MAY family letters to Henry May

There is more information on the May family, their family tree and family connections, their land ownership in Leigh, photographs and connections in the MAY file in the Leigh Archives: the letters below were copied by the editor (Joyce Field)  from a transcription made by Miss B Fletcher and sent to Lawrence Biddle in 1992, actually after the publication of his book “Leigh in Kent 1550 to 1900”. 

HENRY MAY – second son of the Rev Thomas May, Vicar of Leigh

In the LHS archives file on the May Family there are several letters written to Henry May, one is from his father, the Rev Thomas May, two from his aunt, Jane May, one from a family friend, Mrs Allnutt.  As well as revealing a little of the relationship between family members, they also shed some light on life in Leigh and life in general at the time, the mid-19th century.  (The letters were transcribed by Miss B Fletcher and sent to Lawrence Biddle in 1992, actually after the publication of his book, “Leigh in Kent”).

The letter written by the Rev. Thomas May to Henry is dated 17 September 1849:  his son had joined the merchant navy in 1849.  His whereabouts in the 1851 census are not known, but Merchant Navy records available at the FindmyPast website show that he first went to sea as a Midshipman in 1849 – he joined in about July that year – and that he was born 20 January 1832, he had brown hair, fair complexion, grey eyes, and a mole on the back of next: and height was given as still growing.  In 1849 he would have been on the SS Marlboro; between 1853 and 1857 he was on the SS Golden Fleece.  In the 1861 census he is given as a 2nd Officer on the “Mauritius” which was based at Portsea, Hampshire at that time.

In 1855 Henry was at Constantinople on the SS Golden Fleece.  His Aunt Jane refers in her letters of 23 January and 7 August 1855 to the Crimea and Balaklava: according to Aunt Jane’s letter Henry was docked at Scutari (at what was then Constantinople), where the Barracks and hospital were for those caught up in the conflict and where Florence Nightingale treated the sick and dying, where cholera was rife.  It was on route to the Crimea: but Henry was not a soldier and Henry’s visit to the area of danger causes his Aunt’s rebuke for “poking your nose into dangers where your duty does not call you”.   (Although there are several references to “Henry Mays” at the Crimea in the Navy records,  there is no mention of the Golden Fleece against these names).  However, Henry’s location in the area obviously prompted concern.

Henry did eventually return home safely.  He went on to marry and have three children, Susie Isabel, Henry William and Stanley – they were born at Perth in Scotland, where Henry was working after leaving the Merchant Navy.  Henry May had married Susan Louisa Bell at Walsingham, Norfolk in 1871.  Susan Louisa Bell was the daughter of a curate also – hence a connection; possibly the family was known to the Rev. May.  In the 1871 census he is in Scotland and was Deputy Governor of Perth General Prison; in 1881 he was the Governor and his daughter Susie Isabel and son Stanley May are living with him at East Church, Perthshire: his wife, Susan, is visiting her family in Norfolk.  I cannot find where their son, Henry (b. 1873) is in 1881, probably away at school.  By 1891 Mrs Susan May, a widow, and her three children are at Icklesham; both the boys would eventually become private tutors.

The letter to Henry from his father is given in full and appears to show (Victorian) fatherly concern, and hints at a strictly religious upbringing still to be followed whilst Henry is away, and even perhaps at some unknown reason why young Henry chose – or perhaps was encouraged – to choose the Merchant Navy particularly when reading the sentence from Captain Webb’s letter (quoted by the Reverend) which reads “I am happy to say when I was on board your son appeared much more reconciled to his fate than I had anticipated”.  We can clearly form a picture of the Rev May from this letter – we can hear his voice and his sermonizing!

The letter from Rev Thomas May to Henry May written three months after Henry had enlisted:

(nb.  Spellings and grammar as per the transcribed letter).


