Philadephia, 1835

Letters from the Past
Philadelphia to London, 1835

This letter is addressed to John P. Milner, Warrington, Lancashire, dated 17 June, 1835 and was written by his uncle, whose signature looks like ‘Othniel’ Alsop, in Philadelphia and from the wording of the letter, it relates to the Quakers. This is interesting as Philadelphia was founded as a Quaker settlement by William Penn in 1681, showing that 150 years afterwards the Quakers were still there.

There are only two postal markings :–
1) a boxed two–line LIVERPOOL SHIP LETTER. The catalogues show this mark as being very common, but it is the first one of this type we have ever owned. It is interesting that Alan Robertson lists this particular variety as being in use 1838 –1841, but our letter is clearly dated 1835. There is no postmark at all to show that it has come from America, but R. M. Willcocks states that outward letters were of no concern to the American Post Office, and were probably handed straight to the ships captains. Philadelphia, situated as it is on the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, has been a port since the original settlement, and today is one of the largest freshwater ports in the world. It is likely that there would have been a similar arrangement in the Port as there was in Britain, where letters could be left at Coffee Houses, or other specified places, to be collected by the ships captains and conveyed overseas. At the British end, the captains were given a small sum for each such letter, and I would be surprised if the same thing did not happen in America.

2) a manuscript charge mark of 1/1

This rate was made up of the incoming ship letter charge of 8d and then the inland charge Liverpool to Warrington – less than 20 miles = 5d, total 13 pence or 1 shilling 1 penny. The rate was changed in August 1835, but this letter was dated June 1835.

The writer has marked the letter ‘Pr Algonquin’ which was the vessel on which the mail would be carried. An internet search has shown that this vessel was an Immigrant ship, sailing between Liverpool and Philadelphia. There is a complete listing of the passengers, under this heading:–

“Ship Algonquin Liverpool, England to Philadelphia 21 July 1832


REPORT OR MANIFEST of all the Passengers taken on board the Ship Algonquin whereof Thos B Cropper is Master, from Liverpool 487 38/95 Tons, and owned by H J A Cape of Philadelphia and bound to Philadelphia.”

Now to the letter, which is very chatty”and informative, and was written by a Quaker, using the language of the time – ‘thy’ for “your” the “thee ” for “you” etc. He begins by acknowledging his nephew’s marriage, and then comments about the state of Quakerism in England.

“Philad 6 mo 17 1835
Dear Nephew
With much satisfaction I received thy very interesting letter of 23rd of 3rd mo last and in return cordially salute thee as a truly welcome addition to the number of my beloved relations hoping thy union with my dear Neice may be to your mutual comfort, and that you may prove fellow helpers and each other, Joy in the Lord – The intelligence of your marriage was very pleasant having previously heard a good account of thee from our valued friend Eli Healy.

Christopher dined with me a short time since, was in good health and interesting and lively as usual.

On his return from England I found he anticipated a time of trial and conflict among you, and he has not been mistaken – the tempest which has devastated our land has now reached yours and however dissimilar the notions afloat may seem, the activating Spirit is the same – a residing, dividing, destroying Spirit which under the guileful guise of Love and Charity sows the bitter seeds of Discord and Anarchy in our own peaceful Society – but I am not sure that these things are not necessary and in increasing wisdom permitted, that so often a time of Ease in which the Cross seems to have been measurably exchanged for the Crown – in which therefore Despised Quakers have been content and honoured by the great Dignitaries of the World and exalted to high and honorable stations among men, then may a sifting of men from Sieve to Sieve – the world’s honor is a dangerous thing – I have long thought our Society shall I say especially in your Land in danger of being caught in this Snare who knows but that the Trials of the present Day may be the means of bringing us back to the antient simplicity of the Truth in alone we can be qualified availingly to advocate the precious Testimonies given us to bear. ”

(Note: The Quaker system of church government has remained substantially unaltered since the time of George Fox.

The principal unit is the monthly meeting, a body usually meeting once a month and responsible for all matters of membership, for finance and property, and for deliberation on concerns raised by individual members or referred to it by superior meetings. The extreme austerity characteristic of early Quaker worship services has been modified in many areas with the adoption of hymn singing, set prayers, and prepared sermons. Almost alone among Christian bodies, Friends have no form of outward observance of the sacraments. They believe in a spiritual baptism and a spiritual communion.

The next part of the letter gives his nephew all the latest news about their monthly, quarterly and yearly Meetings in Philadelphia.)

