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Saturday, 22 December 2012


Henrietta Patterson and Thomas Collins, aunt and uncle of my 3x great grandmother, were married on 19th November 1761. Mr Collins, according to his obituary in The Gentleman magazine, "had the happiness to be united to a lady whose views in life were quite accordant with his own."

Thomas was a successful builder, and an ornamental plasterer of distinction, the favourite of the great 18th century architect Sir William Chambers. His wife Henrietta was “a bright example of conjugal affection and urbanity.” Certainly Thomas, and presumably to some extent his wife too, mixed in the most urbane circles imaginable for the time – he was “a desirable member of the society of Dr Johnson,” the pre-eminent wit and raconteur. 

 Samuel Johnson (1709-1784),
Giuseppe Baretti (1719-1789) and Charles Burney (1726-1814)
all painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, another member of their circle

The obituary drops in the names of other members of the Collins’ circle, with which I am less familiar, but which presumably would have impressed the reader in 1830 – Giuseppe Baretti was a literary critic and friend of Dr Johnson; William Strahan was the publisher of many of Johnson's works including his celebrated Dictionary; John Nichols published Johnson's Lives of the English Poets; Rev Dr Charles Burney was another friend of Johnson and a noted music historian; Major James Rennell was surveyor-general of Bengal and a pioneer of the emerging science of oceanography. All are recorded as friends of the Collins's.

William Strahan (1715-1785) by Reynolds, 
James Rennell (1742-1830) by Scott,
and Sir Harry Trelawney (1756-1834) by an unknown artist

The private papers and public impressions of the work of all these great men are the substance of weighty archives in universities and galleries around the world. But I'm delighted to own a letter written to my 5x great aunt Henrietta Collins nee Patterson in 1795. It's not from any of the above; but it's written in very much the same sparklingly witty tone that one would expect from any of that circle, by a certain Thomas P. Walter. I think Walter may have been another of the Johnson crowd, as he makes reference to Johnson in the letter, and he may have been a doctor, as he discusses ships' hospitals at one point.

Mr Walter writes from Yarmouth, where he is hoping to catch a packet boat, but keeps missing his chances by virtue of not getting up early enough. A few days since, he writes, I was going to embark with two Turks, a Jew, a Frenchman, a Bankrupt and Sir Harry Trelawney, but the vessel sailed before breakfast, and I let Monsieur, Moses and the two Musselmen get maukish together without contributing to “the publick stock of harmless pleasure” as Johnson says on another occasion. As to myself, I always prefer embarking after dinner, and I may then politely say to every morsel, before I swallow it, “Jusq’au revoir.”

A British coastal packet

He complains about shortages caused by the war – the Napoloeonic War – which result in too few beds for the number of passengers on board the packets, whose scheduled journeys along the coast might last several days. A packet that makes up only eight beds, carries twenty, thirty and forty people. I am sure this war must be materially against the interests of the country!

He wishes Thomas and Henrietta good health and recommends the sea air. But the main purpose of his letter is to warn Henrietta that he has occupied himself while waiting in sending her an unusual gift. In one wonderful sentence he announces, I should not have troubled you with this letter but to say that I have availed myself of my situation here to add to my gratifications by forwarding to you a Turbot with the proper appendages, which I take the liberty of hoping you will do me the Honour to accept.

A turbot

A turbot! It's not quite as far-fetched as it sounds. A fish could be packed in ice or straw to keep it fresh. But from Yarmouth in Norfolk to Mrs Collins’ address in Berners Street in central London is 115 miles as the crow flies, perhaps 150 by mail coach - a long day's journey. A flat fish sent on 22nd July (the date of Walter's letter), even in a wet English summer such as they were having that year, would be less than fresh by the time it arrived. Perhaps Thomas Walter is acknowledging that when he adds, it will be a fine one – at least I trust you will rely on the intention.

I do sometimes wonder if the whole thing is a practical joke, leaving Henrietta in dread of a rotten fish which never arrives. Thomas cheerily signs off his letter with another splash of grim humour: I propose daily to get into one of these Calcutta Cutters where I may be either smothered or drowned. Adieu, dearest Madam, your ever obliged, devoted & affectionate Th. P. Walter.

Whatever you're eating on Christmas Day, Season's Greetings from Tall Tales!

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