17 Sept 1849

My Dear Boy

All who can use a pen would like to write to Henry across the Atlantic but we must be economic in our arrangements for the correspondence.  I claim the 1st privilege.  My name is “Pater” and shall and proceed forthwith to exercise it.  Confineing myself to this bit of paper and endeavor to write short.  You commenced a good practice in writing to us every opportunity before you quitted the Bristol channel, and your 3 notes, dated from the Marlboro, were very welcome and read with great attention.  Pray continue to observe this good rule, it will provoke energy on the part of your correspondants in dear old England.  If I mistake not you have often thought of Leigh Vicarage and its inmates, & we have not been unmindful of you.  You have come before me especially at the hour of prayer, for I have often a painful sense of the dangers to which you are exposed, “ghostly & bodily”, & a distrust of your meeting with judicious councillors in seasons of difficulties.  Still I hope the advice which you received under the paternal roof will not be forgotten, and that God Almighty will protect you from harm.  It is a great satisfaction to me that I provided you with some pious reflections, & good rules of conduct, & I shall be happy to learn that you have found the “tablet” a useful chart for your guidance over the waves of this troublesome…  You may suppose we heard the report of cholera having broken out in the Marlboro before she left Portsmouth.  Allan Young sent Mr Westcar, a true account which he transferred to us.  It was sufficiently alarming.  We have since seen in the Newspapers notices of fearful mortality from the “pestilence that walketh in darkness”, in several vessels that have gone to America.  The scourge has cut down thousands in England, privailing to an awful extent in London & many other places of the United Kingdom.  We had a form of prayer yesterday (Sunday) & I invited our family and household to observe Friday last as a day of special humiliation, in contemplation of God’s judgement.  The official returns of deaths Wednesday & Thursday show a manifest diminuition in the morality.  The Government have in effect, refused a Public Fast, but several of the Bishops, & many of the clergy of the Districts sorely visited have been up and doing & I trust it will please the Almighty to withdraw his chastening hand.  There has been no such mortality know in the Metropolis since the Plague of London.  Dr Burton, Senior Physician Mills, Mr Keg, Senior Surgeon of Guys both valuable friends to my Parishioners, have died of the disease.  You will be happy to learn (thank God) that we have no case at Leigh, & that Mr Gregory has been very successful in the treatment of his Patients under Smallpox, of which we have had several cases around us, to the great alarm of your Grandmama (editor:  Mary Saint nee Farrant – n.b. probably added by B Fletcher who transcribed this from the original small sheet) and some others.  Milly and James have both been troubled with headaches, but we have great grounds for gratitude, that we have been in the enjoyment of such good health.  Willy returned to school on Thursday. I don’t think he was taken down quite enough, but we shall have our eye to him when we comes home again, and the hardship he will meet with at school may further our plans.  How do you like the rough work?  Well enough I hope to persevere till you obtain for  yourself a better berth for which you are training.  You will be pleased to hear how encouragingly Captain Webb writes of your proceedings.  I will transcribe his note to me dated August 22nd.  I am happy to say when I was on board your son appear much more reconciled to his fate than I had anticipated.  Rely upon it, he will settle down most comfortably.  The 1st week afloat is always the most disagreable.  The Troops on board had suffered considerably which I attributed to their indiscretions when on Terra Firma – I had a long account from Methuen off the Lands End everything was then coileur de rose.  Discipline and cleanliness began to reign throughout.  A sailor to be thoroughly at home must be clear of the land.  I know nothing so exhilarating and fresh as launching into blue water again after all the turmoils of a Long Season  It will be pleasant for your Boy on his arrival at Calcutta to have intelligence of you.  I should suggest that you commence writing overland by the last Egyptian Indian mail and continue every fortnight until the end of December.  Let your letters be addressed to the Care of one of my agents, Mess Gillander Arbuthnot & Co.  Calcutta and they will be forwarded on board the Marlboro on arrival with the Captains dispatches.  This will delight the young sailors heart after nothing but sky and sea, to hear from your home which will then be double prized.  In one of your letter let there be a paragraph which he can show to Captain Methuen stating that at my request he will furnish him with any little addition to his finances that he may require.  This will save an infinity of trouble by remittances.  I regret to say that the medical men will not hear of Miss Young attempting the overland journey this year.  Consequently I cannot resume my command until next season.  It is our present intention of passing the winter at Naples.  Mrs and Miss Young unite in kind regards with Sir Yours very truely Sydney Webb.

Allen Young wrote to Mrs. Western much in the same strain.  Western in his letter some time since said that Captain Webb to be married about September 13th.  I hope he is now a happy man and the late Miss Adeline […] and happy wife.

