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Thursday 17 December 2009


Raking through the contents of my great great great uncle Charles Castle’s writing desk, I came across this furious letter to him from his mother about his sister, my great great great aunt Deborah Castle.

See the handwriting fizz and splutter!

Clifton Thursday Morning

My dear Son,

It is impossible for me to express in writing how much my feelings have been outraged or how many times! But that is nothing compared with his last act. So determined am I never to forgive it, that if the whole of their family were to fall on their knees to ask my pardon I never will.

And so I told Mr Ricketts on Tuesday last with whom I had a long conversation. No marriage with him shall ever take place from this house – they may go where they please, the sooner the better. I never wish to see either of them again, and I do most earnestly entreat you not [doubly underlined] to be present at the Marriage or have any thing to do with it whatsoever.

Mr Henry Pulson is employed as her solicitor, and Mr Ricketts has most kindly agreed to be her trustee provided she has the whole of her property secured upon herself but not otherwise. Mr Crispin made himself too agreeable by half to D----h [sic] so much so that both Michael and myself have thought it proper to speak to her on the subject, I told her plainly that would never do. He is old enough to be her Father. He has nothing but his half pay, and in addition to this he is a Catholic which is an insurmountable Bar in itself.

[she then tries to write of other matters, but is so incensed that she cannot help returning to the subject]

Before I close this Dull epistle I must again revert to Mr Crispin; should he ever speak or write to you on the subject of your sister, say at once I will never hear of it. I have suffered too much misery lately to wish to begin a new game.

[then another attempt to end on a more cheerful note with some family news, but it’s no good – back she turns to the vexing topic of the moment]

I must in Pity to you leave off as I fear you will not be able to read half of what I have written. Give my very kind love to Edward [one of Charles’ brothers] & keep the same dear Charles from your ever affectionate Mother M. Castle

[but still she cannot leave the matter there, and there’s a post script]

Mr Carr nor Mr James Jenkins do not expect I will allow the marriage to take place here, I have just heard said.

Deborah Castle (1816-1902)
in 1864 when everything had worked out fine

Poor old Mary Castle, so consumed with rage that her spidery writing shakes and the fine nib of the pen slips of the page at times. Poor young Deborah, in love with Mr Crispin, a much older man, a poor man and a catholic to boot. Poor old Mr Crispin, with ideas so far beyond his means and rank and age.

The exact date of the letter is not given, but if Charles was going to be able to give his mother’s love to his brother Edward, it was certainly before 1845 when Edward emigrated to Adelaide. Still, she could have been in her late 20s and quite able to make up her own mind about marriage, except for the duty of a daughter to have her parents’ approval. I wonder what her father Thomas thought.

I wonder what Charles thought, but I suspect he will have toed the family line and had a word with Deborah. Deborah did not marry Mr Crispin. She did not leave home, never to darken her mother’s door again. In fact she resigned herself to a spinster life as her mother’s companion, and she wrote wearily to her brother Charles from time to time of walks on the esplanade at Bournemouth (where she and her mother would holiday every summer).

Sir John and Lady Deborah Bowring (1864)

Her mother died in 1856, and three years later Deborah, now 43, married John Bowring, an entirely suitable man. He was wealthy, a Non-Conformist, a brilliant polymath and a successful politician and statesman. He was however also old enough to be her father, fully 23 years her senior!

Deborah was not popular with the children of her husband’s first marriage. But she and John had by all accounts a happy and mutually supportive marriage – both were by now prominent figures in the Unitarian movement. He died in 1872, aged 80. Deborah was 56, and lived out her days in the Bowring mansion outside Exeter, for another 30 years. She compiled a book of her husband’s sacred poetry and hymn lyrics, and included a short biography of him. In it she wrote:

Deborah Castle's memorial to her husband, published 1873

"If my task has been a sad one, I may truly say that, in dwelling upon the scenes the circumstances, and the thoughts of bygone years; in reviewing the active political struggles and controversies in which my husband was engaged; and above all, in pondering on the God-like spirit that animated, the faith in the Divine love that cheered, the entire belief in the ultimate prevalence of truth and goodness, that encouraged him, I too have found sources of consolation."

I'm delighted to add in August 2014 that a new biography of Sir John Bowring has just been published. "Free Trade's First Missionary" is written by Sir John's descendent Philip Bowring and deals with his time in Europe and Asia. Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, said of the new book: "This scholarly and very readable biography, written by one of Asia's most distinguished journalists, shows how free trade became part of Hong Kong's DNA." It's published by Hong Kong University Press and is available on Amazon as a real book and also in a Kindle edition. (And this blog is acknowledged in the introduction!)

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