I tak up my pen, 8 December 1830

I tak up my pen, 8 December 1830

What is shown in the photograph here is the first page of a letter dated 8 December 1830, sent by Joseph Hemming to his older brother John Hemming. John Hemming was a Bombardier in the 5th Battalion of the Royal Artillery, at that point stationed in Limerick, Ireland, moving there from Dublin. Later he was promoted around the time that his regiment was sent to India and then the Cape Colony. After John Hemming was demobbed, he was offered a prestigious position as a tax collector working for the new Colonial Secretary in Cape Town. He became the patriarch of the Hemming family in South Africa, with later his son Robert Hemming marrying Alice Schreiner, an elder sister of the writer and social commentator Olive Schreiner. The transcription of the first page of the letter from Joseph to John now follows and is discussed below.

“Dearham Forge
Uper Cannady
December 8

Dear Brother after A longe unreadable delay I tak up my pen to anser your kind letter hopeing it finds you well as it leaves me at this time thank god for it you stated you was still in Ireland and doing well wich I was verey glad to here and likewise that probably you should be removed to North America if you do you must let me now and I will come and see you likewise intimated to me that you ad sum Doutes of my Honesty concerning the forty pounds but it certainly is withoute a Cause but no more Aboute that now for A little news concerning our relaitions Edward Matthews came to Cannady last Septem with is Wife and too children is Father and Mother in Law and their Fammely are all in good helth and likely to do very well Hunkle John Stephens & Haunt & three Cosens Johen James and Richard are all in good helth and doing very well the ad no childe since they came to cannady Huncle Richard I have not horde of since I have been in ?N America aney more than he left westminster for Montreeall About 2 years ago…”[A2.1.1/1.9026]

When reading through material in the Schreiner-Hemming collection, and reading this letter’s first page, a number of interesting features came to mind. These provide the five topics now discussed.

Firstly, the extracts from Joseph Hemming’s letter that appear in the WWW database contain a number of incorrectly transcribed words that will be need to be corrected using the full transcription. This is not the result of carelessness, but of the practical circumstances of the research. This involves dealing with many sometimes wildly different handwritings in one day’s work and working at speed to record the basics of as many letters as possible. Inevitably some mistakes will have been made although hopefully, as in this case, they will be minor ones and corrected at a later stage.

Secondly, it is very striking how beautifully written this letter is and also how well preserved it is too. It is now around 190 years since it was written, yet it looks as though it could have been penned yesterday, for much of the ink is still sharp, the individual letters are well formed, the lines are evenly spaced and the paper is clean and undamaged although creased. The carefulness suggests it was probably written with considerable attention by someone relatively unused to letter-writing. Not visible to the eye is that it must have been kept very carefully by a succession of family members, and this is something that its presence in a large succession of surviving letters dating from the 1830s through to the 1930s confirms. But just who were these family archivists and what kind of role did they play? Some of them are known and are commented on elsewhere on the WWW website, in the discussions of the Schreiner-Hemming and Findlay Collections.

Thirdly, Joseph Hemming was clearly an adept letter-writer. He conveys with nuance and subtlety some responses to his brother and things he has heard, including that he was glad to know his brother was well, and he rejects John’s doubts, passed on by another relative, as to his honesty about the £40 mentioned (an enormous amounts of money at that time). At the same time as this proficiency, it is also clear that Joseph is just ‘functionally literate’, a rather disparaging term that means he can convey sense with accuracy and put across what he wanted to, without knowing or using the prevailing rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, including capitalisation.

Fourthly, what is also striking about Joseph’s letter is the mobility of members of his family and kin. He is in ‘Uper Cannady’. They have an uncle, aunt and cousins in America (perhaps in an area that became part of Canada), another uncle who has been in London then Montreal. And while his brother John is a Bombadier in Limerick, and Ireland is where the brothers were born, Joseph thinks that John may be coming to North America (although in fact he was soon to leave for India and then the Cape, married and raised children in Cape Town, and post-army lived the rest of his life there).

Fifthly, Joseph’s letter was written in the year 1830, and these migrations are not those of the 1840s and after, which were propelled by starvation and destitution in Ireland. They are the movements of adventurous go-getting types seeking better opportunities for themselves. And as with the Hemmings, so also with many of the English-speaking migrants to America, Canada, South Australia and South Africa of this earlier period. The Findlay family, for instance, arrived in South Africa through an involvement in merchant shipping and also had kin in North America; and the Forbes family migrated from Scotland to Natal and Transvaal and had family members in North America, South Australia and also the Cape Colony.

This letter by Joseph Hemming will be discussed in its entirety in a later Trace to appear on the WWW website in due course. This will provide the full transcribed text of the letter and consider it in detail. Thoughts on pges 2, 3 and 4 are in the blogs following this.

Last updated:  30 August 2018