Mr Dodd has been trying to make friends for you in Captain Fulcher, through his brother.  Captain Fulcher now resides at Mrs Colquhoun’s house.  Mr Dodd took me to the latter Captain Fulcher and as people say, he talked very well.  Qualify yourself by application to study and readiness to perform your offices and you may not remain long in the lowest ranks of those charged with Authority.  But as Methuen says, whether you get on depends upon yourself.  If I did not think you were somewhat improved in diligence and perseverance I should hesitate to cross this but I have not yet said my say and all I wish to say.

Please God you live to receive this, it will find you at the end of your voyage outwards, I hope you will pause to consider the goodness of the Almighty in your preservation, but at Calcutta a new scene will open upon you and when liberty is granted you to be absent from your vessel; you will have to act for yourself, with little experience of the wiles of men and women for gain and seduction.  “My son; if sinners entice thee, consent thou not”, wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? Even by ruling himself after thy word.  Do not be ashamed of being virtuous.  Let the fear of the Lord be your defence in the hour of temptation”.  How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?  Sharpers will endeavour to profit by your simplicity.  Distrust yourself, and seek council of those who maybe competent and willing to advise, if it is your good fortune to meet with such friends.  If not, ask your own conscience, there is none more true to you than it and till it is warped by the blanishments of pleasure, or the thirst for gain, it will upbraid your dec…. from the paths of piety, purity and peace.  It is no use asking you questions in this communication.  I have therefore preferred the insertion of precepts and I pray God that they may be received in the same affectionate temper with which they are submitted to your consideration.  Now as regards your finances I have made up accounts and the result was that I paid £30 into your account with the Tonbridge Savings Bank, this sum being due to you on the balance.  My anxiety that you should not have much money in your purse when you went on board, and yet be supplied with all you wanted at Portsmouth caused me to lose my train and I was able to get no further than Brighton the night we parted.  By the bye Mrs Wardon’s servant made a pleasant report of your behaviour at her house which she remitted to Leigh in a very kind note expressive of her concern for your future welfare.  Captain Town and I also exchanged letters, and should you on your return land at Portsmouth I hope you will go and see them, though you have scarcely a shirt to your back.  I shall adopt Captain Webbs suggestion and write a few lines asking Captain Methuen to advance you money, as in his judgement he may think proper.  If you wanted help in making any little purchases to bring home I think it very probably Captain Rogers would befriend you.  Most likely when you present Mr Hardinges’s letter of introduction, he will express his readiness to show you favour, and you have a very good manner of receiving the courtesy of genteel people.  Not being awkwardly shy nor obtrusively forward.  In medio tritifirumis ibis.  There is much pleasure to generous hearts in showing kindness, as well as in receiving it.  Do not make costly presents it will not enhance their value.  It would be very entertaining to us if you kept a journal of your proceedings and your observations on men and manners I have found this very useful, though not always gratifying in the conduct of my Parochial ministry.   As regards yourself, it might encourage habits of thoughtfulness . . …..  besides you may one day have it said of you, as of Aeneas “qui mores dominus multorum vidit et urbes “we shall rejoice to see you safe home again with a prospect of success in that line of life which you have chosen for yourself.  You have many wellwishers in England, who will join their felicitations. We were sometime since alarmed for the Jack, as he appeared so constantly near the surface of the water but I hope he will live and thrive to welcome you on your return.  I write to you now, quite under new circumstances and in a new character.  I hope this will induce you to give the serious parts of my letter an attentive consideration.  I am confident it is based upon truth and none more truly desires your happiness than Your Affectionate Father, Thomas May

Your mother complains that I have written on such weighty paper but I hope there is a fair proportion of weighty matter and certainly a dire expenditure of ink and I have mended my pen several times.  Adieu. 



Letter to Henry May, SS Golden Fleece, Constantinople or elsewhere

c/of Messrs hansom & Co.  G.S.S.S. Co’s Agent, Constantinople

 from Aunt Jane May (The Grove)  23 January 1855

 (Some of these letters read like a Jane Austen novel!   Aunt Jane is clearly matchmaking!)

