The excellent news that the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, in conjunction with support from CyMAL, part of Welsh Government, have awarded Ceredigion Archives with funding for the conservation of some of my very favourite documents has been all over the media this week. The documents in question are the letters of Morris and Daniel Williams, and of Owen Williams their uncle, and John Williams their father. All the letters were written between 1811 and 1824, a period of some excitement in British history.
Morris was in the Pembrokeshire Militia, and when on active service in Southern England he volunteered to join the 23rd Regiment, the Royal Welch. As a result he went overseas and found himself at the Battle of Waterloo. Daniel had a quieter time – he went to Hounslow – but the letters he sent home are probably livelier and more full of news than those of his brother. His uncle Owen, near whom he lived in Hounslow sent regular news to Daniel & Morris’ father John Williams who lived at Penrallt Ddu, a farm near Cardigan, and John replied to his sons and brother, although only a few of his letters are preserved.
The two letter-books, ‘Daniel’s Letters’ and ‘Morris’ Letters’ were transferred to Ceredigion Archives amongst other family papers, from Ceredigion Museum, where they were deposited in 1979. They consist of the original letters in most cases, sent from Gosport and Portchester, from Hounslow, from ‘a camp near Paris’, from Limerick and Winchester and other places. The letters survived their journeys in the early nineteenth century postal system remarkably well, and were subsequently made into two letter-books.
We do not know who decided to keep and arrange the letters. We do not know who bound them, with careful if inexpert sewing. We do not know who – and there must have been many people involved – kept them so safely through nearly two centuries, but to those people we owe an enormous debt.
I like to think it might have been the boys’ father, John Williams, who initiated the process. The letters were sent to him, and to Esther his wife, and it was John who annotated some of them with the dates they arrived, and sometimes with his own responses. Every time I look at them, I am struck by his care and his concern.
One part of the conservation process will be to separate the letters and permanently to remove the stitching that holds them together. At first I found this very difficult to contemplate. I felt that at the least those stitches were a demonstration of great care; at most an expression of love. Someone had decided to keep those letters as mementoes, but more than that : they were made into a narrative, reflecting the relationships within a family, and in a world which extended far beyond the familiar fields at Penrallt Ddu. They were souvenirs of a son lost in France, and a new family created over two hundred miles away from Cardigan.
There was, in the collection, retention and stitching of this correspondence a very clear intention to preserve and pass on the material. Often documents seem to survive by accident, but Daniel and Morris Williams’ letters were intended to be kept. Whoever it was that started that process, it is now our responsibility at Ceredigion Archives to continue it. Of course, it’s true that we must do our best to preserve all the records in our care, but we seldom have such a clear statement of intent from the past to follow.
The stitching will be removed because it’s done its job. Nearly two hundred years after the letters were sewn together the thread is beginning to damage the paper. The conservators at the National Library of Wales will photograph the books so we have a record of the way they were sewn, before separating, cleaning, and presenting the letters in a way which best preserves them. So the story will go on, and that person who wanted to pass on the letters has done his job. They’re here for posterity, for us.
I hope in subsequent blogs I can include some extracts from these very fine documents, before we publish a complete and annotated transcript later this year to celebrate the return of the conserved correspondence.