A Letter to Anna Sewell
by Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the April 2003 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
I was recently contacted by Stuart Reid who wondered if the Sole Society would be interested in a transcript of a letter which was in his possession.
Stuart’s interests lie not in family history but in postal history and it was in this latter connection that he acquired a most interesting letter written in 1840, the first year of the Penny Post and just days after the introduction of the Penny Black adhesive postage stamp.
The letter itself is difficult to read, having erratic punctuation, capitalisation and spelling, and being cross-written to save paper and postage. It was posted in Lewes, Sussex by Philip Sewell, aged about eighteen, writing to his ‘big’ sister Anna, then aged twenty, who was staying with her grandfather in Buxton, Norfolk.
I found it strangely moving to read young Philip’s words, written so long ago and in such a different time, for as we walk with him across the Sussex downs and ride with him in the London mail coach, we can see into his future. We know that he will marry three times, have five children of his own and survive to see the first years of the twentieth century. We also know the fate of his beloved sister Anna: that she will never marry and will remain an invalid all her life.
One day, however, many years after she reads her brother’s letter, her love of horses will inspire her to write a book called “Black Beauty” which will be so successful that children will still be reading it more than a century after her death.
The explanatory notes about the manuscript and postal procedures of the time are by Stuart Reid and we are extremely grateful to Stuart for sharing this with us and for allowing us to publish his transcription of the letter in full.
A single sheet of paper was used measuring 40.5 ´ 25 cm. Five folds were made to form the ‘envelope’. Two matching blind embossed wafer seals were used to secure the back flap and the words “Lewes” and “Bank” are just discernible. Philip was, at this time, a trainee with the London & County Joint Stock Bank.
The paper is a smooth off-white bond, comparatively light-weight with no maker’s watermark. This would reduce weight but results in some ‘show-through’. The letter is cross-written in brown ink using a fine steel nib.
In the bottom left corner is written “Miss Sewell” although the addressee in the centre is “Mr John Wright, Buxton, nr Norwich”. We believe this to be Anna’s and Philip’s grandfather, as opposed to John Wright of Brampton, the next village, their uncle on their mother’s side.
In the top left corner the sender has written “prepaid”. Lewes Provincial Post Office have written a large figure “2” underneath in red crayon to indicate that two pence postage has been paid. In January 1840 the Uniform Penny Postage had been introduced for letters up to half an ounce in weight, any excess being charged at a penny for each additional ounce or part thereof.
The letter mentions the enclosure of “our Prison Chaplain’s report” which explains the charge of two pence.
Towards the top right corner is the circular Provincial Post date stamp, or ‘postmark’. The “Penny Black adhesive label” had been introduced the previous week but was not yet universally available or necessary.
Finally, the General Post Office, London, had applied their paid transit ‘tombstone’ mark dated 13 May 1840.
Lewes 12th May 1840
I certainly ought to have written to thee before in answer to thy 2 letters which now lie before me - In future thou must put the “glutinous wash label” or 1d stamp not where the seal goes but on the front of the letter at the right hand top corner - as in the other case the letter sorters do not see it at once & charge it at 2d
Last Thursday Evening I thought as I had no particular engagement that I would go over to Brighton & see the family - so I sent my bag to the Coach office put my stick in my hand & set off to go over the hills - I found the may selandine Cowslips maple poligala Cranes Bill and campions in beautiful bloom as I walked along the valley before turning off to the hill.