 My dear Henry

Here I have been since the 3rd of this month, most happily located again with our dear Mrs Allnutt – where you and the ‘Golden Fleece’ may be found just how I do not know but as I have been provided with a sheet of their paper (with the promise of good help in filling it to you) I determine to dispatch a long letter in search of you.  At the present moment we are experiencing an old fashioned winter of deep snow and frost which of course keeps our old friend a close prisoner to the house – but I generally manage a walk in galoshes to Penshurst most days – one day accompanying Mr & Mrs Cattley over their new farm formerly Godleys just below Ashams/ another, Mr Green in his long stroles – the alterations are nearly completed at The Old Rectory, for Mr & Mrs Cattley’s occupation, and pleased enough are all the neighbours to keep them here.  The Scotts, we expect, are now on their way back to England, & may have the choice of Culver Hill again.  Mrs Colquhouns or Stone Wall if the rank of General enables them to settle in such a rude place for we hear they have set their minds on returning to this neighbourhood – your other correspondents no doubt have named Miss Scotts marriage in India to a Gentleman of good fortune  rising prospects and it is supposed that Mr & Mrs Walker may follow them home in a year or two – you have probably heard this too of Miss Cobbetts marriage!  As unlooked for an event to herself when she visited me in August, as I verily believe as it was to her family & friends!  Mr Mackmurdo however was always a highly esteemed and intimate friend, and everyone who knew Miss Cobbett and her dependent position most sincerely rejoices over the well deserved “change” – Mr Mackmurdo is almost at the “Top of the Tree”, as a London surgeon & though obliged to reside in the vicinity of The Hospital, 7 New Broad Street City – she will have a establishment, a paired carriage “to carry her out of it” when she pleases – I am invited to be one of her first visitors and if you should ever return suddenly it is near London Bridge, and I am very sure you would receive a hearty welcome – I have seen a good deal lately of the Penshurst bride Katey Woodgate / she and Mrs Warde past a full month at Swaylands to share in all their family parties – though beyond these sort of gatherings there has been “nothing” this year at Penshurst every ones feelings are too deeply interested in the sufferings of their poor fellow creatures in the Crimea – your lively pleasant description of your day in Camp was quite a bright  treat to all that heard it – A little note from Leigh told “there was a letter from Henry” – when Mrs Allnutt wrote off to beg your Father to “come over & dine” the following day and read it to us for dessert – we only wonder what could induce you to wade through mud and pestilence on that horrible shore.  (where our poor soldiers are dying by thousands) and “go poking your nose into dangers where your duty does not call you – Today Parliament meets and we shall then learn what Authoritys are most to blame for the dreadful losses and state of tings at Balaklava.  Sir de Lacy Evans, Lord Cardigan and many hundreds more Officers are just arrived in London, and it is expected, are better able to fix the blame, than Newspapers Correspondents who must be considered intrusive gentry – the mental sufferings of the South park family, have been intense.  Arthur H was prostrated a second time by cholera and then still more weakened by low fever until he had to be carried on board a transport vessel “& came home” with another long list of “sick & wounded”.  A letter yesterday from lady H. Announced his safe arrival in …..  and that “although still an invalid” he had wonderfully rallied during the voyage so both he and Captain Edward Streatfield who is also recovering, will be probably off again to their posts at the end of a month – the elder Streatfield is just married and the brothers all delighted with the Lady and this increased happiness at Chiddingstone.  I met Newton (now the grace curate there) at The Boissiers dinner table – Mr Boissier and pupils get on famously, he has now many more applications than he can receive – most of the same boys and their brothers wishing to remain with him.  Anna Dodd is now staying t the Greens.  I walked with her from church on Sunday and had a good opportunity of asking about your friend Mrs Chas …d.  She had recently heard of her “being quite well”  She hoped they were getting on very comfortably at ‘Adelaide’.  Possibly you may have some letters from the Vicarage by the same mail so will have fresher new of James & the rest than I can give – the last name gentleman I hope now finds himself pretty comfortable in Staffordshire.  Willy was so grown and improved in appearance this Xmas, that Mrs Allnutt declares he will be “as handsome as any of you”, he is constantly mistaken for James – now in his tailed coat!  Mr Green particularly charged us to “remember him to you”, when I wrote – after we were talking of you yesterday – they are both growing so very sociable here – coming to family dinner or tea and game of cribbage whenever Mrs Allnutt wishes them – They have promised for tomorrow notwithstanding the snow which of course has kept her a prisoner to her own fireside – I leave the other half of my paper for her own relation of adventures and will now remain your  affectionate Aunt & friend Jane May.



