Eunice and Ron Shanahan have shared with readers of the Victorian Web this material from their website, Letters from the Past. Click on thumbnails for larger images.
The letter was written during the Anglo-American War of 1812-1814. In RM Willcock's book The Postal History of Great Britain and Ireland, it states "Very little forces mail is around from this pointless and unsatisfactory episode in North America." My letter is from a civilian - yet another ex-patriate Scot - addressed to his mother Mrs Helen Lesslie, Goatmilk, by Leslie, Fifeshire, N. Britain. The postal markings are:
- 1/4 in manuscript
- a boxed additional ½d mark, applied in Berwick
- a red octagonal datestamp applied Edinburgh, showing the receiving date of February 14, 1814. The 1/4d rate charged would have been 1/2d for the distance between 400 and 500 miles (Leslie is 422 miles from London), and the extra 2d would, I think, have been given to the Captain of the private vessel who brought the letter.
There is also a very faint marking in red which could possibly be a circular town namestamp of RICHMOND, which has been overstamped by the Additional ½d mark. This would be an early application of that postmark, as the Additional Halfpenny mail tax was introduced in 1813. This particular postmark is listed in Hodgson & Sedgewick as being in use from 20th June 1813 to December 1814. The letter is from Richmond - dated December 19, 1813. This seems to has taken a long time, from writing in December 1813, to the letter being received in February, 1814 but as the letter points out, there has been disruptions to the mails.
"My Dear Mother,
By a vessel about to sail from Amboy for England, I embrace the opportunity of addressing you a few lines merely to let you know that I am still in the land of the living."
Note: Where is Amboy? The only likely place I can find is Perth Amboy on 'the opposite side of the river from New York. Are there any Americans who can confirm this?
"I have written to you twice since the receipt of my Brother William's letter announcing the melancholy information of the death of my Father, both of which letters must have reached you, as the vessels by which they were conveyed arrived safe in England.
It would have given me infinite pleasure to have heard from you in reply, but the various contingencies to which any letters you may have written to this country, in consequence of your unusual situation must be exposed, I have not a plausible pretext to accuse you of forgetfulness.
It would have given me great satisfaction could I have congratulated you on a hope that a speedy restoration of those friendly relations which ought naturally to subsist between these two countries might speedily be expected, but far different is the prospect as far as political events have been divulged - consequently our communications with each other must be subject to the inconveniences to which they have been exposed for eighteen months past - until the much wished for event (for my part), peace, should take place.
My cousin John enjoys good health, as also his children, Andrew and Jane.
Alexander and myself enjoy ourselves in our own way - as it respects myself I am perfectly independent and happy. My situation is as I could wish - but the moment a peace may take place I expect to better it.
Circumstances which at the present moment it would be improper to mention, have considerably curtail'd my savings."
Note: Was he supporting the rebels against Britain I wonder?
"Do endeavour on receipt of this to let me know how you all come on. Tell my sister and brothers that I have not forgotten them, also present my best wishes to all my relations, and enquiring acquaintances.
The historical background to this letter is that during the wars with Britain, Napoleon had issued the Berlin Decrees which prohibited all the European ports from trading with England, which he reasoned would destroy England.
In retaliation, England issued Orders-in-Council which prohibited neutral ships from trading with France. This enraged the Americans, who had been trading successfully with France, and after five years of dissent and recrimination America declared war on Britain, in 1812. Because most of the British troops were involved in the Peninsular War, against Napoleon, the undermanned British garrison in Quebec, aided by the Canadian Militia bore the brunt of the attacks. They fought back three separate attempts to overrun the Colony, forcing two American armies to capitulate.
However, after the defeat of Napoleon at Toulouse in April 1814, and his subsequent exile to Elba, Britain turned serious attention to this minor American war, despatching many of the skilled Peninsular troops across the Atlantic to deal with it, but only one of the three attacks was successful against the determined Americans. It all ended at the close of 1814, when as a result of the defeat of Napoleon, England rescinded the Orders-in-Council which had caused the strife between Britain and America.
With the signing of the Peace of Ghent on December 24, 1814 it was generally agreed that the warring nations should "let bygones be bygones" in Europe, but the Peace Treaty signed by the diplomats did not subdue the ill feeling in the Colonies and this was not forgotten for many years.
Charles Oman, History of England.
K Hodgson & W.A. Sedgewick, The Scottish Additional Halfpenny Mail Tax.
Last modified 18 December 2002