Image and text by Eunice Shanahan. 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.

Clues in the Postal Markings

This letter from the past was written on 1 May 1829 by Wilhelmina Malcolm to her niece. It is addressed to Miss Stewart, 25 Upper Baker Street, London. There is no originating address, (obviously Miss Stewart knew it), so the only clues as to where it came from are from the postal markings. There are five, and three of them are the clues:

Malcolm letter cover

So the letter would have originated in Scotland, hence the additional ½d — 1/1d was the rate for a single letter carried over a distance of between 300 and 400 miles, (Langholm is 324 miles from London, and was routed through Carlisle). The two London datestamps show the journey took three days. The total to be paid on delivery was 1/1½d.

The Scottish additional ½d stamps are an interesting and well-researched study. They are of four basic types easily identified, even by a beginner, but with so many variations in size and colour that they have a specialist catalogue — Hodgson & Sedgewick — to identify any example.

If you would like to see more information about them click here

The letter is long and chatty, much of which is obviously news of the family, and like many of these old letters, it raises questions. For instance, in this first paragraph, I wonder whether the eleven human beings are school children, or is she responsible for an extended family of eleven members?

The Text of the Letter

My dearest Charlotte

I hasten to announce the safe arrival of the Post. Your mother's letter and yours have given me great pleasure. When I wrote your Mother yesterday I was very low about Duncan, my mind is brighter now, expressing my feelings to your Mother did me good. I do not speak about him, shall try to amuse myself in every way. This "Banksfoot" will be a great resource. Had Sir James got a Farm at present, I would have help'd well to fit up his Drawing Room, but time is precious to me and I trust that I can do substantial good to eleven human beings.

Should any crowd be (here) when William Stewart is here, I could send him to my closet at Banksfoot to sleep, every part of the bed is new, the floor borded — the Hearth Stone, jams (jambs) and Grate are to be those that were in the little old school house in the wood, relics precious to me.

The next paragraph seems to be a reference to the old saying of "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue", which is a traditional wedding wish.

I have bought Jane's churn etc, it is better that she has one new thing when they take up their own House. Betty will wash and mind for your brother at the Holidays. Isbel will fech and carry, she is a fine creature Isbel — Jane has done much for Jean, but she had a sad example in Jeany Easton whose conduct has been worse than any could have expected. He is a silly lad about 18 and doesn't even aim at marrying her. I fear he is not capable of understanding the story of Joseph. She has unhappily verified my confirm'd bad opinion as selfish and self-sufficient woman. From her earliest days she was indulged in this house, made a favourite by every one — though I had a dislike to her. I saw what was in her, and mourn’d over her faults not being corrected.

Say to your Mother with my best love that I shall take care of her Tea Pot and who knows but it may please God to keep me on the face of the Earth until she reclaims it on her return.

Write by the Pilot after you are afloat and immediately on your arrival. If you find Duncan in health what a mercy — do convince him what a foolish thing this Tiger Hunting is.

I wish you had seen Mina when her Book came out of the trunk. She screamed for joy, hugg'd and kissed it many times then flew to me, got her arms around my neck, quite wild with gladness.

The letter jumps from one subject to another, often with no apparent connection to the previous one. This paragraph seems to refer to some good fortune.

We will think of that by and by. Perhaps Magdalena Nichol but you must not speak about our riches at present. John Malcolm was greatly delighted in his way. He is a composed little man, his garden is the piece of ground after you go in at the door to the south of the Hut.

I have made a fancyful entrance with a wicker gate before you come to the first Hut and a road to the Cottage from Johnnny's garden by the back of the Huts. You cannot think what an improvement it is.

Nanny Byrne's niece comes to the children and me at Whitsunday, Jennit wants activity and knows nothing of general work. I wish a Person who can do up our clothes when farm work occupies all hands in summer. Your Aunt Mary continues to think my favourite NB perfection, and is anxious that she should accompany her to Twerton the next time she goes.

We all admire Mina’s dress Frock — every thing is right, only the Combs too slight for her quantity of hair.
Sir James is just arrived in high spirits. he spent a most agreeable day at Thirlston with Lady Napier on his way to Edgerston over the Hills

Willie Nichol sends his love to you — few can respect you more sincerely.

And now my dearest Charlotte. farewell,

I know that if you are allowed to remain in this world you will do credit to your upbringing. Treasure Miss Jane Malcolm’s friendship. she is truly good in no common way. Margaret and you will always love each other. I have not time to read this letter over and send in haste for Isbel Brown is to carry it to the Post — none of our people being going to Langholm.

Hope it will be in time to follow you to the ship.
your affectionate Aunt and sincere friend,
Wilhelmina Malcolm

Even though I have no knowledge of these people, and the letter was written nearly 170 years ago, the forthright character of Wilhelmina Malcolm fairly jumps off the page. I wonder where Charlotte was going and on which ship? If Duncan had gone tiger shooting, then it would possibly have been India.

Because many Scots left their homeland in the eighteenth century and could not afford to return, letter writing was an important part of life. Charlotte would no doubt have been pleased that her aunt was such a good correspondent.

Last modified 24 May 2010