Regular readers of the blog may recognise the name Susannah Middleton. Her collection of letters, written from Gibraltar in the early nineteenth century, is a real favourite with staff and readers of the Caird Library. In December, a selection of the manuscripts she wrote to her sister in London featured as our item of the month.
It was thus with some interest that, in 2011, I learnt that a descendent of Susannah’s was planning to visit the library. Alison Board spent a day in the old Caird Library reading Susannah’s letters. Alison explained that in addition to being an ancestor of the Middletons, she was also a fine art student at the Arts University College, Bournemouth. On the look-out for inspiration, Alison had hit upon the idea of turning Susannah’s words into a work of art. The result of the research can be seen in the image on the right as Susannah’s writing continues to influence the artwork Alison is creating.
I’ve always known that manuscripts had the potential to inspire far more than academic studies (although don’t get me wrong, they’re very important too!), so it was great to see an example of a different approach to using archives. Thanks to Alison for keeping in touch and sending the image to us. If you would like to find out more about her work, Alison maintains a blog which can be read at: www.susannahandthecaptain.blogspot.co.uk.
Richard (Assistant Archivist)
Image: © Alison Board
I have recently completed a project to catalogue the Susannah Middleton collection. The collection is made up of 55 neatly-written letters sent by Susannah Middleton to her sister Miss Marion Leake, during her residency at Gibraltar from 1805 to 1808. Susannah’s husband of three years Captain Robert Gambier Middleton had been posted to Gibraltar to run the Navy Yard there and this was Susannah’s first time away from home.
The letters provide an invaluable insight into the life of a young naval officer’s wife in Gibraltar during the height of the Napoleonic wars. Susannah was homesick and desperate for company and her letters were her one lifeline to friends and family back home. The letters outline the everyday aspects of her life in Gibraltar with her husband, who she rather endearingly and formally refers to as Capt M. These include the running of her house and farmyard, continuous problems with her servants and their love lives, her social activities including balls and dinners, and plenty of gossip and scandal concerning the naval and army officers garrisoned in Gibraltar. It is easy to imagine some of the characters and events occurring in the pages of a Jane Austen novel.
It is the small details in the letters concerning the running of her household that I find so interesting, especially the tips that she provides for killing livestock, curing chickens, making duvets and preserving butter for the journey out from England amongst other things. Did you know for example that animals could only be killed for food in Gibraltar when the wind was blowing Westerly otherwise the meat would go bad straightaway?
Susannah responds emotionally to events in much the same way that a typical woman in her mid-twenties might do today. Although worried by the impending threat of French invasion, her letters are filled with concern of news from home, the behaviour of her servants and local gossip. She is desperately homesick and frets anxiously over when she will receive any news from home, often waiting a month or more for a letter. Her biggest complaint is the lack of supplies available in Gibraltar- especially in the way of fashionable gowns- and she relies on packages being sent out from England. She rather bitchily describes the local fashion as being two years behind that in England.
I think that Susannah’s letters are so interesting because they are unique amongst our collections in showing the day to day life, interests and thoughts of a young naval officer’s wife during the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars. Unlike other naval wives whose husbands were serving on ships, Susannah was not left behind in England but instead was able to experience what life was like for the naval officers stationed in Gibraltar at first hand.
The Middleton letters have now been fully catalogued and can be viewed in the Reading Room for anyone who is interested. Please see our website for information on visiting the Caird Library.