THE LETTERS OF WILLIAM BAKER 1808 to 1810
By Terry Askew
Thanks to the generosity of the descendants of the Baker family, Hertfordshire Archives has, in its possession, an absolute treasure of domestic letters which, upon examination, reveal many gems of information about life in Hertfordshire, news from abroad during the Napoleonic Wars, and how that coloured life two centuries ago and influenced events, dealing with illness in those days, and national politics.
Purely by chance, I began looking at the letters of William Baker, who lived from 1743 until 1824, covering the years 1808 until 1810, and became fascinated by the contents.
William Baker was the son of of Sir William Baker, one of the wealthiest businessmen of the 18th century, with prominent positions in both the Hudsons Bay Company and the East India Company. Indeed, his influence was such that he was able to play a part in financing the Nation’s ‘Seven Years War’ with France. The family arms included the figure of a greyhound and bore the family motto “So run that you may obtain” which seems entirely appropriate.
William Baker (Jnr) was first married to a Julia Penn, grand-daughter of William Penn who was governor of Pennsylvania in the U.S.A., but this was tragically only for 11 months as she died following the birth of their daughter Juliana. On 7th October 1775, William then married a Sophie Conyers from the family which owned Copt (or Copped) Hall at nearby Waltham Abbey, the ruins of which can still be seen from the M25 going eastwards. This marriage lasted many years producing 9 sons and 6 daughters.
The following children are mentioned in the letters:
Charles Adolphus Baker serving in the Royal Navy. He was subsequently to perish by drowning off the coast of Newfoundland, in 1822 whilst in command of H.M.S. Drake.
Charlotte Baker was, at that time, a permanent invalid, continually giving the family cause for concern. Surprisingly, she was 51 when she died, in 1836. (Some letters of a sentimental nature are addressed to her).
George Baker was then a cadet at Great Marlow military academy, the precurser to Sandhurst. He subsequently became a Lt. Col. of the 16th Lancers. (Some letters are addressed to him also)
Henrietta Baker later married the youngest son of the 1st Earl of Liverpool and Lt. Governor of Dover Castle.
Robert George Baker was, at that time, a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, prior to taking holy orders. He became vicar of Little Berkhampstead. (The majority of the letters at this time are addressed to him)
William Baker, the eldest son, was shortly to marry the daughter of Robert Fagan, British Consul of Sicily and Malta. He died after an illness at Hertingfordbury only 10 years later.
The letters, whilst giving up gems of information, inevitably posed certain problems to the unitiated.
Firstly, although William Baker wrote with a fair hand, in order to limit the number of pages to a minimum, thereby saving postage, he frequently resorted to ‘cross writing’ and writing around the margins using the tiniest possible script. Fine, for a family member or close friend, but not so easy for an inexperienced transcriber such as myself. Additionally key words are sometimes absent, due to the removal of a wax seal.
Secondly, all these letters are ‘letters out’ sometimes only fleetingly commenting upon earlier correspondence, which appears to no longer exist. The result is that much valuable detail is frustratingly denied to the reader.
A few comments regarding the postal services of those days:-
By the early 19th century fast, efficient and well-guarded mail coaches were used. These allowed for the carriage of four passengers and parcels as well as the letters, which were kept in a locked box at the feet of an armed guard.
The cost of postage depended upon distance and the number of sheets of letter paper – hence ‘cross-writing’. No envelopes were used, the pages being folded and sealed with wax.
MP’s were allowed to ‘frank’ their mail, which enabled it to be carried free. This privilege was, inevitably, frequently abused by friends and family.
One of the Baker letters mentions a delivery time of 4 days from Glasgow, which seems pretty impressive in comparison with modern times and conditions.
Letters sent abroad were usually carried by fast sailing ‘packet boats’, with those of national importance being copied several times with copies being entrusted to Royal Navy ships.