The Timmins Family of Aldenham
How much have lives changed in the century that divides us and the contemporaries of Jane Austen? In a small bundle of letters in the Hertfordshire Archives show how families with money spend considerable energy in working out what to do with it. The Timmins family who purchased the Highfield Estate in Aldenham in 1818 and owned it for the next hundred years wrote to each other with tantalising glimpses of turbulence in what appears to have been a respectable middle class household.
The correspondents include Charles Timmins, Napoleonic war hero and East India Company captain and his sea faring relatives, John and George who were also captains. One of the documents is a hand-written note with a minutely detailed list of assets. While it is unclear who the fortune belongs to, it totals £245,000 (a cool £11,000,000 in today’s money). On the same page there appear two further sums, one for compensation for £42,000 and another for what appears to be a share in a vessel for £18,000. The main body of the wealth, however, is held in a wide ranging portfolio of goods such as copper and corn, stocks and shares in railways and also some government bonds. Captains in the service of the East India Company were not well paid by the organisation but many made fortunes by using their vessels for independent trading which, arguably, was the source of the Timmins fortunes. There are also references to properties and rents. So, although there are complaints of money troubles because of the cost of doctors and druggists who are keeping one family member ‘off death’s door’ the Timmins are clearly reasonably comfortable and they concern themselves largely with money, allowances and inheritances.
This is all conventional. However, the letters which can be found in the Herts Archives also provide a surprisingly unconventional episode. A letter from an embittered unmarried daughter to her rich uncle speaks of a scandalous situation worthy of any romantic novel. Mary Timmins, writing from Gloucester in 1838 complains of her father’s household:
You may form such notions of the state of things when I tell you that will disgust even our acquaintances by [his] boasting of the genteel appearance of his illegitimate children “in their silk frocks with their parasols while he abuses us for presuming to ornament our “dreary forms”. Yet we are his own unoffending children brought up as gentlewomen, and they the offspring of a woman of the lowest class and of so vile a character that he is ridiculed wherever she is known for bearing them . On this subject he is insane. My feelings on this subject will not permit me to reside with him though in other respects his house is a comfortable home, but my sisters having better health and being more accustomed to his ways do their best to make him happy and respected. I spent a few days with him last autumn when the only request he had to make was that I would visit his children, though he knew I was especially enjoined not to do so by one who took an interest in my respectability. With his private faults we have no concern.
But money remains the particularly contentious issue with the Timmins as it is managed within the famil. The tensions are not eased by legal issues such as power of attorney. While the letters show that there are several financially successful members of the family, they also give an indication of those who rely on them for support. Mary, in one letter is clearly concerned for her brother, a soldier, whose words she quotes to her uncle:
“Should my uncle demur about paying the money my dismissal and utter ruin will be the consequence. A short time before this unlucky occurrence I was on the point of writing to beg my uncle to manage the remittance of £20 each to my sisters but this is that “dream broken”[i]
The details of the unlucky occurrence are missing and we don’t know the cause of his dismissal and utter ruin, but this would make a fascinating lead for someone who found this unfortunate soldier among their ancestors.
Another brother is struggling as a medical student and refuses to help with his food and lodging because, as Mary writes to her uncle:
He cannot afford it. [He] came home in May 1836 almost penniless and short of clothes and except £5, I think, from Uncle Charles. Received only £50 till October 1837… His clothes were expensive and he had to purchase books, instruments, subjects for dissection and subscribe to lectures which for a year had half which left him barely enough to pay his way and establish himself in town.
A further old gentleman complains that:
Untoward circumstances have been my lot since 22 January 1805 since when I have been in the habit of supposing myself accursed god forgive me for it.
It would be fascinating to find out what happened in 1805 and perhaps further discoveries among the corrrespodnence will reveal this. Whether they do or not the letters remain a good portrait of a middle class family in the late Regency period who have the resources and time to concern themelves with theier finances.
 Ref 25120; 10910.15