Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Your Ancestor's Letters: Tips for Research (3): How many people wrote/read this letter?


Your letter was not necessarily written by one family member to one other person. Often letters were joint efforts by several members of an extended family in one place, writing to several other members if the family living in another place. Imagine all the hands (and brains!) that might have had an input into your family letter, all the eyes that might have read it and all the ears that might have had its contents read out to them . Different paragraphs of a single letter might have had different intended audiences with some less personal bits being read out to friends and acquaintances as interesting news from another part of the country or even another country. Sometimes letter writers wrote personal information at the tops and bottoms of letters with the understanding that the main recipient would read and remove these before the letter was passed around to a wider audience. Alternatively separate sheets within the letter might carry information meant for different readers.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Letters and Personal Writings


Two unidentified women reading a letter between 1860 and 1870
Via Wikimedia Commons





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Your Ancestors' Letters: Tips for Researc (1) : Who paid the postage?

Prior to 1840, the cost of a letter was borne by its recipient and depended upon the number of sheets included in the envelope and the number of miles covered for it to reach its destination - and postage fees differed in different parts of the country. In May 1840 Uniform Penny postage (using adhesive postage stamps began). Provided the letter weighed less than half an ounce our ancestors could send a letter anywhere in England for a penny. And from then onwards postage was paid by the sender.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Letters and Personal Writings



Image :Letter from Henry Gould 1887 via Wikimedia Commons


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Your Ancestors' Letters: Tips for Research (2) : When exactly was this letter sent/received?

What was the likely gap in time between the writing of and the receipt of your family letter?
Look out for letters that give not only the date but also the time of day eg 'Friday afternoon', 'Tuesday 6pm' etc. At some points in the Victorian period, in London, people could expect post to be delivered up to 12 times a day (even in provincial towns local post could be delivered up to six times a day) which meant that letters could go back and forth with almost the regularity of today's emails.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Letters and Personal Writings



Image: Illustrated letter from Beatrix Potter to a child, 21st August 1892,  from Wikimedia Commons



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