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Press release

18th century letters from a young man in London to his father in the Lake District reveal the expense, anxieties, and pleasures of life in the city

A hand holds a browned letter with clear fold marks and slight tears, starting with a very elaborate 'Dear Father'
Ben Browne's letter from London describing his working from 8am to 8pm, 1719 | © National Trust Images / James Dobson

Three hundred years after they were written, letters from a son in London to his father in the historic county of Westmorland are going on display at the family home, revealing money worries, romances, nights out and work challenges that many today might recognise.

Townend, in the Lake District, now cared for by the National Trust, was in the Browne family for over 400 years from 1525 to the 1940s. Through the centuries, generations of the family amassed a diverse collection of handwritten papers ranging from legal documents and letters to shop receipts and notebooks which provide a rich insight into the social history of rural Westmorland.

Ben Browne was 27 years old when he set off from Troutbeck in 1719 on horseback to make the 300-mile journey to London to start his training as clerk to a lawyer. From the moment he arrived he began writing letters home to his father, around 65 of which survive, full of detail that paint a vivid picture of a young country man discovering the pleasures – and anxieties – of the big city.

Soon after he arrived in London, Ben witnessed some drama which he related later in a long letter to his father; he described …very great mobbing by the weavers of this town…they are starved for want of trade,” referring to the violent protests by Spitalfields silk weavers, against imports of calico from India, offering a glimpse of the social unrest that was present in large cities.

By the time he was installed in his new lodgings with his employer, lawyer Richard Rowlandson, his letters home frequently requested money as he began to feel the pinch in the expensive city of London. He asked for funds to help pay his rent, and to buy stockings, breeches, wigs and other items necessary to his new life. He hoped his parents wouldn’t think him extravagant, but he wanted to look the part, because “…my Cloaths which [I] have now are but mean in Comparison [with] what they wear here.”

Despite money worries, Ben writes of a lively social life and occasions spent eating and drink-ing, especially around Fleet Street, close to the Inns of Court and his employer’s lodgings. Ben’s descriptions of time spent with friends are reminiscent of scenes immortalised in the satirical prints of the time by William Hogarth.

In one letter, young Ben springs what he fears will be a considerable surprise on his father when he announces he has married the maid of his employer, Mary Branch from St Albans, having courted her in secret. He begs Old Ben for his blessing and forgiveness. From a letter he writes soon after, clearly his father had accepted the situation and broken the news successfully to young Ben’s stepmother. Young Ben was grateful and “shall ever acknowledge the many and endearing kindnesses and affectionate advices by me rec’d from so indulgent and affectionate father and mother.”

Friends and acquaintances of young Ben back in his local village of Troutbeck appear to have sent word to him on various occasions to acquire fancy goods on their behalf while he was in London. He sent several snuff boxes back to his parents, and in one letter home Ben lists all the requests he has fulfilled including a wig trunk, sealing wax and a silver thimble, a “Cap for Parson Sawrey & two necklaces for him”, “Linnen for a gown and cape for Mrs Birkett Merrers” and “Chocolate & Coffee for my mother.”

However, young Ben had long office hours, mentioning working 8am to 8pm copying legal documents, and can’t hide his annoyance in one letter when he discovers his father has apprenticed him to his employer for five years, rather than a short period of training, by when young Ben considers “I have Lost the prime of my Youth.”

There is some considerable expenditure that young Ben makes that he keeps from his father in his surviving letters, however – his passion for buying books and building a gentleman’s library. It is only by looking at the many books in Townend’s collection today that Ben’s secret comes out, as a number were purchased, dated and with many annotations in his hand, during the years he was in London.

The titles are not what might be expected of a lawyer’s clerk, either, with numerous romances, fictional books and plays of Shakespeare among them, but it is a mystery how the perpetually short of money Ben was able to afford them.

Emma Wright, Collections and House Manager at Townend commented: “Young Ben was in London for 16 years and his letters are full of fascinating details of his life during this time, with his numerous requests for money towards his keep and for what he needs to live a fashionable lifestyle, not to mention some bombshell surprises like his secret marriage.

“While old Ben kept dozens of the letters he received from his son, young Ben only seems to have kept a few from his father. So, we have the references he makes in his own letters to things his father has written to him to get an idea of how Ben senior was responding to various pieces of news. In one surviving letter from old Ben, though, we discover he is keen for his son to find out a bit more about a rumour he has heard, of a duel in London between a local Troutbeck man and a Londoner!”

Emma continued: “These letters are so relatable, and they show nothing has really changed. Like the emails or text messages they may receive today, many parents with a child going off into the world will appreciate how Ben senior must have felt getting news of them and requests for help, while any young person who has arrived in a big city to study or work will recognise the situations in which young Ben finds himself.”

Over the years, the volume containing the correspondence between father and son – leather bound in the late 19th century by a member of the family, George Browne – had become in need of conservation. Prior to going on display, the volume has been repaired by book conservator Ann-Marie Miller.

Ann-Marie Miller said: “It has been a pleasure to tread the same steps as George Browne, as I have charted, and then reconstructed, his work as a bookbinder. He took a great deal of care to preserve the correspondence between father and son and I have tried to honour his intentions. I feel as if I have also got to know young Ben, with his solicitous turn of phrase and the flourish of his handwriting.”

Emma Wright added: “I hope visitors of all generations will enjoy finding out more about how young Ben made his way in the world with the help of his father and seeing how their personalities come through in these letters. What emerges from this correspondence just goes to show the timeless nature of familial relationships.”

Townend’s display of letters along with other items in the Browne family archive opens to visitors from 26 March and runs until 1 November.