Inspired by a Letter, or a Tale for Dickens

In an earlier post I mentioned an old letter I had found, which could form the basis of a sequel to Persuasion. Early nineteenth century letters are readily available, most seem to have come from lawyer’s offices (my brother would agree that they are the sort of people to have kept them) and tend only to be of interest to those who collect early postmarks. I, on the other hand, like those letters that suggest a story. This is one such;

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Liverpool Novr 18th 1830

My dear Sir,

I have this Evening received a letter from my Sister, Mrs Fenton, stating her husband’s utter inability to pay the amount of his debt at present but if time be allowed he hopes to have it in his power to meet the demand. She states that if proceedings continue, the person of Mr F. must be seized upon, and ruin to them must ensue.

I do not know whether I have the power to interfere, but I am much pained that such should be the state of their affairs. If it remain with me to extend the time of payment I request that Mr Fenton be accommodated or if not I shall be ready to agree to any arrangement that may meet with the approbation of the other legatees.

I remain Dear Sir

Your Obdt Servant

Thomas Ashby

This is just the sort of letter to have been written by a kindly saviour, either towards the end of a Dickens novel when everything is being sorted out, or at the beginning where Mr Ashby’s nephew is helped in a career by his kindly uncle and begins his adventures. All one can hope is that Mr Ashby’s kindness was successful and Mr Fenton escaped the Debtors Prison.

But there is something else that caught my eye, the date. Only two months earlier the only thing the people of Liverpool would have been talking about was the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway. Did Mr Ashby or Mrs Fenton go and see the excitement, I would love to think they did. Mr Ashby seems to have been a tolerably well off man, did he use the railway? Within six months the first commuters came into being, with a journey time between the two towns down to less than an hour, people could live in one town and work in the other.

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The Northumbrian locomotive on a test run just before the official opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway. Perhaps Mr Ashby and the Fentons are amongst the onlookers. I like the fact that Robert Stephenson might have taken his jacket off, but not his top hat.


Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Liverpool and Manchester Railway

6 responses to “Inspired by a Letter, or a Tale for Dickens

  1. You’re starting to build quite a story here. I’ve been doing this kind of thing with family letters and reading newspapers from the times and putting them in historical context. Has been fascinating and I’ve read some of your father’s letters over on Geoff’s blog. They’ve been fascinating.


  2. This is great diving into history with a letter.


  3. Autism Mom

    Lots of possibilities with that story! Why is Mr. Ashby helping the Fentons? What happened that the Fentons could not help themselves? Very interesting!


    • We know from the letter that Mrs Fenton was Mr Ashby’s sister, but beyond that we can only speculate. it is certain that debt, and the fear of falling into debt, was a very real problem in the nineteenth century and not just a plot device used by novelists. Where would most of the great Victorian novelists be without the threat of destitution and the debtors prison hanging over one or more of their characters.


  4. I just love letters like this one so interesting and what an insight to life at the time. The language is so different from that of today. I doubt any such letter would carry any weight today.
    I remember being inspired to write a poem based on a WW1 letter you wrote about thinking off the cuff it may of been a post card.
    As for taking off the jacket but not the hat…… How times have changed! great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A Victorian gentlemen kept his hat on under most circumstances. My favourite example is in an amazing painting celebrating a very important moment in medical history – the first attempt at radiotherapy. The patient, a woman with breast cancer is lying on the couch, she is surrounded with the massive apparatus for generating the x-rays, the doctor is standing beside her, stopwatch in his hand timing the exposure to radiation. he is wearing a white lab coat – and top hat!


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