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In 2004, my cousin Geraldine showed me a letter she had found which had been written in 1815. I took it home with me and then transcribed it carefully. I found that it was written by a boy called Abraham Sugden who worked on a Navy ship, to his mother. Although I thought he must have been one of my ancestors, I wasn't sure who he was. Other letters then turned up that had been in my brother's possession and I found yet more among papers I had inherited from my father. The writing was tiny and extremely hard to read, but, fascinated, I pressed on to transcribe most of the letters I had and it is those transcriptions that appear in the linked pages: the Childhood and Teenage and the Adult letters.
I have put in only the grammar that appears in the letters. In some places where you might expect a full stop there is none and in some places there is a full stop, but it is followed by a lower case letter. As the writing is done with a very fine nib, it is perfectly possible that I have missed some full stops altogether and may have misinterpreted commas as stops or vice versa. Where there are words I cannot read, I have put the nearest interpretation (letter by letter, not necessarily trying to guess a word) and surrounded it with two question marks. I have also tried to keep to his spelling: for instance the occasional h appears at the beginning of words such as ‘as’.
There are frequently torn holes in the paper where the seal had been - the early letters were sent by folding them up, sealing them and writing the address on the outside; other holes have cut edges as if something has been cut out. I wonder if sealing wax itself was torn or cut out for reuse, partly because a remaining seal does have an extra piece of paper sticking out at the bottom, this paper having a cut edge and that cut edge having writing underneath! I have shown where these appear in each of the lines by a few x’s representing the approximate length of the hole as it appears in that line. It is even apparent that Abraham knew that these holes were going to occur. In nearly the correct places in his script, there are some circles drawn and he has avoided writing across these circles. However, in half these letters, they missed the actual placing of the sealing wax and the holes obliterate some words!
At first I thought that some of the letters were written on paper that had been written on before. It looked as if the paper had been washed to reduce the strength of the writing, and then reused in lines perpendicular to the old ones. But then I came across letters that had clearly been continued after the sheet was filled by writing directly on top of but across the earlier parts of the letter. I realised then that the apparently washed out writing had probably been done in another colour to make it more readable while doubling the content of one sheet of paper but that this had faded leaving the second half of the affected letters unreadable in all but one case. These letters all appeared to come to an abrupt end without any sign off but in fact I now realise that the continuations and signatures had all faded away.
Even later, I found a few more letters relating to the adult Abraham, some of them written by him, others to him. The content of these letters shows that at some point in his twenties, he became engaged to and then married in 1831 to a Mary Heaver and I have transcribed a few letters to and from her and even two from Abraham to her mother. By this time he had advanced to the role of Purser on HMS Cordelia.
Mary Heaver's letters had even less punctuation than Abraham's teenage letters, while his adult letters showed a slight improvement.
David has found from family papers that an Abraham Sugden, our great great
grandfather, would have been about 16 at the time when he was writing the letter
that first sparked my interest from the Conway in mid-June 1815, which fits.
In his parting comments in his teenage letters Abraham didn't mention his father
until, in the one of 30 June 1815, he mentioned his 'wickedness'. The address on
the front of some of the letters had made me wonder if his father was alive as his
mother appeared to have been staying with a relative, Thomas Soper, but the Abraham
that David found had a father at that time, who died in 1817: his father having
been alive but absent makes a great deal more sense. Other letters went to Mrs
Sugden at a school, so presumably she was a teacher, perhaps at her own school, and
spent the holidays with the Sopers. Abraham's upset when his wicked father
eventually died was touching! His relationship with his mother intrigued me –
see what you make of it. This Abraham Sugden did marry a Mary Heaver and their daughter
Amelia, who married John Fremlin in 1860, was my great grandmother. Assuming all this is true, here is a family tree.
I have a few letters written in Abraham's seventies. Two are to one of his sons but I don't know which: by this time, envelopes were presumably being used so the folded letters do not show who they were addressed to. Others were to some of his grandchildren, Ernie, Stuart and Kathie. The Stuart referred to must have been my grandfather, known in his adult life as Heaver.
I have a silhouette picture of a man in an 1830's frock coat, labelled "A Sugden RN paymaster. Born 10th Oct 1799". This date of birth would fit very well with the young man writing home in the early 1800s and hoping so much for advancement. Interestingly, this man had the same shape of nose as Jane, who was always told as a child that she had the ‘Sugden nose’. I also have a photograph of an Abraham Sugden, labelled as Paymaster, followed by a bit of a scrawl that could be either the initials RN or a date. This man is middle aged: I can't date his clothing particularly other than to mid 19th century. I feel sure it is the same person!
I have looked up a few details of HM ship Conway. There was a Captain Tancock in
charge in 1815 who took the ship to the West Indies in 1817 before handing it over
to a Captain Hill.
I obtained further information about Abraham's teenage years in the Navy by spending an enjoyable morning in the National Archive. The most useful documents were the muster books for the ships mentioned in Abraham's letters, as they gave details of the names, ages and positions of each member of the crew as well as where each of them had been before they boarded the ship.
Thus I found that Abraham Sugden, aged 13, had been taken on to the Irresistible on 24 June 1812 and left it on 1 July 1813. Was this his first post? In his 31st May 1817 letter, he mentioned that on June 24 next he would have been in the service for five years, so it looks as if this was indeed his first post - and he would have been aged 12 when he started work. What a shame that I have no letters from the 12 year old boy on his first ship! For this period he had been a Volunteer, 1st Class. Next, he went to work on the Goliath in the same position from 2 July 1813 to 28 February 1814 and had to pay out 4s 6d for slop clothes.
On 11 October 1814 he started work on the Conway, again as a Volunteer 1st Class. Then he entered the Musquidobet on 18 February 1818, having come from Sick Quarters in Dublin but now, at last, promoted to Clerk. I felt that the handwriting in this muster book was probably his, but, not having taken any letter of that date with me, I couldn't be sure.
14 December 2006