As I have frequently mentioned, I love stories of lost letters being found bricked up in an old fireplace or hidden in the back of a drawer. But imagine discovering the contents of an entire 18th century mailbag. That’s what historian Thomas Truxes unearthed in an uncatalogued box at the British National Archives.
During the Seven Years War, the British navy captured an Irish trading vessel named the Two Sisters of Dublin off the coast of France in 1757, sending the ship’s contents to London as “evidence.” That included a mail bag full of 125 letters, the majority written by Irish expatriates living in France.
No one had ever studied the letters taken from the mailbag. In fact, most of the letters still had intact wax seals. They had remained unopened and unread for 250 years.
Unlike many of the carefully preserved letters we find in archives, these weren’t the erudite constructions of the elite, who anticipated that their letters might be saved by the recipients. No one wrote these messages for posterity. Instead, the mailbag carried chitchat of everyday life from a cross section of society, housewives and teenagers, maids and parents, rich and poor, literate and not so much.
Mary Dennis wrote to her sea captain husband, “My Dr I beg you will not omit Riting as it is ye onely Pleasure I Can have in yr abstance I beg you may take care of your self & I beg of the Allmyty God to Preserve you from all Eavill…” [My dear, I beg you will not omit writing as it is the only pleasure I can have in your absence. I beg you take care of yourself and I beg of the all mighty god to preserve you from all evil]
But in the same letter she proved her practical nature, requesting that he bring back olives and pepper to sell at the shop because such wares fetched a good price during the embargo.
A father warned his apprentice son: “I learned that you are a great libertine and that you pay no attention to what Mr. Pearl tells you. Watch out what you do. I am writing to him that if you do not return to your duty to give you some good strokes of the rod.”
And a young maid, in almost unreadable run-on sentences, told her sister about fixing pancakes, complained about being stuck inside and gossiped over how much Mrs. Beab liked their Uncle Frank, asking him over for supper and dancing until midnight.
Read more great excerpts from the letters of an 18th century mailbag.