This week is a family history week (entomology next week I promise). I am privileged to own copies of a number of old letters from my great-great grandfather John Wignall Leather and other relatives. This joint letter was written by George Henry Leather (1815-1897) (my great-great-great Uncle, aged 13, and his 18-year-old brother, John Wignall Leather (1810-1887) to their parents George and Sarah (Wignall) Leather. It was posted on 25 May 1828 in Durham where George and his older brother John were at school. [Comments in square brackets are mine.]
[This is not that easy to read in the original so I have transcribed it below.]
Durham, May 24th 1828
My dear Parents
At your desire, I now sit down to write a few lines to you, and am happy to say, John and myself are both well. Our journey to Sunderland was not so pleasant as I expected; the pleasantest day I spent was when John and I went about 4 miles along the sands and returned on the tops of the cliffs; that was the only time I was out of the town except once we went on the ocean, one of Mrs Hustler’s ships, about half a mile from the Pier; it was going to Miramichi in America [there is a Miramichi River in Canada], and the wind being very favourable we did not go so far out as we otherwise should have done. I liked the motion of the ship when she rose upon the waves, but when she went down again, it felt rather queer: we came back in a small boat, with oars. One night from the pier, we could see not less than 63 ships. I have got as far as simple Interest, [I remember doing simple and compound interest at school – how many of you do?] and am reading Ovid and Cornelius Nepos, all of which I like very well. I am 4th in my class this week, I have got my Register [I guess that this was a school report] for last half-term, which (with the one for this) I will bring with me next Midsummer.
I am very much obliged to you for the 5s which you sent me before Easter. I look forward with very great pleasure to the prospect of seeing you all so soon: Midsummer is now fast approaching: I expect to leave Durham in about 6 weeks or thereabouts, and I hope we shall find you all well.
Give my best love to Billy and Sam [his two younger brothers: Canadian readers may be interested to know that Billy, William Beaumont Leather (1820-1907) later emigrated to Canada and was the great-grandfather of that famous Canadian, Sir Edwin Hartley Cameron Leather (1919-2005) former Governor of Bermuda] and also to my Sisters Sarah Anna and little Bell; and accept the same yourselves from,
My dear Parents,
Your dutiful and affectionate Son,
G H Leather
Certainly a better effort than the letters I used to have to write on a Sunday afternoon when at boarding school. I have no picture of George as a schoolboy only the one below of him as a well-established factory owner in Bradford.
The letter below from John Wignall Leather, was written on and across the same letter form written by George Henry Leather above. John Wignall Leather was 18 and in his last term at school. The letter is addressed to Geo. Leather Esq, Park Terrace, Leeds and is endorsed by John Wignall Leather at a later date as being “from GH and self to our parents”.
My Dear Parents,
I think I cannot do better than attempt to fill up the space which George Henry has left blank – this from the slackness of news: tis very much to be doubted how far I may succeed. We had a whole holiday on Thursday last, the 15th inst. it being Ascension day; and I, accompanied with William from Gateshead the boy with whom we both stayed at Easter, set off on Wednesday evening after school, and spent the night and next day at his house in Gateshead. On the Thursday we visited everything which he thought worth shewing to me in Newcastle. There are very few public buildings but the library is really grand; the roof and cornice of this and the adjoining room (the Museum, which we visited) are in a style far surpassing anything of the kind I ever saw – and near the top of the former is constructed a kind of terrace, or gallery (with bookcases as below) which has also a very splendid appearance – it is a fancy cast iron railing with a three brick top or bar; the museum is not as good (in my opinion) as that of Leeds [being from Yorkshire nothing can be as good of course], and the birds or most of them seem to be very badly presented. They are decaying away. Oh! Mother you did not say whether you had got the owl back or not from curing and how it looked did you return my moth book [I was very pleased to see that despite becoming a very eminent civil engineer in later life, that he had not only zoological interests, but entomological ones. I would dearly love to know exactly what moth book he had].
The Mayor and Corporation go on procession (on Ascension Day every year) down to Preston, and up the river again past Newcastle as far as Lemmington in barges, with a band of music; and are accompanied by numbers of small boats in this day’s excursion. I had the pleasure of watching their departure from the mansion house and a very enlivening sight it was, tho I understand it much fallen off from what it was; but my time even if my paper would, does not allow me to enter into detail at present.
Friday the 19th was our bespeak, and as I had the whole management and conduct of the affair to myself this time I was kept very closely employed – but was very much gratified to find the pains taken was not in vain for I fetched them the best houses they have had for many years, the whole of the regular boxes were taken long before hand, and part of the pit, which was railed off for that purpose. The receipts amounted to 42£ 16s – and it would have been fifty, but for the system they have of admitting schools at ½ prices.
I return many thanks to my Dear Mother for her short, but very kind letter – and hope to hear from her again very soon, when she is more at leisure to write longer. Pray what do they call the six young ladies; how long are they going to stay; you say Maria wants to know whether I shall be at home as soon as she; without mentioning the time her vacation commences: I expect to be with you in six weeks, from yesterday, or so – but cannot say for certain yet. I should have written to London last week but I was so very busy that I had not time; have looked daily for a letter from my Dear Father and cousin John [both also eminent civil engineers; his cousin John Towlerton Leather was the contractor for many ambitious projects including the Spithead sea-forts and was High Sheriff of Northumberland and had a house in Carlton House Terrace close by the Royal Society], I hope they will both write me ere long. I learnt from the Newspaper that you would be at home in a day or two, and was happy to hear of your success – there will be no want of practice in the office for some time to come – which I will trust be of advantage to me – I have spoken my sentiments on this head to my Mother, and now repeat that I hope these will not be too much like warmness (if I may call it such) which it so unhappily represented in an elder branch of our family, but that arrangements may be made for me to be considered (in the office) in the same light as any other clerk, if any difference is made, may it only be an extra earnestness in seeing me do my duty, in instructing me – and directing my studies. I think I can promise most firmly that no exertion shall be wanting on my part – as my ambition shall be not only to become an engineer, but (if possible) an eminent one [which indeed he did become]. I anticipate very great pleasure from the prospect of seeing my dear friends so soon – and of spending my future time in their society; under the guidance (and I trust) the approbation of those Dear Parents, whom it shall be my constant care to cherish and obey; In the hope of hearing from you both very soon – and with kindest love and every endearing remembrance of affection to all of you, I remain
My Dearest Parents
Your dutiful and affectionate son
J W Leather
P.S. Tell John to write. Pray what business is it that calls you back to London.
(in haste). JWL
Note that to save postage, as letters at the time were charged by the number of pages, John has written both ways across the page; quite hard to read but apparently common practice. Again I do not have a picture of John Wignall Leather as a school boy but do possess a picture of him with the plans of one of his engineering achievements (the Crown Point Bridge Leeds) on the desk, plus a photograph of him in distinguished middle-age.
The Crown Point Bridge, Leeds
I realise that I am incredibly lucky to actually have something as personal as a letter from my great-great grandfather. So many people don’t even have photographs of their more distant ancestors. Personal letters like these are almost as good as a time machine; you can almost hear them speaking and almost certainly with a Yorkshire accent!