Letters and Documents

  • 25 Sep 2020

Today's Feature Fridays looks at examples and extracts from fascinating letters and documents within Historic Houses places. Take a look below to see letters, maps, diary entries and more.

Brancepeth Castle, County Durham

By 1818 the Russell family were known as the richest commoners in England. On the back of their huge coal wealth, Matthew Russell embarked on a major rebuilding of the newly-acquired Brancepeth Castle and spared no expense. His cousin by marriage, Charles Tennyson, was keenly involved, and this letter from Matthew to Charles shows the energy and enthusiasm he had for the project:

Matthew Russell

November 27, 1818

"My dear Charles,

I am going on with my building without a check…. The great Bastion … I shall place at the water’s edge, which water I shall try to have the appearance of a river. The dam will be made below the wooden bridge …. I am going to lay a railway to the quarry which … will save me £1600 per ann.’

Matthew’s wife Elizabeth clearly enjoyed her husband’s wealth, as a letter from her in 1813 to Matthew lets him know:

Letter Elizabeth Russell Brancepeth Castle

Tuesday May 5, 1813

Many thanks my dearest husband for your kind letter which arrived last night……

….. I requested you would have the good to purchase for me a set of handsome rings to wear on my wedding finger ….. you are also to purchase me a handsome gold guard ring pray procure it a strong one….

At Whites there is a bill to pay and which I gave you among the rest … at Lanes there is also a Bill which you have, there is nothing more to be done than to pay it…’

Combermere Abbey, Whitchurch

Combermere map

This very old map dates back to 1707 and shows the land around Combermere Abbey in Whitchurch. The map was found in a book given by the Combermere family to the present owner, Sarah Callander Beckett. What's wonderful to see are the details of nearby places and features, like 'The Black Ditch Meadow', 'The Island of Freedome', and 'Ralph the Fisherman'.

Brook Hall, Londonderry

Brook Hall map


The first is a map from the 1689 Siege of Derry where their walled garden is shown in its entirety, making it one of the oldest walled gardens in Ireland.

Brook Hall Londonderry

The second, and much more recent document, is a plan of the house that was found last year during their archival review. It shows the intended layout for the first installation of central heating into Brook Hall. Although itself not overly exciting, what makes this interesting is that the plans are made out to a MRS GILLILAND. The only point in the history of the house that the Lady of the house was able to make these decisions was during WWI when her husband had passed away and her sons were at war, leaving her at home to keep both the house and the farm running should her sons return.

Traquair House, Innerleithen, Peeblesshire

Traquair letter

An iconic document from the archives of Traquair is this Jacobite coded letter (c 1715). It has been well handled as you can see it has been folded into six - possible to hide in a cloak or pocket, and has never been de-coded, despite a lot of well known code breakers having a go! Perhaps you can break the code.

Knebworth House, Hertfordshire

Knebworth House letter

This letter at Knebworth House was written by 15 year old Emily Bulwer Lytton to her father Edward in 1843. In the 1800s, to save on postage and paper costs when writing a letter, people would fill a page with writing then turn the paper sideways and write across the paper as well.

Markenfield Hall, Ripon, North Yorkshire

Markenfield Hall letter

Markenfield Hall is very proud of its connection to Caroline Norton, a C19 English social reformer, and even more so of its collection of her writings held in the archives here. Caroline was a tireless campaigner for women's rights at a time when they had very little by today's standards.

Hever Castle, Kent

Hever Castle Astor Suite

The Astor Suite is dedicated to their more recent history. It contains pictures & memorabilia relating to the Astor family who were the owners for 80 years from 1903.

Chenies Manor Houses, Buckinghamshire

Chenies Manor letter

A letter in the Chenies archives dated to 1746 describes the difficulty caused by the window tax. In it, the steward, Robert Harris, lists the 116 windows in the ‘great house’:
“The uninhabited part hath about 54. In the apartment I live in 34.
Mr Davies hath 28. As to the 54 they may all be stopped up except 4 or 5, which rooms we lay up the old materials. But I would hope the Parliament hath made a provision for empty houses.
Out of the 34 in my apartment, I can spare 12 or 14. I shall be glad to have your advice whether close lathing will not be sufficient, without plastering, for there is some very large windows which will be considerable charge, especially if the whole empty house is to be stopped up”

The iniquity of the window tax may have played a significant part in the decision to dismantle or abandon some of the buildings within the complex.

Penshurst Place, Tonbridge

Penshurst Place letter

With a literary heritage fueled by the Sidney family who have been in permanent residence since 1554, Penshurst Place is the birth place of many a writer including Lady Mary Wroth and Sir Philip Sidney.

