Captain Todd

“James Maxwell of Kirkconnell,Dumfries
from William Sheldon, London, 1813,”


Eunice Shanahan

This letter is written on heavy cream paper bearing a watermark of the Crown and Post horn and the letters HW. It has two postal markings, one postmark a London evening duty double ring with the date in a small circle in the centre JA 11 1813 with identifying letter B on the. The year is in 3 figures at the bottom of the stamp 813 figures 1813 which was in use from 1800-1828 with codes A to F. The second marking is the charge mark, the rate being 1/1d for a distance of 300-400 miles, and Dumfries is 340 miles from London.

The letter is addressed James Maxwell Esq Kirkconnell Dumfries Scotland written by William Sheldon of London. This was a time of great political upheaval with a change of Prime Minister and Members of Parliament resigning over the introduction of Catholic Emancipation, and a lot of turmoil concerning the renewal of the Charter of the East India Company. So although it is not a long letter, it is packed with things that called for research.

It is legible for the most part but has a couple of words which are not clear, and they are marked with a question mark. I have transcribed it as it was written with his abbreviations, like (cou’d have induc’d). I find it odd that many writers at this time abbreviated words like this, and it seems pointless to put in an apostrophe instead of the one letter they have replaced.

Gray’s Inn 11th January 1813
Dear Sir
I am this moment favoured with your letter for which I beg leave to return you my best thanks, and it gives me great pleasure that the extention I recommended to the petition meets with your approbation. We have now only to trust in God for success.

Ministers have carved out for themselves a question, which may possibly rid the country of so feeble, divided, bigoted a host. I mean the struggle they are about to have with the E. India company. Under all the existing circumstances, nothing short of insanity cou’d have induc’d them to raise such a Hydra (*)

It is said Canning is on this occasion to separate from Ld Wellesley & hopes to ride into power thro’ it. The small specimen he gave during the late short sitting, seemed to say, I am ready for sale, only bid high enough; it is also whispered (tho’ I have heard the contrary strongly asserted) that he means to cool very much upon the Cath. Question. If these assertions shou’d be true, I trust he will be making a bad speculation.

I shall be much obliged by such information as it may be in your own, Mr Mensies(?) & Bishop Cameron’s power to favour me with respecting the state of Catholicity in Scotland. Our wishes, tho’ our cause is founded in truth & justice, requires all our activity and exertion, in order to meet that hostility which a quick (slant?) in the Notes of a certain class (the Clergy) has rais’d agt. us. The change of sentiment in an illustrious question has trailed the scent I hint at. May the result prove as contemptible for them, as their industry has been indefatigable; and I flatter myself when all their petitions appear, I shall not prove a false prophet.

I beg my kindest remembrances to Mrs Maxwell, and tho’ I have not the honour of being known to them, I request you will permit me to trouble you to present my best respects to Bishop Cameron & Mr Mensies.

I am Dear Sir
With the greatest esteem your most obedient humble servant
Wm. Sheldon.

Note : (*) from the OED This comes from Greek mythology a snake whose many heads grew again when cut off, making it hard to extirpate.

This letter mentions so many interesting people of historical interest, and because of that I contacted a friend in England Dr. Marjie Bloy, who has an extensive website with an amazing amount of information about this period called the Peel Web.

The first information she found for me was about the writer of the letter William Sheldon Born in London, the second son of William Sheldon of Weston, Warwickshire. He was admitted as a fellow-commoner to Gray’s Inn on 28 April 1764. He became a barrister in 1791; bencher in 1813; treasurer in 1816. elected as a bencher at Gray’s Inn in February 1813, so when he wrote that letter, he wasn’t a bencher. Lived at Brailes, Warwickshire. Died unmarried on 20 November 1830.

