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 more than 200 years old but is as clear to read as if it had been written and posted last week. Although it is a small, and short letter it has a lot of interest. It is a Scottish letter, addressed to Messrs Bell & Bradfoote, Booksellers, Parliament Square, Edin. (Edinburgh), and dated 31 Oct 1792, and was written by Donald McLean, of Carron Bank, which is near Falkirk.

Postal Markings

There are three postal markings

  1. a single line town stamp ‘FALKIRK’ in black;
  2. a very clear and clean Scottish Bishop Mark showing the date it arrived in Edinburgh, NO 2 (November 2nd) with a line dividing the month from the date. Bishop Marks on were struck in Edinburgh on incoming mail only from about 1780;
  3. the charge mark ‘3’ – to cover the cost of sending a letter within Scotland a distance not exceeding 50 miles. From 1711 it had only cost 2 pence but the rates had increased by 1d in 1784, a surprisingly long time without a price rise.

The paper colour is the usual sort of cream and the size is a single sheet which was doubled for the letter — it is almost foolscap size i.e. 37.5cm (15”) tall by 23cm ( 9 -1/4”) wide. The watermark on the paper is FINCH with no date. It is all in capitals the Letter F being larger than the other letters – the words are 55mm (2½ inches) wide — the Capital F is 15mm (9/16") and the other letters 10mm (about 6/16"). This could have been produced either by Elizabeth Finch who was known to be producing paper at Langford Mill, Bedfordshire in 1797 and John Finch known to be at Dartford Mill, Kent in 1794. However, as both of those two dates are later than the date of the letter, somewhere there is a discrepancy in the records.

The Letter

So now to the letter which is an order for a book. I have transcribed it as it was written; the spelling at this time was not fixed, and there is also what appears to be a Scottish word.

Wayland’s edition of the prayer book — please send me in what colour you please but the £2 copy — Alas! The Poets, so cram’d — I mean to continue 'tho all the stanes are there and may be perused — but mercy on my Eyes — I hope the Lord’s book may follow the specimens, then no glasses — the Poets make me old — sencible of your polite attention I mean to continue in my small line
Your Customer
and Oblig’d One
Donald McLean Carron Bank 31st Octr 1792

He has then added a postscript which is intriguing -

Why Yr paper so small I sometimes write long epistles.

This sounds as though the booksellers have provided him with writing paper, and if this is an example of the paper, I would have thought there was plenty of space for him to write.

Note: I have not been able to work out what the word ‘stanes’ represents and assume it is a local word – I wondered if it was in fact ‘stories’ which would make sense. Also, where he writes “I hope the Lord’s book may follow the specimens...” it was common for publishers to issue samples so that prospective buyers could check the product, and this sounds as though he has seen samples that are satisfactory, and hopes that the prayer book will be in that size print, in which case he would not need to use glasses to read it.

I checked for Bell and Bradfoot on the internet and found information about them on the National Library of Scotland website, which revealed that John Bell and John Braidfute (Bradfoot, Bradfute) were listed as Booksellers in Edinburgh from 1758, and were in Parliament Square from 1778-1788. They are still in business, but now at 2 and 4 St. Giles Street Edinburgh, where they have been since 1908. The website also reported that thirteen of the firm's ledgers for the period 1788-1818 were discovered in 1996, in the remains of Allan's Close under City Chambers. They are now in Edinburgh City Archives.

I find the letter interesting, as it shows that people were ordering books for reading at home, yet the common belief is that our forebears were pretty much illiterate at that time.

12 April 2005