You can learn more about the literary legacy of the Sidney family in a new online course with Lancaster University, led by Professor Alison Findlay - ideal for anyone with in interest English Renaissance literature, and early female writers. For more info visit: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/sidneys-of-penshurst/2

Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

Bamburgh Castle letters

Bamburgh Castle's curator, Lisa Waters, has sent over the following extracts from letters written from artist J Edward Taylor to Bamburgh Castle owner, Lord Armstrong in 1914 which is linked to three miniature paintings in the Bamburgh Castle Collection.

J Edward Taylor was the son of Edward Taylor (1828-1906) and was investigating some of his father's connections, though the family had obviously purchased work from him previously.

From the comparison of charges his father charged more for a painting, or a great quantity were bought, or maybe there were many figures in a painting if he also charged extra for inserting them.

In the collection at Bamburgh are three miniatures painted by Edward Taylor.  Lord Armstrong gained the rank of Major in the service of the Northumberland Hussars in April 1902 and the portraits may have been painted to commemorate this event.

They show William Henry Armstrong Fitzpatrick Watson-Armstrong (1863-1941) in the Northumberland Hussars uniform, Winifred Margaret Watson-Armstrong (1894-1912) and William John Montague Watson-Armstrong  (1892-1972).

The miniatures are small, painted on ivory and fitted with gold frames with a loop for a chain connection.

Miniature painting at this date had fallen out of fashion with fast and accurate photography more common.

These miniatures were begun with a photographic print on the ivory then painted in watercolour, to speed the process and ensure likeness of the sitter.   Watercolour was difficult to use on ivory and various techniques were used to gain the luminosity of colour with light shining through the paint.

The painters who produced miniatures also tended to produce the larger portraits in oils which were not possible to replicate in photographic form. The charges given make it very much a business transactionthough the miniatures of Taylor’s father are intimate and personal against larger, public, high status paintings.

The letter in the Bamburgh archives is dated 29th April 1914 from J Edward Taylor, Mecklenburg Square, London WC.   Written in pencil in the top left corner is 'Picture taken £2.2.0'.

The letter reads:

'My Lord I thank you for your letter of the 27th past. And regret to hear of Lady Armstrong's indisposition. Would you care to give 2 gns for the Miniature in oils - 'Blue Bonnet' - I should be exceedingly grateful if you care to purchase it at this reduced price. It is the study for a large picture in oils that I painted and which is in the collection of Joseph Gregson Esq.  Secretary to the Hull Chamber of Commerce.  I should very much like to paint the portraits suggested in your letter - and would be very willing to meet your Lordship in any way as regards price - and I can assure you I would do my best to satisfy you.  

My usual charge for full lengths is £1.11.6 (one pound, eleven & sixpence) for every inch of the canvas in height - but I would willingly charge you £1.1 per inch in height - thus a canvas - 24 x 20 inch would cost 24 gns - or a 12 x 10 inch 12 gns.  This is for simple figures - on the second figure introduced in a portrait I suggest a reduction of 25%.  Thus two figures in a canvas 24 in. high would cost 42 gns.  The figure takes roughly about 3/4 of the canvas.  The full terms that I mentioned are the prices that I have charged for painting the following: Lord Ridley. The late Sir Lewis Molesworth Bart. Gen. Sir David Bruce. The child of Lady Theresa Fletcher.  Commander and Mrs Weston Young.  And many others.

I am taking the liberty of posting a rough sketch in oils tomorrow in order that your Lordship may judge the size etc. of the head in relation to the figure. I would endeavour to finish the portraits as well as possible - & would suggest sending them by post during the painting for criticism. A brief description of the colouring would be necessary.  I am my Lord Yours very truly J Edward Taylor.'

In 1901 Lord Armstrong's General Expenditure of 1901 lists various paintings that were bought.  Included are 'Feb. 14 E Taylor, For Miniatures, £32.15, June 26, E Taylor, Miniature of Sir John Adye £34.13, Sep 13 E Taylor, miniature of Col. A Smith, £35.14,  Nov 11 E Taylor for miniatures, £105, Dec 18, E Taylor, balance for miniatures £23.18.'

Wadhurst Castle, Sussex

Wadhurst Castle letter

The letter above was described to us by Suzanna FitzGerald, owner of Wadhurst Castle:

'[This letter] was written to a previous owner, my mother, Zina FitzGerald (nee Moncrieff) and after she died at a grand age, I discovered nearly 200 letters, nearly all of them love letters from various chaps who were in love with her. The writer of this letter wanted to marry her but my father won the girl. The letter was written 2 days before she married my father. The writer’s name was Valentine Swain, and he became a distinguished surgeon. He never married.'

Return to listing