Letter from Mrs Allnutt

My dear friend Henry.  How few how very few of our noble soldier officers and men will return from the horrors of War, pestilence and Famine, without having suffered in every possible way, but I hope those in our wooden walls will have fared better, I truely hope you will come home in good health with a well lined pocket.  We look daily for the Golden Fleece, that is to its whereabouts for you are in our rememberance almost daily.  How pleased I shall be to see that smiling cheerful face once again in my drawing when it will be sure to receive the usual welcome – on the 15th was Allnutts birthday when he completed his 12th year on the occasion I presented him with a Watch, we have all experienced in our time the delight of having our first watch, and the pleasure and surprise depicted in the counternance on opening the box shone forth conspicuously poor boy he was to ……   The next day we joined a dinner party at Oakfield, the day was cold and wet, I ordered that carriage at half before 11, Richard is generally punctuality itself, so when 11 came, & quarter past 11 came & the carriage B….. went down the road and at the foot of the hill just below Oakfield gate was the carriage, where it had been more than half an hour.  The horses could not get up the hill which was a sheet of glass one horse fell down twice well what was to be done?  It ended in our remaining all night at Oakfield.  The next day the horses being roughed we returned, and the ground being covered with snow, I must remain a close prisoner white it lasts.  Thankful to have Jane for a companion.  She has of course given you all the local news so I will only add my sincere good wishes for your health and happiness.

Yours (I suppose I may say with propriety) affectionately Z Allnutt.


Again from Aunt Jane:

January 24th

Mrs Allnutt not having quite covered the paper, I will “go a head” (as you say) again this morning and give you the satisfactory intelligence that your pretty Miss Browne does not lose any thing of her beauty by increasing years & that she, as well as some other of your favourites are still, I believe, disengaged.  I have heard much of a certain Isabella Mackmurdo (Miss C’s step daughter) to whom she may perhaps give you an introduction one of these days if this young lady, (with probably, a grand fortune to boot) is not caught up, before you can have a chance !!  The Golden Fleece seems in such good repute (as a comfortable Transport vessel) when some others have gained “such a miserable notoriety”, for their “wretched …… of sick and wounded” & awful list of deaths whilst during your last turn to Scutari, with (I think) nearly 200 invalids “only 8 deaths were given” on board the passage – you will certainly “make your fortune” “in time”, only be patient to bide the right course of things every advance step must bring a load of responsibility, with such pressing circumstances as are now contantly occurring.  All the world seems on the “qui vive” as it never was before.  Please God but to preserve you, life & limb, you have fiends enough in various quarters – ready to do you justice.  You will be sorry to hear that Stone Wall must be given up as a resident by poor Mr. W.

The folly and extravagance of the sons have brought him to this.  The elder brought home a pretty Irish bridge last Autumn but has lately taken her back to Ireland, where they at present reside with her Mother!  The younger –R- has yielded up the Hounds to subscription & has been in a state of insanity (in Mr Ballams hand for the last fortnight / soley from drink! Which is still obliged to be supplied to him to a certain extent or they say he would sink, at once into idioticy.  I wonder whether you will ever get this long scrawl?  Pray write and tell us if you do – though it may be only a scratch of a pen at any odd moment, it matters not whether you have time to “wind up” or sign your name we shall not mistake the style or handwriting of our dear sailor correspondent.




Lawrence Biddle (Author of Leigh in Kent 1550-1900) made the following notes with reference to the above letters::

Jane May was staying with Mrs Allnutt at The Grove (Penshurst) designed by Decimus Burton.

Katey Woodgate: daughter in law of William Woodgate who built Swaylands in 1831.

Mrs Warde: likely to be of Squerries Court

Arthur H and Lady H: Hardinges, owners of South Park

Boissier: curate of Penshurst , lived at Oakfield, opposite South Park (Penshurst)

Streatfields: of Chiddingstone:  Capt Edward Streatfield of 44th Regt and regular soldier:  Henry Dorrien Streatfield born 1825, elder Streatfield who married 1855.

