Letters from the Past

"England & Ireland, 1798 – a military wife’s perspective."

This letter is one of two from Maria Dunbar, wife of Sir George Dunbar from Scotland, 4th Baronet, and Lt Col of the 14th Light Dragoons, to her mother Mrs Gustavus Hamilton. Both letters are more than 200 years old and rather the worse for wear, which is not surprising after all these years. It is full of information, and concern for her mother’s safety at the time of the 1798 rebellion in the south of Ireland.

The postal markings are : (Fig. 1)

Hamilton 1

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the black, single-ring London date stamp which has the date in the inner circle for JY 3 98. This type of stamp was introduced in 1787, but this particular variation was only in use from 1795 to 1798. The other markings are all charge marks, and there are 4 of them 3 of them crossed out and ending up finally with 1/9. The postage from England to Ireland at this stage depended on the route taken, and would include the land costs at both ends, Braintree to London, London to the coast, probably Anglesey for the ferry to Howth, (this would include the toll bridge charges and the ship packet rate), then the land charge to New Town Limavady. No wonder the postmaster was confused as to the correct charge. It was sealed with black sealing wax, the impression is of the head of a lady, but being black, does not reproduce very well.

Although the letter is headed Braintree, which is a small town in Essex near Colchester, and despite all the military references, the Essex Record Office Archivist has advised me that there was no military barracks at Braintree. (*) See note at the end for an update

The letter which is dated July 1st 1798, took 2 days to get to London,is addressed to Mrs Gustavus Hamilton Bessbrook Newtown Limavady Ireland (which is near Coleraine). It begins with an interesting comment for the time (Fig 2) :-

“When you are so good as to write direct still to Essex, wherever we go our letters will be forwarded.

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Braintree Essex July 1st 1798

I have been extremely unwell my dear Madam & totally incapable of stooping my head to paper, or I should have wrote to you since the misfortune of our wretched country, to express my anxiety about you. Situated where you are I trust in God there is no reason to apprehend for your personal safety but I dread the effect that a state of alarm and agitation may have on your health.”

The concern for her mother is natural, but she realises that even though the action is down in County Wexford, it is still a worry for her. She then continues with a very descriptive paragraph about the health of the people around her.

“I have not heard this age from anyone in Ireland. We go on in dayly expectation of being ordered to camp I heartily wish we were as I never expect any Health in this vile Essex. Sir G. Is the only one of the Santo Domingo set who is well at present. Col Caster is with us but so ill he is almost entirely confined to his rooms. Our riding master has been in his bed these two months. And all the rest either on sick leave or miserable examples at home. Tho’ I have suffered a good deal I think myself fortunate in not being worse. when I see the situation of the stout and strong of the other Sex.
We meditate a weeks visit to Dr and Mrs Tennant at Stanmore near London which at this time would be doubly pleasant as Mrs Copland and my dear little Mrs Ronaldson are there, but Sir G. Is doubtful whether he can obtain that Indulgence as Col Caster is not able to do any Duty.”

(Note : Mrs Tennant was Sir George Dunbar’s sister, and Mrs Copland was another of Sir George’s sisters married to William Copland of Colliston Dumfries).

After this sentence about the family news, she then reverts to the events in Ireland

“We read scarcely anything but the papers of which we take in great abandonment but Good God what scenes they contain & how little we would have imagined such events three months ago. With the wretched Sir Edward Crosbie we were most intimately acquainted. He was almost the cleverest man I ever knew, but unfortunately always those ideas which caused his melancholy end.”

(Note : Sir Edward William Crosbie was executed in error at Carlow 5th June 1798 )

Then it is back to comments about Braintree, with which she is obviously not impressed!

“Being Nail’d to this Dismal Village I neither hear nor see anything worth relating. Gen.l Egerton sometimes comes for a day to see his Regt and that is the only break that prevents one day from telling another.”

(Note: I could find nothing about General Egerton either, which surprised me, as I thought I would have been able to trace such a high ranked officer.)

She then continues with other news to keep her mother up to date with events :

“Have you heard lately from Dear Henry and how is my brother and his fair wife. Illness makes me peevish and I could almost quarrel with him for not writing to me.

