This blog is exclusively devoted to a remarkable set of letters held at Ceredigion Archives. We are publishing them now to coincide with the battle of Waterloo, the subject of one of the letters, but their contents extends far beyond the military, giving the modern reader insights into family and community life in the early nineteenth century in Wales, England and beyond.
The letters consist in the main of the work of four men: Morris and Daniel Williams who were two of the five sons of John Williams and his wife Esther, John Williams himself, and John’s brother (and therefore the boys’ uncle) Owen Williams. They span the period 1811 to 1824, and were originally sewn into two books entitled ‘Morris’s Letters’ and ‘Daniel’s Letters’.
The family home at this time was Penrallt Ddu in the parish of Llantood, just over the border from Cardigan town. John and Esther Williams, elderly by this time, were farming with the assistance of their son William (1791-1839). Their oldest sons Thomas (1785-1857) and Morris (1787-1816) were in the militia and later the regular army, Daniel (1788-1857) was sent to join his Uncle Owen in Hounslow, where he learned a trade and found a wife, and Caleb (1793-1838) was a mariner.
The family was articulate and educated, to the extent that both Morris and Daniel wrote lively and interesting letters to their parents, and John seems to have written back to them, although few of his letters have survived, and those we have are copies. Uncle Owen often sent a note to his brother with Daniel’s correspondence. The language of the letters is mostly English although John at least could write in Welsh and Welsh was the spoken language of the home. The language and spelling is often idiosyncratic, and the punctuation appears eccentric to modern readers, but the meaning is always clear and the narratives are lively.
Morris’ letters record his military career including his role in guarding French prisoners at Portchester Castle near Portsmouth, his epic march with a military prisoner from Winchester to Manchester and his initial excitement, quickly followed by despair, on joining the regular army. He craves for news of home, although the news he sends his parents is often disappointingly short of detail given the astonishing and unfamiliar circumstances in which he found himself. His father’s responses are full of local reports, reflections on Morris’ situation and news of Morris’ four siblings. The correspondence provides a wonderful insight into how family members and friends managed to stay in touch when separated ; if youngest brother Caleb fails to write to Morris about nearly being captured by an American privateer then his father John passes the news on to Morris instead.
Daniel’s letters are very different to those of his brother, reflecting a very different character. He is sent to Hounslow to work in a gun powder mill, and stayed with his Uncle Owen and his aunt who ‘is Bonetmaker and very strict English Church’. Daniel is much more of a gossip than his brother, more aware of current events and their significance. News travelled quickly from London to Hounslow and he would send it on to Llantood, his excitement sometimes palpable ‘the Duck of York pass through this Town Last Night on his way to Windsor and he tould the innkeeper where he chang horses that Boneparte is taken prisoner in common souldir close by a rigament of russan Casacks’.
Uncle Owen’s letters are the funniest – slipping in remarks about Daniel which throw light on not only his character but also his appearance, and occasionally offering sage advice. ‘Towards easing of your infirmity I would advise you to tack of ould Jamaica rum as much as your Constituion will Bare at Night goind to Bed’.
If Morris’ letters are ultimately a tragedy then Daniel’s are a comedy ending in marriage and children. Throughout both documents we are constantly aware not only of this momentous period of British history but of the particularity, the vibrant narrative of these two young men and their older relatives.
We hope you enjoy these letters. There is so much detail that they repay careful study, and often one must rush online or to the bookshelves to follow up a chance remark or passing comment. Please contact us if you have any observations to make.
We are indebted to the National Manuscripts Conservations Trust and to CyMAL (now MALD /AAll) for their generous grant to conserve the letters, and to Messrs. Simon Carter and Rhodri Dafis for their observations and comments on the letters, and details of their research into the Williams family. I am also indebted to Kate Strachan who transcribed the letters, Dilwyn Williams at the National Library of Wales who conserved them, to Nigel Callaghan of Technoleg Taliesin who sorted out the watermarks, and to colleagues Ania Skarzynska and Lynne Moore for their work in creating the blog.
You can also read more about the actual documents and the conservation work on our main blog.
Why did we present the letters the way we did and how does one navigate through them? See the ‘technical’ introduction.