Lawrence Biddle concluded that the Mays’ friends were mostly “county” families.



 Letter 7 August 1855: from Aunt Jane May

If gone from Port
To be forwarded to
Henry May Esq
Steam Ship Golden Fleece
G.S.S.Co.  Marseilles
My dear Henry

Your letter of this morning has given me the very great pleasure.  I see by it, you are in good health & spirits, & not I hope, fretting any longer over the disappointment regarding Captain Harris & the Perserverance which Mrs Comerford declared she could have “cried about” for you.  If you have not received home letters you know nothing of a pleasant visit Mitty had in Chester Square last month – or that General Scott has got an excellent appointment (again) to India ‘though this time in The Bombay Presidency, As General of Divisions with about 4000 a year.  Henry of course is his A.D.C. & a Staff Officer.  All has been hurry and bustle with them for the last month as they are to quit England in September.  The Gentlemen are now gone down into Cumberland to settle matters regarding some family property there, and Mrs Scott & Adela were to have given up No. 18 as today and came to me for rest & quiet, but poor Mrs Scott had failed in driving even London tradespeople fast enough – & they wish to complete all their arrangements before leaving Town – stay on a week here & be joined by General Scott & son somewhere on this line en route to Paris for overland journey whilst their heavy baggage goes on board the ship “Persia” tomorrow.  The Appointment is for 5 years but the Gegneral only engages for 2 expecting to be promoted to the pleasanter district of Poonah.  We have all been wonderous gay at Leigh this summer.  Grandmama is a little stronger and had the Mackmurdo party down again last week (with her) that is to say Mrs Mackmurdo and her niece, Miss Cobbet, came down on the previous Saturday (as expected), Mr Mackmurdo being unable to leave a patient whose eyes he had just operated upon, Lord William Lennox – so the ladies were prevailed on “to stay till the next Saturday” when the old gentleman was pronounced “well” & under the happy feeling of restored sight quite willing to spare Mr Mackmurdo – Last Thursday was a grand day at Penshurst – re opening of the Church by the Archbishop.  A large collection of £200 was raised quite covering expenses and a large “tent Luncheon” given by the Greens, to nearly a hundred persons – the different families received regular invitations beforehand allowing 3 in a party.  Miss Cresswell (again in the Colquhouns house) invited me “to spend a few days with her” brought the carriage to fetch me to dinner on Wednesday” left me to do as I chose, in attending hte church with other that we able to be present – and at 2 oclock she was “up” & drawn in her ‘couch pony chaise to Mr Greens Lawn & tent where we spent 2 or 3 hours most agreeably.  Your Father & James made part of a long “Procession of clergy in gowns & hoods” and I should say both received marked attentions from his “Grace”, & the bishop of Glasscow, with whom James had been associated in doing Penshurst “duty”, a few Sundays previously.  The following morning James left home for his new curacy Castle Rising – one short letter has been received from him since, showing him well pleased with all he had seen – a good house, good garden 3 servants left to take care of himself and two or three younger children of Mr Chas Bagots – and a pony chaise to take him backwards and forwards to his churches.  More “cheerful work” than he had at the elder brothers curacy and it turns out curiously enough that Miss Cresswells eldest brother is squire of the post town Parish “Lynn” – 2 or 3 miles off – so he will not mope for want of introductions – I forgot to tell you Miss Coulton & her pony chaise paid a second visit to G.M. not long since – so James is becoming quite an experience “whip”.  Tommy however is a more perfectly tractable creature than you seem to have been entrusted with at Balaklava.  I suppose we must consider you as a “kitten” with nine lives – or you could scarcely get clear out of all the risks you needlessly run into – Miss Brown looked very pretty among the company the other day.  You might have been of service to her & Mrs B at The Luncheon for they came so late into the “tent” that they with difficulty got a corner of a form to set down upon.  No Gentleman and but one clean wine glass between them.  I know and admired Young Bramleys Mother very much – and probably have seen him as “a boy” but without knowing his Christian name cannot recollect him – is it Alfred?  You will have letters from other here – so I need but remain

Your affectionate Aunt J May