“ Some time before our late yearly meeting some of us had the opportunity of perusing The Beacon and it was thought best to bring it under the Notice of our Meeting for Suffering, which in an Epistle to that in England bore its testimony against the errors of that Book and forwarded some other friendly cautionary hints which I hope may not be altogether useless.

When the minutes of the Meetg for Sufferings were read in our yearly meeting a very cordial and full approbation was expressed – I think we have not had so large a Y. Mtg since the separation – as the most intensity and harmony were remarkably preserved from beginning to end.
A large number of our young Friends attended, their behaviour was very becoming, and a greater proportion of them in plain dress that I think I ever saw attend a Yearly Meeting in this City.”

(Note: the next paragraph shows that they were obviously in touch with the Quakers in England, and had the latest information about events happening there.)

“ I understand the proposition from Manchester M. Mtg did not get to the Yearly Meeting but that a Committee has been appointed by your Quarterly Meeting to visit that Manchester meeting and endeavour to search out the Cause of Disunity. I was glad when I heard of it – it would have been a mischievous thing to have introduced such a proposition to the Yearly Meeting.

The letter then continues with reference to mutual friends.

“When opportunity offers I wish to be affectionately remembered to the beloved friends Geo & Ann Jones and Elizabeth Rofron – their warfare is not ended – may they be clothed with the whole armour of Light, and enabled to fight the good fight of Faith, nothing doubting that He who has hitherto preserved will continue to be with His Own even to the end.
It was pleasant to learn that my friend Alexr Diskin had found his way to your House an Israelite in whom there is no guile. Should thou again see him before his return to America, my love to him.
The Beacon I. Braithwaite's and R Bales's letters have been republished in this Country. Our Hicksites are spreading them with their comments endeavouring to make it be believed that these are the properties of Orthodoxy – I do not believe that they will do any great deal of harm here – But we cannot tell.”

This paragraph refers to the division which affected the whole of the Quaker movement during the 18th and 19th centuries. Two conflicting attitudes were present in the 18th century. Quietism, on the one hand, advocated passivity and self–abnegation in deference to divine direction, while the energy and theology of Wesleyanism and other evangelical movements inspired a new fervour. This tension precipitated several separations within Quakerism in the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably in the United States, where followers of Elias Hicks established a number of regional meetings. With the adoption of revivalist methods, of a worship pattern with hymns and set sermons, and of paid pastors, it was inevitable that opposition by traditionalist Friends should lead to further divisions.

By the beginning of the 20th century there were three groups, “orthodox”, “conservative” and “Hicksite”, all advocating and following different formats of worship within the Quaker religion.

He finishes his letter with advice and affection:

“I do not feel bound to accept thy wife's apology for not writing me a long letter – What she has done betrays her ability to handle the Pen of a ready writer, therefore while I am obliged by what she has done – tell her I shall expect a great deal more and that soon – and now my dear nephew my ardent desire for you both is that you may be encouraged patiently to stand in your allotments – In the coming Storm – the Winds may blow and the Billows beat against your dwelling but The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many “waters yea than the mighty waves of the Seas“ – He will not fail to be, to those who sincerely look to him for counsel and direction, a present help in every needful time. Hoping the correspondence now opened may be continued and desiring to be remembered in love to thyself, wife and as many of the family as thou mayst see
Am affectionately thy uncle
Othniel Alsop”

I am quite sure that this letter would be of immense interest to anyone with links to the Quaker form of religious worship, or to early Philadelphia history, as well as family historians linked to the Alsop and Milner families.

I found a website

which gave information about Othniel Alsop's Letter Book which contained copies of all the letters he wrote. I would be really interested to know if this letter is included as he lived from 1770 to 1836 and this must have been one of his last letters. The information from Marion Balderston showed that

On the 1st August, 1793, Othniel Alsop and his brother John sailed from London on the William Penn to become, in time, part of America's solid, prosperous middle class. They had a long Quaker background and a good education. Their father, Scrivener Alsop had come from Colchester, Essex to London to be Steward of the Friends School and Workhouse at Clerkenwell. Othniel attended that school and served an apprenticeship to a staymaker, after which he applied for and was granted the “usual gratuity” from the school committee and embarked for America to make his fortune. The letters give a picture not only of a young city and country growing up, but also the reactions of a young Quaker from the old country to this experiment in democracy.

His first letter in the Letter Book was to his sister Ann, and was dated spring of 1794. I cannot help but be envious of such a marvellous item to have in your family records, to know the history of your forebears emigrating to a new country and making a success of it, with all the background information about the way they lived.

Sources : Encyclopaedia Britannia; Alan W. Robertson: Liverpool postmarks and postage rates. Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild; for the Port & carriage of letters’, 1570–1840 by David Robinson

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