Charlotte Fox of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, UK, wrote this letter in 1837 to her sister, Caroline Taylor, wife of Rev Richard Taylor. The Taylors were resident in Liverpool, NSW, at the time, having arrived in Australia a year before. It would be another two years before they would come to New Zealand. It’s an ordinary, newsy letter, with no mention of anything of ‘serious’ historic interest, but fascinating in that it is written in a style known as ‘cross-hatching’.
Lines are written in the traditional horizontal fashion across the page until the page is full. Then, the page is used again with lines written at right angles to the first lines, creating a cross pattern. In this letter, both sides of the page are covered this way, save for a small rectangle for the recipient’s address and the 1837 original postmark.
So why did Sandi, Museum Archivist, choose this exhibit? “It’s a real, personal story, a personal history; part of the reason why I got into the job. It’s a glimpse into somebody’s life back then,” she says.
The contents of the letter are fascinating and, apart from the archaic language, very much like the contents of a modern letter. There’s the usual fussing over the recipient’s health, plenty of gossip, mention of the ‘dear little nameless boy’ recently born to the Taylors and much more. A lot more, in fact, because they were able to use cross-hatching to fill the page with news.
The letter has been transcribed but so much remains illegible due to paper folds, age and the one-time use of sticky tape to repair the paper. The writing is in ink and quite fine, allowing for very close penmanship and economic use of the paper. We assume it was easier to read 173 years ago.
Sandi comes to Wanganui after gaining a BA in English and Anthropology from Massey in Palmerston North. She went on to earn a Diploma in Archaeology from Otago and then took museum studies at Massey, earning another diploma. Her first job was in the collection department at Te Papa under a nine-month contract. Sandi later covered for Trish Nugent at Whanganui Regional Museum and applied for the archivist’s job when it came up.
She says she’s loving the role and right now they’re in the middle of the huge digitisation project. Photos and film negatives are all being turned into digital files, eventually to be made available in low resolution on the museum website.
“It’s for our records as well as to monitor them and keep a record of what they look like now, as opposed to what they may look like in 50 years’ time,” says Sandi.
Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in April 2010. Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.