Harrison, Bristol

"Sickness and Concern in pre-Victorian England"
Bristol to Sutton, Surrey, 1837


Eunice Shanahan

This letter was written just a few months before the death of King William IV, who was succeeded by his niece Victoria. It is addressed simply to Mr Harrison, Sutton, Surrey with a side note "For Mrs Harrison". The Post Office Directory shows that at this time, Sutton had a population of about 1800, and Mr Harrison was entered under "gentry". It was the first Post town from London, and there were two Post Houses, the Cock Inn and the Greyhound Inn. There was a frequent mail service ; letters arrived from London at half past 8, half past 9 and 12 noon and again at 7 pm. They were despatched for London at half past 8 in the morning, and then at half past 3 and at 6 pm.

There are five postal markings, showing the progress of journey, starting with the ones on the back (Fig.1)

1) a rather poorly struck circular BRISTOL date stamp, apparently 14 FE 1837.

2) then the London General Post receiving date stamp 16 FE 1837 in red. This is a morning duty stamp identifiable, because the year is in a straight line,
3) Transfer stamp, faint, indented rectangle in red 10 F'N 10 FE 16 1837, (applied at the Chief Office as the month is before the day in the date) as the letter was to be delivered by the London Two Penny Post.

Then on the front of the letter (Fig2.)

4) a boxed TP rate 2 stamp. Sutton was in the Country area of the Twopenny Post at that time. In Alan Robertson's book he has a map which shows that it is almost at the extreme edge of the 12-mile radius south of the GPO. General Post letters which were to be delivered in the Country area of the London Post were subject to a charge of 2d, in addition to whatever other rate was charged, and the stamp to show this was introduced in January 1830. This boxed example was replaced in 1836 with an unboxed type. It was applied in the Twopenny Post office. So Mr Harrison in Sutton would have had to pay 1/- to receive this letter.

5) the cost of the letter, the manuscript '10'. Postage rate Bristol to Sutton, which was 122 miles to London, then about 11 miles from the GPO to Sutton, so a total of about 133 miles. Between 1812 and 1839 the cost was 10 pence for a single page letter over a distance between 120 and 170 miles. The journey took about 15 hours by mailcoach, which is not borne out by the postmarks. The mail was scheduled to leave Bristol at 4 pm each day, (in this case on the 14th, which was a Tuesday) and travelled overnight to reach London 15 hours later arriving at 7 in the morning. So the London postmarks should have been the 15th February and not the 16th. I wonder if the mail had been caught in a snowdrift, or an accident as it was winter.

Now to the letter which is sealed with a blob of orange-coloured wax with a patterned seal of circular dots, probably made by the use of a silver thimble. The letter was opened very carefully, having been slit across this wax seal. In many cases the letters were ripped open and lumps of paper torn off with the seal! It is written by a caring friend to relieve the worries of someone too far away to visit her own sister. (Fig. 3)

click here for larger image.
"Bristol February 13th
My Dear Mrs Harrison

I have long been wishing to write to you as I am sure you must feel great anxiety on your poor Sister's account but it was her opinion that you did not expect to hear unless some change should occur — if for the better she fondly hoped to please you by writing herself.

I have been able to see her very seldom the last two months owing to my own illness. Last Wednesday week I had a car (carriage?) to go as I feared from what I heard that if I waited to be strong enough to walk I should see her no more. I found her much altered during the few weeks I had been absent, having a violent cough and great expectorations added to her other sufferings, and I thought the time of her release was drawing near. I did not however like to write without having Mr Leman's opinion and I find he still thinks it possible for her ultimately to recover, at any rate she is not in immediate danger. It is wonderful how any constitution can bear such great and protracted sufferings, no doubt her Heavenly Father has wise and gracious ends to answer tho' to us inscrutable.

Our servant went to see her on Sunday and brought me word that she was a little better, she mentioned having received a letter from you which she wished me to answer as you were very uneasy about her, as I shall not have time to see her for some days I think it best to write what I know, and should your letter require a particular answer I am convinced after the sad account contained in this you will be glad to hear again.

I hope Mr Harrison and your dear little girl are well and that you have escaped the prevailing epidemic — few families in Bristol have — ours is one of the favoured few. Jane is in tolerable health, she joins in fond remembrances with
Yours affectionately
N.A. Ranton."

Although the ink is not very black, the writing is clearly legible, yet as in so many cases in these old letters, the signature is harder to read than the rest of the letter, and I may not have read it correctly. The epidemic mentioned in the last paragraph is likely to have been cholera.

The paper is good quality, and has aged so well it looks as though it has not long been delivered. It has a watermark S E & Co 1834 (Fig.4) identifying the maker.


I asked for information from an internet mailing list for people interested in paper makers, but unfortunately no one has any information about this particular watermark.

The letter gives a glimpse into the life of ordinary people of nearly 170 years ago.


References: The Local Posts of London 1680-1840 — George Brumell; 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.

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