On This Day: 27 September 1709

On this day in 1709, John Short wrote to Thomas Bowrey from Edinburgh concerning the ship, Worcester. I have written a great deal about this ship but intend to address something else today – the condition of this document.

It is in a dreadful state: grubby from its time in the postal system, crumpled, faded, stained, worn away where folded and partially eaten by vermin but it is over three hundred years old. What is surprising is that this is a relatively rarity in Bowrey’s papers.

At the time, envelopes were not used. Letters were folded in such a way that the address could be written on the reverse. There was no protection as this letter travelled over 400 miles in the days before trains and motorised vans. Once received Bowrey, frustrated at not having received compensation five years after the seizure of the Worcester, would have poured over the contents before filing it with the other documents about this case. It is likely that he retrieved it for reference many times before he died. Other papers filed with the letter may not have completely dried out having been sent by ship from across the world.

After Bowrey’s death, his widow and mother-in-law kept his papers but were asked to rummage through them on at least one occasion. Sometimes Mary, his widow, used a paper for making notes. Mary predeceased her mother. After the mother’s death, the mother’s nephew cleared the house in Wapping. Perhaps because he was also dealing with his late father’s estate and suffering from smallpox, rather than sort through the papers, he simply placed them in an old chest of his grandfather’s. He had the chest placed in the attic and forgot it for two hundred years.

When found, well-meaning busybodies sorted through the papers organising them as they thought fit but the current owner of the house had little interest in them. It was to be a few more years before they were sold to an antiquarian who asked an acquaintance to edit them. The acquaintance had some of them chemically treated so that he could read them better.  The antiquarian gradually sold and gave away most of the documents. All have subsequently moved at least once. Since arriving in various repositories around the country, the papers have been better cared for but some are still kept loose in archival folders. Every time they are accessed by an archive user they risk a little more damage.

So, yes, this letter is in a dreadful state but we must be extremely thankful that the papers have survived at all and most in excellent condition.

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