Fred writes in the most beautiful copperplate. He has access to good paper and ink from his works at Brown Bayley & Dixon, Attercliffe – where in 1878 he worked as Trade Clerk for 25 shillings a week. Given that while coming from a poor area, he’s done well with education to the point that he’s landed a desk job. I’ve not found out yet if he had some sort of grammar school scholarship. His letters are in relatively good condition and I find them fairly easy to read. The folding of the paper and the choice of side to write on threw me a bit and then I started to understand how it was done. Fold the paper like a book and write on the front. If you have more to say, write on the back. If you have even more, open the ‘book’ up and write in the middle. Continue with extra sheets in the same way and put them inside the ‘book’.

Sometimes there’s a space on the back for the address so that the letter can be folded into itself if you are not using an envelope.

Janie’s handwriting is much harder to read (although better than mine!) and she doesn’t use full stops. Ever. So consequently it takes much longer to understand what she’s saying. She actually apologies to Fred for not understanding how to use full stops properly. Clearly she’s not had nearly the education that Fred has had and she feels it. The paper is also very flimsy and falling to bits. The ink has faded badly. Given that the letters have been kept in the same place together for over 135 years – it’s probably testament to the fact that Janie didn’t have very much money and so quality paper and ink are out of the question. I noticed that half way through the stack of correspondence, Janie’s letters are in much better condition (and on blue paper) and I’m willing to bet that Fred has bought her some as a gift at some point. Speculation at this point I know.

I’m going to photograph each letter as I transcribe from it so that I handle each one only once. And I need to invest in adhesive free archive boxes to help stop them disintegrating anymore.


4 thoughts on “A first look at a family treasure

  1. The folded book way of writing sounds fascinating, if a little disconcerting to modern eyes. I once worked on some 19th centuries letters in Melbourne (Oz, not Derbyshire). Because paper was hard to get hold of, people would write on a portrait sheet one side and then the other, and if they had more to say, they would go back to the first side, turn it to landscape, then write over the top of the writing already there! It took a bit of getting used to, but eventually it kind of became clear. I guess people had to make do with what they had and found ingenious ways of making the most of limited paper resources.


    1. It’s disconcerting for sure – and there is often diviation from that form too – it took me the whole of 1979 to get the hang of it 😉 I’d love to hear more about what you were doing with those letters – I’ve seen picutures of letters like that. If any like that turn up in my stack I may expire with the strain of reading. I notice that if you only have something short to say, then tearing off the other half seems to be the form (and economical). Maybe I should probably do post on this at some point.


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