Letters from the Past

"An unsatisfactory and unsatisfied son, Musselburgh, 1839"

This month’s letter is addressed to The Revd. H. Wastell Newbrough Near Hexham Northumberland from C.D. Wells. Newbrough is a very tiny village about 24 miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne. When I found it on the map, I was surprised to see that it is only about a couple of miles south of Hadrian’s Wall, the barrier built by the Romans to mark the furthest extent of their empire – and to keep out the barbarians to the north! (Fig.1)

click here for a larger image

Now to the postal markings (Fig.2)

front of letter

Boxed MUSSELBURGH P.P. date stamp for JAN 13 1839, and a manuscript charge mark of 10½. This is the rate for between 80 and 120 miles (9 pence) plus the Penny postage, plus the Scottish mail tax of the additional ½d. The letter is sealed with a plain blob of red sealing wax and it has been opened carefully around that, and the paper has a watermark of MAXWELL 1836.

Musselburgh was one of the Edinburgh Penny Post offices, and it was a horse post during the 1830s. (Fig3)

Edinburgh Penny Post

So now to the letter, which is a marvellous chatty letter giving a window into a life that has long gone. This father is obviously a worried man, who is grateful for the money he has received from his friend, and feels he has to apologise for his wife’s previous letter.

“Musselburgh Jany 12th 1839

Dear Sir

Your kind letter arrived this day enclosing a bill for £25 for which I beg to return you my best thanks – When you last wrote I was confined to bed with a cold, and have been much troubled with Rheumatic pains. I am thank God quite well again - I knew nothing of what my Wife had written and am extremely sorry she should have said any thing to have hurt your feelings – she begs me to apologise for her, for having done so - but from the state of mind we had been in for some weeks past, both for want of money and necessaries, and how to meet the accounts coming in at this season, made her feel keenly.”

The next paragraph explains in some measure why they are distressed.

“Henry is a great trial to us, not for any misconduct, for we have nothing to find fault with in that respect, but his not getting on in his profession, he seems to have taken an utter dislike to it - I wish I could get him into any situation in any of the Government Offices, of which there are a great many – such as Customs, Stamp and Post Office &c, both in this country and England - I spoke to a Gentleman the other day about him, who said when he had an opportunity he would speak to Fox Maule or Sir John Campbell. This I do not much rely upon but should a dissolution of Parliament take place soon, I shall then remind him again.

The Lord Advocate has got several young men in to situations of the same sort but as I am not a supporter of his, of course I cannot look for anything from him. I hope something will turn out soon for at home he cannot remain.”

The people he names here are very well-known personalities of the time. All three were MPs. Fox Maule was a member of the House of Commons as a Liberal or Whig in 1835-7 for Perthshire, and afterwards represented the Elgin burghs, 1838-41. When this letter was written, he was one of the under-secretaries of state in Lord Melbourne's ministry in 1835-41.

The dissolution of parliament referred to in the letter happened in 1841, so all three lost their positions. However, Sir John Campbell was a member of parliament for a long time and as a reward he was given a peerage, and after pressure was brought to bear on Lord Plunket, the Irish lord chancellor, to induce him to resign, which he did unwillingly, protesting against the arrangement, Campbell was appointed to that post. As the appointment was so unpopular in Dublin, he publicly declared that he would forego the usual pension of 4,000l. a year which attached to the Irish chancellorship.

The Lord Advocate in January 1839 was Sir John Archibald Murray, Lord Murray, a Scottish judge and also an active member of that same parliament.

It is obvious that the writer of the letter knew the importance of influential people, and was aware that because he did not support the Whig political party, he was unlikely to be able to get help from the Lord Advocate. The letter continues with news of his other children. The working conditions of the next son seem to be similar to an apprenticeship.

“Charles is about 15 years of Age is with Mr Lees a Lawyer in this Town – Mr L is also Agent to the Western Bank – so he may get on in either of the ways that suits best. He is to be with him three years and a half - he gets nothing during that time and pays nothing. He has not been quite a year but they are both fond of each other - Richard is nearly 13 years and William is going on 9 – they are both at the Grammar School here and as soon as they are fit for anything I mean to put them in the way of doing for themselves - I will never be at the expence I have been at with Henry - As for the Girls, I do not know what they could do.”

So whatever Henry had been doing had spoiled the chances of his younger brothers. The girls of course would be expected to marry, and the expense of keeping them would then fall on their husbands. The next part of the letter concerns local affairs, (Fig.4)

inside of letter

“There has been no particular damage done here with the Wind that I’m aware of but it was most awful on Monday morning - Jane may perhaps remember the name of a Mr Stewart – a Dancing Master of this place and who used to tune Pianos, he was going to Haddington that morning when the Wind got under his Cloak, took him off his feet & he fell on his breast and was taken up dead – his funeral is on Monday. He was a very industrious man & has left a large family in very poor circumstances.”

I am surprised about this, as I would have thought such a storm, resulting in the death of a local personality would merit a mention in a paper.I have not been able to find any information about these events. The Musselburgh librarian advised me that there are no local reports available, and that the local paper did not appear until 1889, about 50 years after the date of this letter. He then finishes his letter with a comment about the Post Office.

“There has of late been so many changes about the Post Office that I find this will be too late for this eve’g so that it will not go till tomorrow. With love to Jane and best wishes to all, believe me to remain
Yours very sincerely
C.D. Wells”

This could be concerning the disruptions to the post caused by the cholera outbreaks of the 1830s, but I could find no specific references. 170 years later there are still complaints and wonder about the Postal services.

References :

‘Great Britain Post Roads Post Towns and Postal Rates 1635-1839’ and ‘ Dictionary of National Biography'

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