The Letters and Their Transcription

There are 126 letters, dated from February 1834 to July 1839. Apart from damage caused by removal of the sealing wax, possibly for re-use, almost all are complete; exceptions are noted in the commentary. They are addressed to the Colonel’s wife Kate, whose granddaughter passed them on to the family of her godson.


All the letters are written on rag paper, hand made and watermarked. Most watermarks include a date, usually one to five years before the date of use. Paper sizes vary, mostly about 360 by 225 mm. The cover is usually a smaller sheet or a half sheet, folded round the full sheets, themselves folded once, turned at right angles, then folded into three. The cover is tucked in and sealed with wax. The shorter letters are of one sheet only, folded in the same way as the covers. The covers are written on, except for the part that shows after folding leaving only the address visible, so no space is wasted. The size of a folded letter of one sheet is around 75 by 115 mm; a letter of more than one sheet is around 80 by 160 to 200 mm.

Handwriting, spelling and presentation

Once his abbreviations and idiosyncrasies of spelling are mastered, English’s handwriting is fairly straightforward, except, as almost throughout the series, when cross writing distracts the reader, and when the writer is running out of paper and the writing is smaller. There are very few doubtful readings, or instances where the sense is unclear, but a few words are illegible, especially where red ink is used. Abbreviations, misspellings and omitted words have been left, except in a few cases where the sense would not be clear. English did not use paragraphs, perhaps to save paper, and they have not been introduced. His punctuation is almost non-existent; it has been added to help the reader.

The spelling of proper names was not the Colonel’s strong suit, and he knew it. In letter 6, we have ‘your old acquaintance Capt Dixings or Dickens or Diggens’, an officer he had known for years; and friendly as he was with the bishop, he never spelt his name correctly. The Army Lists have proved helpful, and notes have been added in the commentary to avoid confusion.

Cross writing

As was common due to the high cost of postage and the way in which it was charged, English covered his paper with writing, then turned it through a right angle and covered it again. For the second coverage of the paper, he used the same ink, except for letter 5 where he appears to have watered it down. Sometimes there is a third covering, usually in red ink and between the lines of the first but the other way up. Sadly, this has often faded and become illegible. The use of red ink has been flagged in the transcripts.

No wonder the faded red ink presents problems after 180 years. Letter 114 begins, ‘A long sheet of paper is the General order, is it my dear Kate? Well, here I start – no red ink – the old lady’s eyes begin to blinky blinky a bit, hey?’, but there is a third writing in red ink on part of one page, beginning ‘Hurra for the Red ink in spite of the old lady’s orders and eyes.’ Though he obeyed the ‘order’ to use a longer sheet of paper in some of the later letters, he continued to ignore Kate’s plea by using red ink for a third writing in letters 115, 116 and 120.

An example of a sheet written over three times from letter 71


Increasing literacy in the 1830s drove the demand for pens. Steel pens had been made since the early eighteenth century, but it was only now with the advent of factories that they could be mass produced. A contemporary source claims that 200 million a year were being made in England by 1835.

In his boyhood, English would have learnt to write with a quill, and no doubt he still felt comfortable with one. However, it seems that steel pens were more readily available than quills in the West Indies. Sometimes he is happy with steel: ‘I…have got such a superb steel [pen] at this moment that admiration of the wonderful improvement in the hand writing has led me away altogether from my subject’ (letter 25). But in letter 19 he describes his steel pen as ‘sulky’, and in letter 86 he ‘must take a quill, this steel affair will not work’. He appears to have changed pens, so the work of the two kinds of pen can be compared. The sketch of the interior of Shot Hall in letter 83 was done with a steel pen, but he calls it ‘a sorry attempt’. Perhaps the problem was that the steel pens wore out quickly.

‘…the wonderful improvement in the hand writing has led me away altogether from my subject’ (letter 25)

English changes his quill for a steel pen (letter 86)

‘A sorry attempt’ at sketching his new home with a steel pen (letter 83)