[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.]

This letter is one written to a Scotsman, Alexander Henderson of Stemster by Thurso, Caithness, by his son Patrick in London, before embarking for a new life in India.


  1. London evening duty date stamp, a faint impression of the double ring with date in the centre circle 29 Feb 1820, (it was a leap year, and 29 February was a Tuesday )
  2. London Additional 1/2d mark type H&S Fig 135(which is a1/2 in a frame), listed as being in use from 8 February 1817 to 29 September 1823.
  3. Edinburgh morning duty 3-line date stamp with B M on either side of Mar 3 1820.
  4. manuscript charge marks, 1/1, crossed out and replaced with 1/4. This was the cost for sending a single letter between 600 and 700 miles, the 1/1 is for a distance of between 300 and 400 (Edinburgh is 396), but according to the mileage list, Thurso is actually 775 miles, so the cost SHOULD have been amended to 1/5. This was a lot of money at that time, and as a result, Patrick Henderson wrote twice over the whole letter, making it a hard job to decipher, and follow, the contents. However, it was a challenge and the end result made it worthwhile, as it is a very interesting letter. I have transcribed it exactly as it was written including the odd spellings.

The Letter

The letter is dated 15 Chester Place, Kennington 28th Feb. 1820. The first page is written in effect in ‘double spacing’, with large gaps between the thirteen lines . He then turns the page and continues in the same clear double spacing for the next two pages. He begins the letter with noting that he has received a letter from his father, and then goes on to explain the situation regarding guns.

“My ever Dear Father,

I had the pleasure of receiving your kind letter on the 19th instant, where I am glad to see you say nothing to the contrary of all Friends being well.

I received your gun safe, and send you a single barrelled one by Major Campbell (a very poor return indeed), which I hope will shoot well. It is not exactly the kind which I suppose you would like, I could not get any of them except at an exorbitant price — under twelve pounds, However, if you would like a large strong one, likewise you have only to writ, Mr Davidson and he would purchase one — a muscat [sic]which only comes to two pounds or two pounds ten. I thought them clumsy, weighty things therefore would not purchase one of them. However, I daresay they would shoot very well. Major Campbell would take one down with the other if you like.”

The next paragraph is interesting as it is obvious that he has booked his passage for India on the ship and has already put his possessions onboard. I have been unable to find out on which ship he sailed from London to Madras.

You will see by this that I am still here. I wrote my Mother that I was to be of [off] on Friday, they have not got quite ready yet, I believe, but are intending to go on Wednesday, however, it is likely they may not get of [off] then either. My things I sent on board Saturday, and very lucky for me they passed. They might have ‘seased’ the gun, pistols, sword etc, which I was not aware of until after they had passed, otherwise I would have had them better concealed. However, it is quite the same, as it has happened so.”

Next he goes on to explain the finances — James is his older brother.

James would tell you that I got a letter from Mr McLean to Messrs Alexdr Cross & Co, requesting him to have the goodness to advance me what ever cash I may require, which I fear will not be so little as Mr Sinclair said — as the passage money will come to 130 £, the sum which he mentioned. Some of the berths in the ships are less, and some more and I thought it better to give a few pounds more and get out soon, than remain for another ship, as it is of the greatest consequence getting out soon.

Some of the berths were less than 130 but they were all taken before I arrived. I will have to draw for 150 £to pay the passage, and Mr Davidson and I think Mrs Gun will be able to answer all the other demands, as she has recovered the money which Mr Honeyman had, which could not be done until my good luck brought it. It has exactly come in the proper time for me.”

Note: Mr. Honeyman is a relative of the Henderson family, but I could not trace Mrs Gun. The next paragraph shows how important it was to ‘know’ someone – and preferably a lot of people to ensure progress once Patrick was in India.

I have only got four letters of introduction for India since I left Caithness, all of which are from Captain Fraser. The names they are for are :
Colonel Sir John Sinclair B.
Captain I Anderson, quarter Master and Interpreter,
Dr. Watson and
Danny Moodelier — Superintending Engineers Office”.

Note: I found that surprising, but in 1812 steamships were operating on the River Clyde — so presumably Scottish engineers would have been available.

However, I expect to get some more here yet. Mr W Thorn promised to send more here after me, as he said he had not time to write them before I left Edinburgh. However, I have not seen them yet. I had a letter from Sir John inclosing a letter to A Campbell an agent requesting him to give me a letter of introduction to Sir Alex Campbell, likewise his speech upon presenting the Waterloo trophies to the magistrates, which he wished me to get inserted in the Madras newspapers, without giving me any means of doing so, However I shall enquire about the sum necessary.”

He then continues with general information, mentioning his brother and sisters.

We have had a storm here since I arrived. It commenced the very night I wrote my mother and told her the weather was very cool. I am going to write to William tomorrow or the next day. I wrote to Cecilia but did not get any answer yet. I am sure you must be quite tired if you finish reading this wretched scrawl, it will afford you a little amusement — if you will have to guess at the greater part of it, however, it would be a little more legable had I a knife that would repair a pen.”

This is a reference to the writing equipment at that time, the Inns provided paper and quill pens and ink, but the quills needed ‘sharpening’ to a good writing point, and without a [pen] knife you would be out of luck. He was obviously on good terms with his father, as he concludes with an amicable comment, which sounds as though he does not expect to see him again.

Wishing you long life, prosperity and happiness (Prosperity now that you have got rid of that part of your family which are always most expensive to a father).

Believe me to be ever your truly affectionate son
Patrick Henderson”

He then continues writing on the other flap and this report would have been a real blow to the Henderson father and son

I will answer Margaret and Mary’s letters if I possibly can find time before I sail.

The whiskey you sent to me is lost. They took it out of the middle of the ‘beef’ and shut up the casks again very tightly. I should have liked to have had time to write this over again, but do assure you I have not time, as I must set off out to the City immediately and can only trust to your forgiveness, wishing you all every happiness

Believe me, again to remain your affect. Son P.H.”

Information about the family

Thanks to a Scottish researcher, Sara-Jayne Donaldson, I have learned a great deal about this family. The Hendersons as a family must have been one of the most important, untitled but landed families in the area. They had a long lineage, taking them back maternally to Bishops and Kings and seem to have been very community minded, generous and interested in improving their surroundings. They had lived in Stemster [which means 'stone'] since the 1600s. Stemster House is still standing in Bower, a huge white building surrounded by trees, set back off the road but clearly visible from the main south road between Thurso and Wick.

They also had a home in Edinburgh. The males of the family had a tradition of serving with the forces, apart from James the eldest who had the farm and produced whiskey. One of the family moved to London, and Parish Records show a christening of Cecilia Mary Henderson in Kennington in 1839, so it is possible that Patrick was staying with relatives, where he wrote this letter before he sailed for India.

Patrick himself was the youngest son, born and christened on 29 April 1803 in Thurso. Little is known of his life, although from his letter he seems amiable, and he certainly made the Army his life, as he never married and became Major in the 42nd Madras Native Infantry, serving in the Persian Gulf, India and Burmah. He died on 18 May 1877 at 12 Ann Street, his residence in Edinburgh, of the shaking palsy, from which he had suffered for two years.

I have much more information on the family, and if any reader is interested, I suggest they e-mail me or direct to Sara-Jayne Donaldson

Last modified 25 May 2010