Mother said that she has told thee abt. ye plants
I saw a long range of white clouds gradually rising from the sea & moving towards the hills opposite those I was abt to ascend - the clouds at last came onto the hills & gradually little by little rolled down the sides into the valley So after I had seen that I pursued my way when I got to the top I saw the misty clouds coming over just in the same way - the pee-wits were crying over my head & by degrees the clouds came on to within 100 yards in front of me behind me I could see about 20 miles across the country with the sun shining in the valley down below in Stanmer Park the cuckoo and nightingale were singing & just before me was this thick mist that I could not see through altogither it had a new singular effect when I was in the cloud it only just made my stick feel rather clammy - When I got home uncle R & I went to his counting house & I looked at Taplins dog whilst he copied the letters -
In the morning we went out with the intention of Bathing but it was too cold so we ran the Deer hound along the cliff & up Edward St. - & then came home - abt 20 minutes to 9 Father found by his letters that someone must go up to London that day so he thought about it for 10 minutes & then ordered me off by the 9 o clock & very much delighted I was to obey - So I jumped on the 9 o clock coach & found Thompson one of the Brighton Missionaries an occasional teacher at our School sitting there & we were very comfortable company to each other untill we got to Crawley when who should get up but Pennyfeather - & I can assure thee he did amply provide the justness of the proverb you talk like Pennyfeather first with me then with Thompson & again addressed a long tirade against all dissenters declaring among other n unities that they ought to be ducked in the river & drummed out of the Towns - he was quite outrageous against them declaring them to be long hair hypocrites & I do not know what else I think the secret is that Mr P is out so he has no one to keep him in check
At 3 or a little past we got to the Elephant & Castle - took a bus - & I dropped at King Wm. St. & Pennyfeather at Lombard St. - I then went and did part of my business at the Bank proceeded to the bottom of Cheapside & took my place to come home by the Mail the same evening Came back called at the Coppers went on to the Custom House to see Wright who lives near there found him at home went back to the bank & finished my business coming to King Wm. St. again met C.S. & E. Crowley who were on their way to Henry’s - Emma looked very well & enquird very particularly after thee & thought from my description that thou must be worsered at Buxton - Then I called at I Browns & from thence went to J Coopers whom I found quite well thence went to the Warehouse & found H Aggs with little Harry - with him I had a long confabulation then I wrote to J Woods that I should not be able to come to Greek with him in the morning - after that I went to look for Wright again and found that he was gone home. returned to K Wm St & went to Uncle Ws Eating house & finishing there, sat with him for half an hour called on Coppers again Jasper & John (Walter the previous time) ran down to Flower pot popped on to an Edmonton coach at ¼ to 6 & got to Palatine houses at ¼ past - went round ye garden with M Cooper twice saw our old cat & the place looked charmingly All the apple trees in full bloom the trees in leaf little weeping willows along the edge of the pond (40 gold fish are in it) - The trees are surprisingly grown - ran down the field into cut-throat Lane & went to the Huntons (the fields to the left of the lane are now brickfields) met Joseph H coming out of the door went back with him astonished Aunt H found Hannah Marianne Bessy & Jane walked abt. in their garden had some tea & walked off with Josh to ye bottom of Kates Lane from whence I ran off to ye Wrights - Marianne looks pretty well Bessy bouncing Josh weakly & stoutish Hannah thin for her - Jane not so giggling - Aunt H as usual - Found Wrights out all but Elisb. W, Charles & Sarah Hannah Stopped there untill nearly 20 minutes past 7
Set off with Charles & walked to Shoreditch Church got there as ye clock struck 8 Jumped into a cab & spun off to the Elephant & Castle gave the fellow an extra 6d at London Bridge to put a little more steam on & so he did; I got to ye Mail Coach 3 or 4 minutes before it started got up & sat down beside M Ellis’s porter with great satisfaction - A sack of Letters were turned out at Croydon and 3 Sacks at Brighton – where I arrived at ½ past 3 the nightingales were singing all night without intermission - We had 2 hours light rain - at Cuckfield I got inside turned out at princes place & laid myself down in my bed after an absence from it of 21½ hours - having first eaten some aspargus & drank some sweet sauce which was all I could discover of the eatable nature ---- Thus ended a very egotistical and pretty particulars a/ct of my days proceedings
