"David Thomson, A Scot in Genoa, 1840"


Eunice Shanahan

I have two letters addressed to David Thomson in Genoa. They were both written in 1840, one from Glasgow and one from Edinburgh, and they have totally different postmarks. The first was written from Glasgow on 14th August, postage unpaid, was postmarked in Genoa 19th September. The second was written 10th December, postage paid arrived on the 19th December.
The first one was written by James Scott in Glasgow, addressed to Mr David Thomson at Messrs McKirdy Webb & Divoce, Merchants, Genoa Italy. It obviously went by sea and he had written a note at the top, 'per first ship opportunity' and then crossed it out. The note at the bottom p. Matilda is the name of the vessel by which it travelled. (Fig.1 address panel of letter

Postal markings :
1) charge mark 6 probably applied in Genoa, and possibly the inland Italian post charge
2) Via di Mare (E) This was applied in Genoa and signified Foreign sea origin the (E) standing for Estero
3) 19 7BRE the date of receipt (19 September) the 7 replacing the word Sept (French for seven). The naming of the months began with March as the first and so September was the 7th month, and December the 10th. I had not seen this way of indicating the date previously, and then found both of these letters with the same type of date stamp.

There are no English postmarks as the letter went all the way by ship to Genoa. I was surprised that the route would have been via Liverpool and not by London, but Glasgow to Liverpool was a regular route, and there would have been regular sailings from Liverpool to the Continent, and the transit time of about a month is reasonable for that time. The writer's use of private means of getting the letter to Liverpool would have cut out the Post Office, and the Matilda's master would have accepted the letter on payment of a small fee, and would have lodged it at the Genoa post office when he arrived there.

The letter is very interesting, mixing friendship, family and business, and the writer also has a sense of humour.

"Glasgow, 14th August '40
My Dear David
I was favoured with your long looked for letter about 2 months since & I daresay in this you'll be thinking I have neglected you entirely but I sincerely trust you'll never allow yourself to think that as the reason why, as neither laziness forgetfulness, but believe me, there has not been an opportunity from the Clyde since the departure of the "Sir R.A. Fergus" there is very few vessels leave this port for Genoa. In fact I find it confined completely to L'pool by which I intended getting this letter forwarded through the medium of a Friend.
It gives me much pleasure to hear your liking your new sphere & trust ere long it may be a good one, I find those who get on best in some cases are by mere chance, others cant get on, either at home, or abroad. May yours be a lucky one, and may you merit it, is my humble desire.
Try and get hold of some nice young heiress with perhaps £30,000 & I'll call you a lucky dog. Is there any such Creatures in your hemisphere — If my charms would be of any avail, I would not care to come out & try my chance."

The next paragraph is a telling comment from a contemporary local resident, about the effect of the railway development on the coaching business, which had been the backbone of trade in the country until the coming of the railways.

"I am still in the employ of I. Broom & Co & continue to like Glasgow very much, in fact I feel I could not live in Paisley now, its turned such a dull hole, all my old companions have completely left it. We have got a Railway established now which takes us out in ¼ of an hour. The Coaches are completely knocked up. It will be of an immense advantage to both Towns."

He then goes on to ask about business prospects, and this gives an insight into the way trade was developed with the Continent.

"My object for writing more particularly just now, is for this reasons, first to answer your first letter to me; secondly to enquire if you would take the trouble the first time your writing to let me know what are the general exports to Genoa either in the Fancy or General merchandise and I would have no objection to try a small consignment to you if you have no objection to take the trouble. I trust you'll not advise me unless you know the field is a good one. You'll write me more fully next time & let me have your advice.
Genoa Velvets are very much famed here & very costly. I should like very much to get a crimson piece as much as make a vest would you be good enough when writing to mention what the price of it would be or if you would advise to get one at home as perhaps the carriage of it may perhaps cover the whole"

He finishes up with personal and family comments but he ran out of room and had to turn the page and write across the lines to complete his letter


click here for larger image

"Dear David
I should write more fully this time but I find business presses too hard upon me to spare many more minutes so I will again bid you adieu & have only to request you'll not be so very dilatory in future you've to blame yourself for my not writing you ere this as you promised when you left to write me first & you were so very long of fulfilling your promise that I was obliged to give you the hint. I am sure I must be connected in a great measure with your oldest Ideas. At least you are to me & it is singular you never thought of writing to me . I often wondered at it. I shall say no more on the subject & shall leave it to yourself whether our very old Intimacy is to be broke up —
I was in Paisley last Saturday Evening & had a walk with Mr A. Thomson who has got very Tall about [his light?] & he mentioned your sister Mrs Glover now here from Edinburgh with her young Charge & intended calling on Sunday but did not get here however I will call next time I am there.
Write me per first ship opportunity I am ever your sincere friend
J. S. Scott"

