Mrs English

The Colonel’s wife, ‘My Dear Kate’ (sometimes ‘Kit’), to whom the letters are addressed, and who preserved them carefully for the rest of her life, was born Catherine Bleaden, on 14 February 1789 in Kensington, London. The Colonel remembers her birthday on two occasions; first in 1836, ‘I drank your health in ½ a doz bumpers on the 14th Feby’ (letter 51); then in 1839, ‘14th Feby: Dear Kate, many happy returns’ (letter 118).

The Bleaden family was for many years associated with the London Tavern in Bishopsgate in the City of London, a popular meeting place from the early eighteenth century until its demolition in 1876. Kate’s brother Charles succeeded his father John as proprietor. By the time of the letters, both Kate’s parents had died, but three sisters are mentioned. Sarah (Mrs Steward), whose death is recorded in letter 11, was seventeen years her senior, and Edith (Mrs Meyer), who had died earlier, fifteen years. Mary, nine years older, was married to her cousin Robert Wiltshire, a brother-in-law for whom the Colonel had no time (letters 12, 44 and 113). There had been a rift in the family in 1832 when Charles’s daughter Katherine Hinxman had resorted to the law to contest her grandfather’s will: she was awarded £1,000. It appears to have been Bleaden money that was used to buy young Fred’s commission in the infantry in 1833 and, after the Colonel’s return from the West Indies, his captaincy.

By the time the couple met in 1809 (letter 99), the family home was in Suffolk, at Stoke Park, now a suburb of Ipswich, where the then Captain English was serving. They were married at the church of St Mary Stoke on 10 January 1811. The opening of letter 48 is surely a reference to their twenty-fifth anniversary: ‘Here is a day for a man to write to his wife the 5th January 36 my dear Kate – blowing a gale, rain, sultry at intervals, gloomy…’ (The expression ‘silver wedding’ is not recorded by the Oxford Dictionary until 1850.) From the time of her wedding until 1817, while her husband was spending a lot of time in France and the Low Countries, it seems certain that Kate remained in Suffolk, where her three eldest children were born.

For the next sixteen years of peace in Europe, until the posting to the West Indies, the family was able to live together, first in Scotland, then in Ireland, and lastly in England. By early 1834 there were four daughters and two sons, the youngest girl being eight years old, the boys away pursuing their careers. It is not clear why the family settled in Hampshire, where Kate had no family connections, though it was her husband’s birthplace. The house at Wickham was leased, not owned (letter 75). It may have been because Uncle Hawker, who seems to have had an almost paternal relationship with his nephew, lived nearby. So it was to Wickham that Kate went, with her four daughters, Miss Parker the governess cum companion, and Jane Ross, the faithful servant, both of whom had been with the family since they were in Fort George in the north of Scotland.

The letters reveal that both wife and husband were severely troubled by their separation, which is not surprising considering the uncertainties of life in the West Indies at that time. They must have known soldiers who had served there, and letter 10 shows that they had read Six Months in the West Indies in 1825 by H N Coleridge, the bishop’s cousin, which would have alerted them to some of the dangers. Kate was used to having her husband at home sharing the household responsibilities: the mail was much too slow to ask for advice. However, she showed her mettle when Annie had an accident endangering her eyesight (letter 5), and in the crisis following Augustus’s dismissal from Woolwich Academy (letter 50 and following). The Colonel often expresses concern about the influence on her of the Oxford Movement which was very active at the time – see for instance letter 65. By May 1839 (letter 125) she appears to be close to nervous breakdown. Their reunion in July could not come too soon.

For Kate’s later life, see ‘After the letters’.