Last week my mother finally handed me the giant blue concertina folder. “Here you go”, She said, “They’re yours now – you’re the eldest daughter and they’ve been passed down from eldest daughter to eldest daughter.” In the folder are over 200 letters, the bulk of which date from 1878 to 1882 and are almost a complete correspondence between Fred Shepherd and Janie Warburton, my great great grandparents, during their courtship.

Apparently it is quite rare to have both sides of a correspondence and even rarer to have such a detailed record of two working class people.

I’ve known about the letters all my life. Both my mother, my sister and myself have picked over them in the past, meaning to transcribe them and then daunted by the task only to put them away again. But now I’ve decide that if I can share them online, I could create a kind of scrap book that other people might be interested in.

There’s the a personal reason, we are all older now and the urge for familial connection to the past is stronger. I am descended from Janie down the direct maternal line. Most family history focuses on the male surname that passes down, but often the strongest cultural influence you have is what passes to you from your mother. Janie is my mother’s Great Grandmother, she feels very close. She died before her grandaughter Mary was born. Sadly Mary, who in turn is my grandmother, died not quite a year before I was born. So this line of daughters has had two sad breaks of contact and it’s tempting to think these letters will shed light on our maternal family culture. I wonder how much we take after her. Is the wicked sense of humour from her? The fierce independence of spirit? Family legend says so. I can’t wait to find out when I read her letters.


2 thoughts on “My very own time machine

    1. I’m started to realise how rare it is. The bulk of the correspondence is a nearly full collection of their correspondence in 1882 – this was prompted by Fred having to move to Middlesbrough in winter 1881 for work. The letters I’m working on at the moment are from 1878 to 1881 and so are sporadic and a little less complete but still lots of back and forth. I’ve also found a small stack of letters from Fred’s ‘Old chum Fred’ who is a college and in between all the football and lessons are reflections on what (my) Fred is up to and fills out the story a bit.

      I should describe the collection a little more, when I’ve worked through it. I’m trying to be steady and methodical (not in my nature) to transcribe, photograph and store each letter in turn so I’m only handling everything once – to reduce damage.


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