Letters from the Past

“To Mrs Leith, in Aberdeen –

Support for the Princess of Wales, 1813”

This letter was written from London a couple of months before the introduction of the Additonal ½d mail tax. It has two postal markings : (Fig.1)

an Edinburgh circular date stamp in red for 28 Apr 1813 with the letters B and A on either side of the date, and a charge mark of 10d.

The wax seal on the letter (Fig. 2) is another thing that fascinates me about these old letters, because they are all so different. This one has the writers initials, in a very fancy script E.A.T but above it is a figure like a lion in heraldry standing up holding a stave of some kind.

The letter is addressed in an unusual way – that I have not seen before.

Mrs Leith
at Mrs Doctor Hendersons
Frederick Street

The ‘Mrs Doctor Hendersons’ is probably a courtesy title, (as the wife of Dr. Henderson, to differentiate her from any other Mrs Henderson in Frederick Street), as there were no women doctors before Elizabeth Garrett [Anderson] in 1865.

It was written from Lambeth, in London, dated April 12th 1813, but the only postmark on the letter is an Edinburgh date stamp for Apr 28 1813. The contents of the letter explain the reason for this difference. She begins with thanks for a present she received from Mrs Leith, and then goes on with information about the sickness of her children.

My dear Mrs Leith

I was favord with a letter from you some time ago accompanied by Packet of sweetmeats. for which my Saucy Sam offers his best thanks. I find it best to distribute so large a stock very frugally and of course we have some still kept in a closet by me as a reward for good behaviour.

He is thro’ mercy quite recovered from a fit of the measles which is a bad thing well over. My little John has not taken them at this time a case I find very frequent when the infant is at the breast. It is a very anxious time while they are coming out but we have been highly favor’d in their leaving no cough behind them – indeed our weather is unusually favourable, for thro’ all the last summer I do not recollect anything like the present summer for warmth and sunshine – it is very delightful and whilst blest with health to enjoy it I think we have great cause of thankfulness.”

(Note: MEASLES is an infectious viral disease causing fever and a red rash, typically occurring in childhood. It is something that the western world has coped with for a long time, but it later decimated populations in the newly discovered countries in Africa, and South America)

She then explains about posting the letter :

“A neighbour has just called in to say he is going to the border of Scotland and will take charge of any letters I therefore gladly embrace the opportunity tho’ I am quite sorry that in the hurry of the moment I have mislaid your last favor. But I think there was no particular cause of condolence or I should have remembered it.”

(Note: This would have saved Mrs Leith money, because the distance from London to Aberdeen (528 miles) would have cost one shilling and three pence, which was the cost for a single letter being carried between 500-600 miles, but from Edinburgh to Aberdeen was only 10 pence for a distance of between 120-170 miles.)

She then continues with reports of her activities, and makes an ironic comment about ‘gentlemen’ which I find surprising for that time.

“I have been a good deal engag’d lately with what perhaps I mention’d in a former letter – namely in forming a Society of Ladies for helping poor married women during their Confinement with lending a box of linen and giving them a suit for their Infant and 5/- on the planning and cutting out, now devolved upon me for want of a better, it has engag’d much of my time but I feel it a Duty incumbent to be of some service to our immediate neighbourhood and there seems no other plan but what requires the assistance of Gentlemen Managers. Our first quarterly meeting will be the 6th of May when I expect 6 women and their infants will attend to return thanks to South Lambeth Maternal Society.”

Note: I could find no record of this particular society, but it was also quite common for vicars' wives in rural areas to have layettes to lend to "poor but worthy" parishioners. However, there were a lot of "maternal societies" being formed around 1813. Elizabeth Fry was one of the leading lights, trying to make sure that women who were having babies had clothes for the child, and maternity necessities. She was an English Quaker prison reformer who married Joseph Fry a London Quaker merchant and in 1810 became a preacher for the Society of Friends. She had visited Newgate Prison for women in 1813 and found 300 women with their children, in appalling conditions and thereafter devoted her life to prison and asylum reform at home and abroad. She also founded hostels for the homeless, as well as charity organizations, despite her husband's bankruptcy in 1828. He settled in Bristol as a doctor but went into a pottery enterprise, and also founded the well-known chocolate business. Fry’s chocolate bars were a great feature of our childhood!

The next part of the letter is a comment on one of the great scandals of the day. (Fig.3)

“The great City of London is all in a bustle today with the Lord Mayor and Aldermen carrying a vote of Congratulation to the Princess of Wales on her escape from her enemies – which by the by carries with it a broad hint to some certain Persons – and who will doubtless understand it – but indeed the proceedings in this case have been very unfit and highly indecorous.”

This was a reference to a notorious event in 1813 concerning the then Princess of Wales, the wife of the Prince Regent, later George IV. Their marriage was a complete failure, and it was rumoured that Princess of Wales was leading an immoral life. In 1806, it was rumoured that a child living with her was her son, in which case he would have a right of succession, if his father were the Prince of Wales. A secret investigation was set up, called the "Delicate Investigation", with Commissioners appointed to inquire into the conduct of the Princess of Wales. This did not prove the allegation, although it showed that her conduct was improper. In 1814, the Princess left the country and went to live abroad, running up large debts throughout Europe and taking other lovers.

The Prince Regent had only married her to have the money to pay off his debts. There was lot of public sympathy for the Princess of Wales because her husband was a noted womaniser, who behaved very badly towards his wife. This letter shows that the support even went as far as Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, which seems extraordinary to me.

The letter then ends with greetings and good wishes :

“I hope your little Diana continues to thrive and your worthy Mother and Aunt, we will be pleased to remember us kindly to each and accept the best wishes and friendship of
Your Sincerely
A Tomkins”
She then adds a postscript :

“My accounts from Halifax are quite as good as we can expect.”

Written on the back is this sentence, which seems to have nothing to do with the letter, as it is 6 months after the letter was written.

“Began the meal on the 16th November 1813”

Perhaps Mrs Leith used the back of the letter to write a note to herself!

1813 was a period of distress - the Luddite riots had disturbed the peace in Yorkshire in 1812, for a start; the British were still fighting the French Wars in 1813 and money was tight, so her voluntary work with the South Lambeth Maternal Society would have been appreciated.

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

Copyright By EARS Leisurewrite

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