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Since I last wrote to you I have never been from home except one day at Colchester, where are great people in the military line, Lord Euston, Lord Henry Seymour &c. I had a kind of pressing invitation to spend some days among them but alas Sir George cannot step out of quarters unless on duty.
Excuse this dull letter my dearest Madam and for Gods Sake let me hear from you if it be but a line.
Sir George joins me in love and duty to you and affectionate good wishes to my Brother and Mrs Hamilton - we are in mourning for a daughter of Mr Dunbar of Liverpool Sir Gs cousin German. She was a beautiful amiable young woman married to Major Brookes of the 20th regiment died of an early miscarriage. We left her in March recovering fast but a slow hectic fever carried her off.
Adieu my ever dear Mother and believe me with the truest affection
your dutiful daughter ......M ..Dunbar”.

(Sir George Dunbar died on 15th October, 1799 and his wife Maria the writer of the letters died 31st August 1808)

I have had this letter for a good many years and was unable to track down the information about the death of Sir Edward Crosbie. I followed all my usual sources, with no success, except for the absolutely intriguing sentence “Sir Edward William Crosbie was executed in error at Carlow 5th June, in 1798” which was an entry in one of the reference books. But with the huge expansion of the internet, the sources available for research have grown out of sight, and I was finally able to locate the information, which I have included here, with his permission from kfinlay@indigo.ie in Ireland .

Landowner and landlord Sir Edward Crosbie, Baronet, of Nova Scotia son of Sir Paul Crosbie, and brother of the first Irish balloonist Richard Crosbie, was a gentleman of liberal opinions, but altogether innocent of treasonable or other criminal designs or acts, was arrested in Carlow in 1798, tried by a court martial, sentenced to death, and executed by torch light a few hours before the arrival of an order from the Lord Lieutenant for his transmission to Dublin. He was hanged at Carlow Jail on June 5 1798 for 'traitorous and rebellious conduct, in aiding and abetting a most villainous conspiracy for the overthrow of his Majesty's crown, and the extinction of all loyal subjects'. He was beheaded and his head was placed on a spike outside the jail - it remained there for three years before being returned to the family.

However it was Thomas Myler, his butler and steward, who had been involved in the 1798 Rising. He disappeared in the wake of the Rising and it was only years later that he made a statement exonerating his old employer. It read, in part, 'Sir Edward was never a United Irishman ... if the United Irishmen happened to be mentioned to him in ordinary conversation he would remark: 'Ah, they are foolish people. I pity them'. The kindness of my good master to me was partly the cause of his ruin and he lost his life for what he had had no hand, act or part in."

Myler, it transpired, had worn a coat given to him by Sir Edward on the night of the Rising in Carlow and, he believed, someone had mistaken him for his employer.

As Maria Dunbar mentioned, a melancholy end for an innocent person. This is another letter which shows why they have such an appeal for me. It shows again that not all women were uneducated at this time, although, obviously in this case Lady Dunbar would have had the benefits appropriate to one of the ‘upper class’ – she was the daughter of a clergyman. Considering how long ago the letter was written, it seems quite modern and gives such a vivid picture of her life in 1798.

(*) Note: Newsflash
In July 2018, a visitor to our website, Cliff Thornton, took the trouble to contact us about the Barracks at Colchester.

I think that the Record Office must have misinterpreted your enquiry.

Colchester has been a Garrison town for hundreds if not thousands of years, as can be seen on this wikipedia entry

Colchester Garrison

But there are no barracks at Braintree. But then the letter refers to the camp at that town, i.e. a temporary camp under canvas. The answer lies in the time of the letter.
In the late 1790s the country was expecting an invasion by Napoleon. Military detachments were posted to various strategic positions, and I suspect that Braintree was one such place.
Some years ago I came across a reference to the North Yorkshire Militia being based at Danbury, Essex in case of invasion, in the same period. Confirmation came when I checked Danbury church records and found records of births (camp followers), marriages and deaths of soldiers in the registers. I suspect that the records of Braintree Church would show the same thing, if the soldiers were there for some time.

All the best,

There is a lot of information on the Garrison and the Barracks for Colchester, and it is amazing how much military force was based there over the years.


British County Catalogue of Postal History , London Willcocks & Jay
Great Britain Post Roads, Post Towns and Postal Rates 1635-1839, Alan W. Robertson

This article was first published in Stamp News the Australian monthly magazine.

Copyright By EARS Leisurewrite

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