Bideford to London, 1840

Letters from the past
"Executing Mr Cleveland's Will,

Bideford, Devon, to London, 1840."

The letter is in very good condition, written on heavy cream paper without any watermark. It is from Messrs Carter, Bideford 18th May 1840, and addressed to Messrs Robinson & Barlow, Solicitors, Essex Street London. It has three postal markings, first a circular date stamp showing Bideford MY 18 1840, then a London Tombstone type receiving stamp B PAID 20 MY 20 1840. This was a morning duty stamp, identified because the year was in a straight line. This date was only 12 days after the introduction of the adhesive Penny black postage stamp but no 1d black stamp affixed on the letter just the third postal marking, a red manuscript ‘1’. This is not unusual as it was not compulsory to use the adhesive stamp originally as long as the postage was pre&emdash;paid the penny charge applied. The interesting thing to me is that had the letter been written six months earlier, it would have cost 11 times this penny postage to cover the distance of 204 miles from Bideford to London.

The letter concerns the execution of a will.
Bideford, 18th May, 1840
Lord Middleton’s Trust

Since receiving the Irish Commission &c which you sent us, we have seen Mr Willett thereon, and it appears to us that it will be necessary to obtain a Commission from the Bishop’s Court of Exeter, for swearing Mr Willett as Executor of the late Mr Cleveland’s Will, unless he shall himself go to Exeter (upwards of 40 miles from hence) for the purpose of being sworn before the Bishop’s Vicar General or a Surrogate there, as there is no such officer at this place. We think the least expensive mode may be for Mr Willett himself to go to Exeter and which we think he will do on being guaranteed his Expenses. We have written to our Proctor in Exeter on the subject by this post, and before we take any further step, we shall be glad to hear again from you.

We are Gentm
Your most obt hbl
Carter & Son

Then the writer added a postscript to make the legal position clear:

By the certificate annexed to the Commission, it seems that Mr Willett must himself appear before the Bishops Vicar General or Surrogate & receive? the Letters requisitorial &c so that we fear Mr W cannot be sworn by Commission here.
[Note 1 : the definition of a Proctor in the Oxford English Dictionary is


(in the Church of England) an elected representative of the clergy in the convocation of Canterbury or York. The historical reference is that it was a practitioner of law in ecclesiastical and certain other courts.


Note 2 : Requisitorial….a formal written demand that something should be performed or put into operation.]

The letter then continues in a totally different handwriting, with the reply scribbled roughly and with various words abbreviated or in some cases the wrong word. Obviously the reply would have been re-written by the clerk on a separate piece of paper and posted off to Devon. Note it is dated only 2 days after the letter was sent from Devon.
Mssrs Carter & Son Solcr Bideford Devon

Essex St May 20 1840

Lord Middletons Trust
In reply to your favor of the 18th inst we beg to say that if you will adopt that Course of proceeding in this matter which will effect best the purpose at the least Cost, we shall at (sic) much obliged to you & will guarantee Mr Willett all expenses. We shd have thought his Journey to Exeter might have been dispenced with, & we are really concerned to subject him to such inconvenience but by your Postscript advice per that, such is (under the circumstances) the proper course - It is quite obvs that we must indemnify Mr Willets for the expense. We trust that in any Event the matter will receive early attention as other measures are dependt upon it we are &.

The reason that the lawyers are querying the journey for Mr Willett to Exeter is that in 1840 there was no direct road across the Devon countryside between Bideford in the north and Exeter in the south, Mr Willett would have had to take a coach from Bideford to Barnstaple, then a 50 mile coach trip east to Taunton, then another coach from that town about 20 miles south west to Exeter, no easy journey at that time. Plus of course he had to make the return journey. It is no surprise that he would need his expenses paid!

Like many of our old letters connected with the legal system they seem very complex, but the law IS very complex. This si’uation would have arisen because some of the paperwork was not in order. Colin Chapman’s book ’Sex, Sin and Probate’ has information about procedures.


If any interested parties believed that the executors or administrators were breaking their testamentary or administrative bonds, and not acting in accordance with the will or Letters of Administration they could take action.

.... Often the disputes were referred to a higher court, in such cases the higher court would issue a summons or citation in the form of a Monition, a Commission, or a Requisition to the lower court for copies of the relevant documentation (the lower court was admonished or commissioned to send up the documents). Normally the will was needed by the lower court in which case that court made a copy of it for their files and passed on the original.


I would be interested to know how the Irish Commission was involved. Questions such as this arise from reading many of our old letters, and after more than 170 years it is unlikely that I will ever know the answer.

However, there is much more information available nowadays on the internet and one of the things a search for Carter and Sons of Bideford brought up was the information that Charles Carter Junior, was also the Bideford Town Clerk in 1839, so probably in 1840 too, when this letter was written.

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