When I came down in the morning I found thy letter done from J Hunton the reading of which occupied me till I got to Lewes - If thou asks what was the State of people & things in general I answer that it was very satisfactory - All asked after thee very anxiously Josh Hunton has been staying at Ipswich for a fortnight has rather an ugly Cough --- Jas Huntbry is a respectable Letter Savouring less of “Jimmy” than formerly S Grubb had been preaching at Hereford & had it on her mind “to tell the young man Hunton that a day of great temptation was coming on him but that if he overcame it he might in after life have to acknowledge the goodness of the LORD in delivering him from the paw of the bear and the den of the Lion” --- Jimmy & the friends present supposed the great temptation to mean a departure from the Society -- He says he has a strong leaning to ye Plymouth Brethren and should not be much surprised if he one day joined them: Duke of Wellingtons nephew has lately resigned his rank and pay in the army and joined them at Hereford ----------
I have weighed the Moravian contrivances & find it will cost 8d postage so I determined that it had better stop here until thou return ---- In lieu thereof I have enclosed our Prison Chaplain’s report for thy self & Aunt W. and any One else who likes to read it --- The adult school was closed last week for the Summer -- My Governor is gone to London & will stay till Saturday I expect but he has wished the clerk from Brighton to come over to bear my loneliness company for which I am glad and sorry glad at his Kindness & sorry for the interuption I shall meet with
I had a nice Letter from G Brightwen the other day he seems a nice fellow -- Thou Knowest I suppose that Cousin Emma Curtis has got a little girl -- The boys at school Kicked up a regular row on Sunday very naughty indeed S- Thos had never seen them so noisy since the school opened -- I had King to help me in the Chapel School
Give my dear love to Grandfather & tell him I waiting a suitable opportunity to stir up Baxter & Son again, they took it very crossly the first time --- Josh Wood is going out for 3 mos -- so I shall leave off Greek partly & take to Latin instead if possible
I am glad thou likes the prospect of Williams’ Missionary researches. I was not aware that thou hadst read any part of it nor did I recollect it having been at our house or I would have sent something else - Now if thou hast got as far as this thou will be glad to leave off puzzling thy eyes so farewell with very dear love to all I remain
thy very affectionate ---- Brother
Philip E Sewell
Abraham Sewell, the great grandfather of Anna Sewell, was born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk around 1727. His eldest son William, born on 24 August 1753, married Hannah Maria Fuller on 21 November 1775 and had twelve children, the youngest being Isaac.
Anna and Philip were the children of Isaac Sewell (1793-1878) and Mary Wright (1797-1884). Anna was born in Great Yarmouth in 1820. The family moved to Bishopsgate, London, where Philip was born in 1822, and then to the Palatine houses in Stoke Newington, at that time a rural locality north of London. The area was heavily urbanised in the 1860s and Palatine Road and Palatine Avenue now stand on the site. In 1836 the Sewells moved to Sussex. At that time Isaac was manager of a bank in Brighton. After Isaac’s retirement in 1857, Anna and her parents spent some years in Wick, near Bristol, until in 1867 they moved back to Norfolk, living at Old Catton, Norwich.
When Anna Sewell was a young girl living in Stoke Newington, she fell and injured both ankles. The injuries never healed and she became progressively more crippled as she got older, often confined to the house. Her novel “Black Beauty” was published in late 1877. Anna died in April 1878 and is buried in the Quaker burial ground at Lamas, near Norwich, Norfolk.
Mary Sewell, neé Wright, was a poet and became a successful writer of popular juvenile stories. Although the Sewells were Quakers, Mary joined the Church of England in 1835. Nevertheless, when she died in 1884, she was buried with her daughter at Lamas. Their headstones are now displayed on the roadside wall of the meeting house in the centre of the village.
Philip was described as an engineer and bank agent in the 1881 census. He spent some time in Spain, where his daughter was born in 1855. Philip had five children by his first wife, Sarah Woods. After her death he married twice more, his second wife being Charlotte Jane Sole. Philip died in 1906.
The letter makes reference to the Wrights, Philip’s relatives on his mother’s side, and to Joseph Hunton, Philip’s uncle, the husband of Fuleretta Sewell.
For more information on Anna Sewell and her family, see Diana Kennedy’s article “Mary and Anna Sewell” in the August 2001 issue of “Soul Search”
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