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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Oh, to be lucky enough to have literate ancestors who wrote chatty letters, tear-stained diaries, or even casual postcards and account books and whose descendants preserved them and passed them on to us! Most family historians are not in this fortunate position but there are ways to find relevant items. Whether you see the original or a derivative copy they contain primary information. Researchers need to be aware that although these personal accounts and diaries may give more truthful accounts than official or edited versions, they still give highly subjective impressions of events and persons.
With determination and a dose of luck, most genealogists will come across letters concerning their families. They may come from distant cousins or perhaps be purchased from an antiquarian dealer. A sampling from a recent glance through online auction catalogues follows:
- Letters from John Dongworth, East Indies midshipman providing considerable information about his family and their fate, to John Powell of Shrewsbury 1775 and 1780.
- Letter from Harriet Bullen, wife of Charles Bullen Liberal politician, 1833 and 1838 to their daughter Fanny, advising against sea-bathing, as recently popularized by George III and IV. Letter from bellmaker James On of Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire 1803 to James Wheat informing him that his bell with new clapper, yoke and irons and a small bagg went to Hull last week and has been put on board the Captain Fox vessel for Tinsley…I shall take the earliest oppertunity [sic] of coming to Sheffield to Hang it…
- Letter from William Irwin, a smith employed by the Great Western Locomotive Department 1843 to his father in Newcastle telling him that The railway company has built a Large Factory at Swindon and has taken All the workmen from London Station to Swindon so that I was compelled to Go or Lose my employment it is A very pleasant free open Country and it seems to Agree with all the Children they never looked better, we got all down Goods and every thing Free of expense… [Last two from Ambra Books and Lesley Aitchison website]
Even if your relatives were illiterate there will often be letters written by others that mention them, particularly in 19th century correspondence with emigrants. This is the case in the clutch of letters from England retained by the family of my relative George Jupp a settler in New Zealand . Note how some of the older folk could not read and write and relied on the local curate or school teacher to assist them.
Chart: Letters to New Zealand (Courtesy of descendant Frank Jupp)
To George JUPP, born 1828 (eldest son of James JUPP gamekeeper), went to New Zealand in 1851 - 1853 23 May
From his father’s employer’s son C.H. CAMPION of Danny Park, Hurstpierpoint, Sussex but written from Westmeston Rectory, near Brighton, Sussex. [Some punctuation added]
| George Jupp, Dear Sir,|
Mrs Campion not having yet recovered her accident sufficiently to write to you herself has begged me to tell you how glad she was to receive your long and interesting letters and to hear that you were doing well in your new and beautiful country. I imagine that some of your friends at home will have told you of Mrs C’s misfortune but in case you have not heard of it you will be sorry to learn that she fell down in her bedroom last winter and broke the small bone of her thigh. This has caused her a long and painful confinement, and though much better, she is not yet strong enough to write much.
It has given all your friends great pleasure to hear that you were in so prosperous condition in New Zealand: no man can do wrong, who makes his home in so fine a country. Since you have left England there have been no great changes in this neighbourhood; Hurst goes on continually increasing, the College which I think was begun before you sailed is become a very large and imposing building, not far from it Mr. Hannington has built a chapel; he also proposes erecting a new street on some land of Mr. Marchant’s which he has bought; the emigration this year does not seem to go on so quickly as in last year; there has been a considerable rise in wages and this probably induces people to stay at home who would otherwise try their fortunes in the goldfields, or New Zealand. Mr. Power, you will be sorry to hear, is leaving Hurst, where he will be much regretted by all the parishioners; circumstances have induced him to go to Brighton, where he will assist Mr. Robertson.
Your accounts of the plants and trees of New Zealand interested Mrs. C very much and I think she would be pleased if you were to send her some seeds when an opportunity offers. Your long letters to your grandfather arrived in Saturday last, and surely puzzled both he and Mrs. Jupp to read it, but by good fortune my father and Mr. Turner came in, in the course of the day, and Mr. Turner was able to read it to them; they were much pleased with its contents. The old people have both been pretty well this winter and always express themselves as most anxious about you and are very glad to have your letters. Your father appears to age faster than he did, he is also much stouter than he was. Mrs. Coke, whose villa you mention is now turned into a parsonage house, asks after you whenever I see them and hopes you are doing well. Will you mention in your next letter what are the principal articles of traffic which your part of the country produces and what prices you get for them; also what the wages of a labourer amount to. If you will let us know what would be useful to you I will send you a package of garden seeds, I shall not forget to put in some flower seeds to remind you of old England. I suppose thru’ the emigration to the goldfields will have assisted you, by rising the price of all agricultural produce, but the accounts we receive of all disorders, dangers, and drunkeness which prevail would deter any steady family from going there.
Since you have left England I have had two children, both boys and as time slips away they are growing nicely. I read some portions of your letter to my school, both to induce them to pay attention to their writing, and give them some idea of New Zealand.
Chart: continued - To George JUPP in New Zealand - 1864 (sic 1865) 15 May
From Sarah LEWRY [Some punctuation added]
| My dear friend,|
After a long lapse of time I take the opportunity of answering your long, kind and interesting letter. I am very sorry that my letter will not bring good news to you, Dear friend. I am truly grieved to tell you of the long, painful illness and death of your dear brother Robert. He has been a great sufferer. He died at the end of 10 months illness on the 26th December and was burried (sic) on the 30th. He died the death of a true Christian and was quite prepared for the great and awful change. He bore his long illness with Christian fortitude, his age was 21. He was very kindly treated by all friends around him, he had everything he wished for from Danny [the manor]. Mrs. Campion visited him often and went to see him after his death, which was a great comfort to your dear Friends -------------------------.
To George Jupp in New Zealand - 1905 5th May From his half-brother William Jupp, Packhams Cottages, Hurstpierpoint, Sussex
| My dear Brother,|
Our cousin George showed me the letter he had from you and I was so pleased to hear about you. I though I would write a few lines to you myself and tell you a little about our family. Our father died in 1874. After he died I took his place and lived with mother until her death about 18 months ago.
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