or where private servants were used, a charge for the conveyance of each letter was made, or else a fixed annual sum was raised for the village or district messenger. — from Alcock & Holland, British Postmarks, A Short History & Guide

The cost of posting a letter has to be seen in the context of the ability to pay. In some cases there would be no cost, if the family was able to send a personal servant to deliver the letter. Once the Penny Posts began to be set up in the provincial cities, from 1793, the benefits of the cheaper postage would have been felt by everyone. Between 1812 and 1815 there was a rush to open Penny Post offices everywhere. The fact that the one penny charged was not such a burden is proved by the profitability of these offices.

As a matter of interest, one of my forebears Anne Bye (widow) left in her Will the princely sum of 12d to her son John, and when she died around 1718, this inheritance would have paid for 4 letters to be posted ! She also left her wearing apparel (linen & wool) to her daughter.

In our present cash/credit card economy it is difficult to relate to the previous hard times. Take, for example this letter from a desperate mother, where she seems to be requiring such a paltry sum to settle two of her children. Notice that she has mentioned 7d a week for a constancy for the daughter, and yet it cost 8d to send the letter to the solicitor in Highworth, 82 miles away.

[Click on the image for a larger view

31st December 1831

I sincerely hope you will pardon me for intruding a subject on you so much prohibited in your last to Mr B. but my great anxiety for my family instigates me to use every endeavour to promote their welfare.

The favour I have to solicit from you Sir is the loan of twelve pounds. If my request is complied with it will enable me to provide for two of my family my Son and a daughter whose health being very delicate will not allow her to leave home. On that consideration the person has given me an offer of allowing her (for a constancy) 7d pr week if I will pay her eight pounds which I should be most happy to do if possible but I have no other means of raising that sum.

I therefore most humbly solicit your kind compliance. My son also has an eligible situation promised if we can make him respectable in his appearance which I should be enabled to do with the sum before named and should I now be successful you may rely Sir on my not again applying to you till all that is due is paid.

I sincerely hope I may not be disappointed and I shall ever Sir, pray for one whose kindness will never be forgotten by your humble servant

E. Belcher

Should you Sir comply with my request I shall feel obliged by your dropping a letter to me directed for me at the School of Industry Dalston Lane, Hackney

To put it all into perspective, here is an extract from "The Agricultural Labourer" by Peter Talbot-Ashby:

... The chances are that many of your ancestors found employment on the land. In England in the 1700s, 75% of the total workforce were labourers. Then the farm worker had, for the most part, to rely on the strength of his body and perhaps a horse if he was fortunate enough to have access to one. Ploughing, sowing, weeding or harvesting, or tending to sheep, cattle or other livestock were all labour intensive.

At the beginning of the 18th century in England, in most households it was necessary for the whole family to contribute to the production of an adequate subsistence and not simply rely on the efforts of a single breadwinner. The labourer's wife was usually a working woman, and children too were put to work at an early age. The children would be plaiting straw for several hours in the early morning, scaring crows, or weeding and picking stones from the fields. The girls were expected to work alongside their mother in a variety of handicrafts and household chores, including sewing, weaving and feeding hens. The boys, from about the age of seven, as they became stronger, would be working beside their father 10 or 12 hours a day, doing a full day's hard work contributing to the family budget. Schooling was almost unheard of for the labouring classes, and the few who were fortunate enough to receive any formal learning through charity schools and Sunday schools would only receive, at the most, three or four years education in elementary reading.

It was not until 1870 that compulsory education for five to 13 year-olds became law in England. However, as the children worked beside their parents, they would learn about the weather, the seasons, the names of the animals and birds, and they could recognise the varieties of hedgerow berries and which were good food and which were poisonous. They also learned how to tend and take care of the farm animals and the land. To be employed in fulltime work was certainly not the normal practice, however. A few, usually unmarried and under the age of 25, might be engaged for a year as farm servants at a Mop Fair or hiring fair. They might be lucky and live in a barn or other outbuilding on the farm, ready to start work at first light of dawn in the summer months and well before the light in the wintertime.

The majority of labourers were hired on a day to day basis as "wage labourers", earning about one shilling a day (5p) in the 1700s, rising to about eight shillings (40p) by the 1830s. At harvest time work was plentiful and they could earn a little extra cash, but their day was not eight hours, as we know it today, but 12 to 15 hours of hard physical work. At that season, work was available to all and the whole family would turn out. However, subsistence from such work was erratic, certainly not regular, and was generally insufficient to provide the simple necessities of life.

So how did the agricultural labourer manage to survive when times were hard and paid employment on the farm was scarce? Most families lived in small villages or hamlets, much smaller than we know today, and they depended on the land to support them. Their dependence was mainly due to their rights of access to common land where they could raise a cow or two, or some pigs or sheep at no cost at all. They also enjoyed the privilege of gathering fuel, by cutting bracken, turf, peat or brushwood. The hedgerows provided berries that could be eaten or turned into wine or pies, and nuts that could be gathered and stored. Rabbits, fish and birds could be taken, sometimes by poaching, all of which added to the limited resources of the agricultural labourer.

Even where common land rights did not exist, most people had a small garden where they could grow potatoes, beans and cabbages, or keep a pig, or a few chickens or geese which could be fed on almost anything. After the harvest was gathered in, gleaning the fields was another right, going back to Biblical times, providing enough for a few loaves of homemade bread and some straw for bedding.

Self sufficiency was the order of the day. Nothing was wasted. We hear much today about recycling but, to the agricultural labourer, right up to the 19th century, everything was used until it was finally completely worn out, after many attempts to repair and rejuvenate it. Old pieces of leather were saved to repair shoes, harnesses, etc. Old nails were put to one side and straightened to be used a second or third time. Rugs were made from old pieces of clothing — preferably from wool, which was more hard-wearing than cotton — which were cut into strips and hooked into pieces of sacking. In fact anything that could perhaps find a use in the future was put to one side and saved. It was a hard existence and not the idyllic life that some romantic novels might suggest.

The family home would probably be a small rented cottage, with no water tap, sink or washing machine — indeed, no water supply at all, other than a single pump situated in the village and serving the whole community. Washing clothes was a communal activity for the wives and daughters of the village, but hygiene and cleanliness were little understood, so illness and injury took their toll. Many children died before they reached the age of five. Slight injuries became infected and often crippling, simply because medicine and cures were, largely, unknown. Epidemics spread like wildfire and devastated whole communities.

In the 18th century, travel as we know it today was usually neither desired nor under- taken by the labouring classes, isolated in their village communities except for an occasional journey of a few miles to a nearby village or market town. Parish records show that many would be born, married and die within the confines of their small world, and our labourer would not have the level of national and world news that we enjoy today. He would have scant knowledge of the events of the time that moulded the destiny of Britain and the world outside. Such things as the American and French Revolutions and the Scottish Jacobite risings in the mid-1700s would pass him by, unless he was personally involved. It might be months or years later that news of these events would filter through to him. Yes, there were newspapers, but few agricultural workers could read or write. Much of Europe was using the Gregorian (new style) calendar and had been doing so since 1582, but it was not until 1752 that England and Wales changed from the old style Julian calendar. How much this affected the agricultural labourer is hard to say, but he became 11 days older overnight when 2 September 1752 was followed by 13 September! [Family Tree Magazine, July 1995]

So, we had better be grateful to be living in the 21st and not the 18th century.

3 December 2002