He has then continued on the outside of the letter with this sentence

"P.S. I gave your kind regards to A Stevenson & I Bartholomew who are all alive & kicking. J.S. S"
The filing note on the outside of the letter is "Jas.Scott, Glasgow 14th Aug 1840".
The second letter is from David Thomson's sister, Mary Glover who is the lady mentioned in the last paragraph of the previous letter, living at 19 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh. In contrast to the first letter, this one has eight postal markings. It was prepaid and took only 9 days to get to Genoa.

(Fig3. showing postal markings) click here for larger image

In the 1840s Italy didn't exist as a single country, but was made up of States and Provinces, and Genoa was in the province of Savoie which was in Sardinia. The frontier point coming from France was PONT-DE-BEAUVOISIN.
The first 5 postal markings show the route of the letter:
1) Edinburgh
2) London paid Tombstone mark
3) Angleterre Calais transit mark
4) Point de Beauvoisin transit mark
5) 19 XBRE arrival date stamp in Genoa, 19th December (the X standing for Dix French for 10).
Then we come to the figures showing the charges, which are totally confusing. My reference books tell me what should have happened, but I cannot reconcile the charges with what has been applied to the letter. 6) 1st charge mark in red 1/ 2? the charges : Edinburgh to London should have been 1d in 1840, London to Calais was 10d. In France, England paid France 3.20 francs per oz for Calais to Torino, but by the Franco-Sardinian Convention of 1838 France delivered English mail free of charge to Sardinia — so from Calais to the border post of Point de Beauvosin was free. This looks like a combination of 11d for the English portion, and then 3.20 for the French portion — if they are combined, how would the Edinburgh postal clerk know how much to charge Mary Anne Glover? If any reader has any knowledge of these charges I would be pleased to hear from you!
7) 2nd charge mark in black 22? or 99? which I cannot decipher or guess, and is probably the cost to Genoa from the border. This would have to be paid by the addressee. It would have been based on the weight of the letter.
8) 7.15 weight of the letter.

So now to the letter, which is affectionate and concerned. It begins with advice and warning, and I hope that it reached him before the Colonel arrived !

"10th December 1840
My Dear David
Aunt Mary called for me yesterday to tell me Mrs Tytler had sent for your address and her Brother Colonel Colvin who has lately been in Italy had written from it as he wished to write you about some thing he wished you to do for him. I write you to let you know (I hope beforehand) and would wish you to be very attentive to whatever it may be and to answer this letter immediately on receipt as I believe he is particular on that point and Mrs Tytler is anxious on your account that you should please him."

She then continues with family news to keep him in touch with what is going on at home. Paisley gets another unfavourable mention, and at this time the shawl making industry was going through a tough time.

"I heard very lately from home they were all well, Margaret as stout as ever, I am sure you would know a great change upon her she is quite fat. Alexander gets on very well he has grown so tall. I am doing all that is in my power to get a better situation for him in Liverpool or Manchester through Richard Means whom I am very partial to and trust I may succeed in. Paisley is not the best place for making money. My mother, Isabella and Helen are well. I hope to have some of them with me this winter but do not know as yet. My Grandmother keeps better but is much afflicted with rheumatism in her fingers or I daresay she would often write you. Aunt Mary is quite well and walking about as usual. Your nephew improves in health and strength daily, but does not walk yet and can only say cat and cheesy — he is very fair like what you were but I think resembles Papa, who is quite well and desires to be very affectionately remembered to you. He is busy with the Lectures at present — Now Dear David I trust you are quite well and quite comfortable and do write soon and let me know all your wants and wishes and if any of them are in my power to gratify I need not say they will be.

If Mr McKirdy is with you remember me to him most kindly there is no news here at present that I think would at all or I would give it you and as I am rather hurried I will conclude by wishing every good may attend you and believe that I am your very affectionate sister Mary Anne Glover"

That last sentence looks as though she left out a couple of words in her haste, but I expect her brother would have guessed what she meant.
I find that letters like these bring the past to life better than any text books, and I would have liked to have seen the replies from this Scot in Genoa in 1840.

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

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