Heritage: Rare letter dating back to 1841 gives insight into social history

Letter handwritten by Elizabeth Lea dates back to 1841.
Letter handwritten by Elizabeth Lea dates back to 1841.
  • Rare letter is purchased at auction by the Dacorum Heritage Trust
  • The handwritten note by Elizabeth Lea gives a rare insight into social history
  • From Hemel Hempstead, she was writing to her cousin in London
  • The letter displays one of the first adhesive postage stamps - the ‘Penny Post’

Early in 2014, a rare handwritten letter dating from 1841 came up for sale on an online auction.

The Dacorum Heritage Trust purchased the letter after successfully securing funding from Hertfordshire Heritage Fund and the Friends of Dacorum Museum.

Today's view out of Hemel Hempstead towards St Albans.

Today's view out of Hemel Hempstead towards St Albans.

Elizabeth Lea wrote this letter to her cousin in London on February 28, it was delivered the next day, on March 1.

It includes a penny black stamp (1d.), from the original issue runs.

The ‘Penny Post’ was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, which went into circulation in May 1840.

The stamp is in good condition with four margins and may have been printed on John Dickinson’s paper - famously made in Hemel Hempstead.

The letterhead engraving is entitled ‘Returning from the Market’ by John Henry Buckingham, depicting figures on foot and in carts.

It shows market goers climbing the long hill out of Hemel Hempstead towards St Albans.

Buckingham’s viewpoint remains little changed today. Compare the image, pictured right, taken last spring from Adeyfield Road looking across Keen Fields and the allotments above The Midland Hotel, towards the Old Town.

John Buckingham was a prolific local artist, and is best known for his watercolours and satirical cartoons of St Albans, its people and politicians.

Whilst his technique may have been considered poor by Victorian standards, his humour and interest in everyday life made him one of the most interesting of provincial artists. Buckingham later altered this print, removing the tree, part of the bank, and the two figures awkwardly sinking out of view in the foreground. Research discovered Elizabeth’s father John Lea’s will dated 1792, also in Hemel Hempstead.

According to the 1841 Census, Elizabeth lived in Marlowes and states she was ‘born in county’.

Her brother George was a grocer in the High Street and lived in Old Marlowes House, a Grade II* listed house at the corner of Marlowes and Midland Road.

This letter is a wonderful addition to the Dacroum Heritage Trust’s collection as private correspondence from this period are rare, and this fascinating letter helps to fill an obvious social history gap in the trust’s collection.