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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Letters Reveal the Life of a 20-Something in 18th-Century London

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In early 1719, 27-year-old Ben Browne set off on horseback to make the 300-mile journey from his home in the Lake District in England to bustling London. His father had signed him up to work as a clerk for a lawyer there, and in a collection of letters from Ben to his father (“old Ben”) recently restored by the British National Trust, we get a glimpse of what life was like for a young man arriving in the British capital. It turns out that his struggles and shenanigans aren’t too different from those of young people nowadays: He constantly worried about money, loved hanging out with his friends, fought (and made up with) his parents, and even had an illicit romance.

Just like many of today’s 20-somethings, Ben was perpetually strapped for cash. As an apprentice, he didn’t make much, and London was much more expensive than his hometown—not only in rent and everyday goods, but in what it took to maintain social standing. “…my Cloaths which [I] have now are but mean in Comparison [with] what they wear here,” he soon complained to his father, asking him to send along a wig and stockings from home as well as money for new (hopefully more impressive) breeches to fit in with the London crowd. 

Ben asking his parents for money is a common—if not the most common—thread in his letters. Still, he knew he came from an ordinary farming family and was eager to reassure his parents that he spent the money responsibly. In one amusing letter, he admits to giving his mother the wrong price for laundry so that he could pocket the bit of extra cash, then promising “you may depend I will not lay it out in any Extravagance or idle Expenses.”

Still, Ben wasn’t entirely dependent on his parents. Several letters give us a picture of his work life, and it’s clear he was a hard worker, copying legal documents by hand from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every weekday. But when Ben found out that the apprenticeship his father had signed him up for was to be five years long, it caused a bit of a tiff between them. He was devastated and wrote to his father that he will have “Lost the prime of [his] Youth” working so much for so little until the age of 32.  

But for all of his money woes and long work hours, Ben still seemed to have an active and fulfilling social life in the city. He often wrote about eating and drinking with his friends on Fleet Street, descriptions of which the National Trust compares to the boozy, satirical artworks of William Hogarth. He even found time for a clandestine romance: In 1724, he married Mary Branch, his employer’s maid, after a discreet courtship. Only afterwards did he write to his parents to beg for their approval and forgiveness. When he got it, Ben was extremely appreciative: “[I] shall ever acknowledge the many and endearing kindnesses and affectionate advices by me [received] from so indulgent and affectionate father and mother,” he wrote in his tender response to their acceptance of his new domestic life. 

These “Letters from London,” as the National Trust calls the collection of letters from Ben to his father, ultimately span 20 years. They’re a rare and intimate window into everyday life in the 18th century, showing us that many of our anxieties and difficulties—identity-building, navigating family relationships, starting over in a new place—have been shared by people across time.

If you’re interested in perusing the Letters from London, you can view the physical collection at Townend, Ben’s preserved family home in the UK’s Lake District. You can also view digital transcriptions [PDF] of all the letters through the National Trust website.

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