Next the political situation. In 1813, Lord Liverpool was in office, he became Prime Minister after the assassination of Spencer Perceval, taking office on 8 June 1812. Britain was still in the middle of the French Wars against Napoleon! Canning had been an MP since 1802 but had been elected as MP for Liverpool only in October 1812; in 1814 he was appointed as Ambassador to Lisbon, so clearly he made a mark for himself. Canning was very much in favour of Catholic Emancipation and when he became PM in 1827, found that a lot of the “old guard” resigned rather than serve with him, and have to swallow Catholic Emancipation. Ironically, Wellington and Peel were two of those who resigned, then had a change of heart and passed the Bills for Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Wellesley was Wellington’s older brother who had been a great Governor in India, but not as effective as a British MP.
Now to the addressee James Maxwell of Kirkconnell. I have been in contact with some members of this Clan, who gave me a link to the website of a branch of the Maxwell Clan in America and they have the background on this man. . I have only taken out the basic information to go with this letter. His forebears were involved in the support of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and they were staunch Catholics. He was the eldest son of James Maxwell and Mary Riddell of Swinburne Castle, near Hexham, Northumberland and he inherited Kirkconnell, William the next son became the friend and physician of Robert Burns and Thomas the third son became a merchant in Liverpool. When his father died in 1762 his eldest son was barely three years old.

When he returned to Kirkconnell, James brought French brickmakers and bricklayers, and he proceeded to build the “new” part of the house, of bricks made on the site. James’ brick building is the shaded, reddish section between the tower and the white stone part of Kirkconnell House. The house, inhabited by Maxwells for seven centuries, is seven miles south of Dumfries, Scotland.
The Petition Sheldon mentions concerned the renewal of the Charter of the East India Company and there were actually two Petitions laid before the House of Commons that week, and it could well have been either of them.
The name Mensies, is probably Menzies, as he is connected to this area, and an entry in the DNB shows that Menzies, John 1756-1843, founder of Blairs College, Kincardineshire, was the last member of an ancient family long settled at Pitfodels, Aberdeenshire, which had always adhered to the Roman catholic faith. He was born on 15 Aug. 1756, a few months after his father’s death. The care of his education devolved on his mother, a daughter of the house of Kirkconnel. She resided for some time at Dinant in Belgium, where her son was educated, and, on the breaking up of the Jesuit College there, she applied in 1774 to Bishop Hay, vicar-apostolic of the lowland district of Scotland, for permission to employ the services of Sir Alexander Strachan, the ex-jesuit missionary at Kirkconnel, in completing the education of her son. Hay was compelled, however, to decline the request. It has been said of Menzies that for thirty-seven years he never became aware of distress or difficulty without exerting himself to relieve it. In the course of 1827, Menzies conveyed to Bishop Paterson his beautiful estate, with the large mansion-house of Blairs, Kincardineshire, about six miles from Aberdeen. There the college dedicated to St. Mary, for the education of secular priests, was opened 2 June 1829, and the students from the two seminaries of Aquhorties and Lismore were removed to the new institution. Menzies was also a munificent benefactor to the convent of St. Margaret, Edinburgh, opened in 1835. He died at Greenhill Cottage, near Edinburgh, 11 Oct. 1843.
Bishop Cameron a well travelled and educated man of his time. He was in the seminary at Scalan in Scotland, then the Scotch college at Rome, back to Scotland, then out to the Scotch college at Valladolid in Spain. Back to Scotland, then consecrated bishop of Maximianopolis, in Palęstrina Secunda, on 28 Oct. 1798, at Madrid; returned to Scotland in 1802; succeeded as fifth vicar-apostolic of the Lowland district on the resignation of Bishop Hay in 1806; He remained in Scotland until his death in 1828. So he was obviously the person to ask about the state of Catholicity in Scotland.
This letter would have been absolutely topical with the events causing such turmoil and the precise language used is of a better standard than many letters written in our time.
Sources : Great Britain Post Roads, Post Towns and Postal Rates 1635-1839 Alan Roberton Robertson
Dictionary of Natinonal Biography
Dr. Marjie Bloy visit The Peel Web

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