Letters and Journals written by Two women from the C19 Devon Buller family (1) -The ‘Chicks’ the Clergy, the Corn Laws and the correspondence of Charlotte Buller.


By T Bonner - Polwhele's History of Devon, Public Domain, 

      Downes near Crediton in Devon is one of the county's country houses which has threaded in and out of my life from childhood. In the 1950's we drove past Downes on every trip out to Exeter in the 50's and each time I remember asking my parents, ‘Who lives there’? Later, during the years when my parents retired and lived in Crediton they loved visiting the estate for meals or coffee when a café and shop was opened.
     In more recent times when researching other things I’ve occasionally stumbled upon the house and family linked with its once time occupants, in particular in connection with E M Delafield’s The War Workers, in which the heroine is a fictionalised Dame Georgiana Buller of Downes. (See Devon’s Doublescapes). During the last couple of years, when I’ve been looking into the archives in search of forgotten manuscripts by Devon-linked women, I’ve found letters and journals written by two C19 women who married into the Buller family.

     In this day of overwhelming email and various social media communications, when hand-written letters rarely drop through the post-box, handwritten correspondence sent from individuals to member of their family and to friends (which in previous generations would likely have been discarded) will become precious and treasured. And letters or journals penned by side-lined women, whose lives have rarely been considered of sufficient interest, will come into their own as unique sources, which will fill in documented gaps in cultural awareness of what has gone in terms of our communal social and interpersonal history. As one source puts it:

“Filled with abundant diaries on all aspects of women’s lives, women’ writings provide the raw stuff of history” Women’s Words and Where to Find Them

Many such letters, personal expressions written by women linked with Devon in the past still exist; although they may be dotted around in various archives, at least they are there, kept safely until such time as someone goes out to look for them. Ok, for the most part the actual documents I get to read are photocopies or e exchange copies, because it is not often I can actually travel to sources such as The Devon Heritage Centre – which, since it moved from the centre of Exeter to its present site has made it much harder to access  (and through Lockdown it has been more or less impossible),  but even with copies of letters it’s always a strange moment when you begin to read a personal communication written by someone say two centuries ago (which except perhaps for the person filing and documenting at the archive – and if the writing if hard to read, as is the case with one of the women’s letters I’m looking at in this post – possibly has not since the day it was written and received by its recipient, been scrutinized by a single soul).

I’ve already written at least one post which comments on one woman from the extended network of the  Devon Buller family (several of whom left diaries and or correspondence which has found its way to one or another archive). You can read the piece about Rosamund Wallop Christie of Eggesford here. That post also mentions writings of several of Rosamund's female relatives. Rosamund was great niece (through marriage) of Charlotte Juliana Howard Buller, (1809-1855) whose correspondence is the focus of this post; some of Charlotte's letters are held (in the Carnarvon of Highclere Papers)  at Hampshire Record Office amidst an extensive bundle of papers related to the wide network of families linked with the Bullers of Downes, many of whose papers are also kept at The National Archives. Charlotte, 1809-1855, daughter of Henry Thomas Howard Molyneux and Elizabeth Long married JamesWentworth Buller of Downes in 1831. James had inherited the Downes estate in 1827. The couple were grandparents of Dame Georgiana Buller, who EMD fictionalised in The War Workers. One of Charlotte’s sisters, Henrietta Howard, became Countess of Caernarfon after marriage to Henry George Herbert,Lord Porchester and  3rd Earl of Caernarfon. Pixton. One of their daughters, Eveline Alicia Juliana Herbert (1834-1905), who became Lady Portsmouth following her marriage to Isaac Newton Wallop 5th Earl of Portsmouthwas mother of Rosamund Wallop, of Eggesford,  who I mentioned above.

My intetion here is not to trace the complicated familial networks; (anyone interested can follow their complex interweavings through the various online genealogical labyrinths). I am however extremely interested in the women’s  literary-leavings, which deserve some kind of recognition, and considering how they related to the journeys of their lives. Many of these women left some kind of written legacy scattered amongst various archives. Both Eveline and daughter Rosamund left detailed diaries. (See this post).  Eveline was active in the suffrage movement (and signed one of its early petitions, which she accompanied with a letter to Mrs Fawcett in 1892). Henrietta, Charlotte Buller's sister, left letters and possible also diaries.

I’ve only had opportunity to access copies of a tiny fragment from these papers; my focus for this post has been on a batch of letters written by Charlotte Howard Buller of Downes as yet I’ve acquired only a tiny handful of her correspondence. In a companion post to follow this one I am concentrating on pages from a journal kept by Barbara Kirtkpatrick Buller, whose husband was a cousin (probably first removed), of Charlotte's husband).

For this post, Part 1, I deliberately selected a few letters written by Charlotte which (from the archive’s catalogue summary) for the most part were written from, or seemed to relate in some way to Downes. There are many more out there to read and explore, (as noted above), held at Hampshire Record Office. What I have read is fascinating. 

               Image Purchased with the support of the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund

The samples from Charlotte’s correspondence, addressed to her mother and sister Henrietta, range through an extensive emotional repertoire - from deeply personal reflections about Charlotte and her family’s children – who she calls the 'Chicks'; about her husband, who she often calls ‘my dear Hub’, about her own pregnancy, through to discussions about the political fall-out following the North Devon by-election of 1839, in which Charlotte’s husband had failed to gain a seat, and about which Charlotte demonstrates keen political understanding of the ramifications and repercussions of that time.

In one affectionate letter written to her mother in about 1836/ 7,  (75M91/L2/112/2) when, a young wife and during her early child-bearing years, Charlotte demonstrates a warm maternal instinct:

Tibbie is well again … very much pleased to go out in the carriage to pay visits and buy dolls of which she has quite a family. I took her to a toy shop the day before yesterday and allowed her to have a doll which she found most difficult as there were so many and at last I was obliged to limit her choice to two only and give her one minute for her decision and was quite pleased with her manner of making up her mind for I was half afraid she might cry and think me rather ? in not allowing her to have the longer dolls which I explained to her were very expensive… so when she had decided on her ? doll she said it was very pretty and not at all expensive … she is a dear good little thing…

She’s updating her mother about ‘Tibbie’ (who I'd initially assumed was one of her own daughters, probably Juliawho was born in 1833; but then I realised that the Hampshire Record Office had read 'Tibbie' as being Charlotte's sister Isabella's daughter; (if so according to this genealogy source the girl was presumably Isabella, who was born in 1831).

    In the same letter Charlotte shows amused concern about her nephew, who was also her sister Isabella’s baby: ‘I am sure his dribbling and running at the nose and eyes and his fractiousness may be easily accounted for when we remember that he is 9 months old and has but one tooth’. (This child is probably Henry Charles Howard later 18th Earl of Suffolk who was born in 1833).

Charlotte’s letters - including the one quoted above, which seems to have penned from London, and from where her husband James ‘left last night for Devon … it is very desirable for him to be at Downes just now’ – aren’t all sent from the family home at Downes. But it seems evident that even during the early years of her marriage, Charlotte has become fond of her Devon home; she declares ‘I longed to go with him’.

                                        Image: extract taken from letter when Charlotte says her husband has left for Downes,
                              in Devon. Purchased with the support of the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund.

Another lengthy letter, which is addressed to Charlotte’s sister Henrietta and  penned in 1839, the year when James WentworthBuller lost the North Devon by-election, gives us, looking back, a fascinating backdrop to the local political climate of that campaign. The History of Parliament website provides an account summarising Buller’s political career; from an already established and prominent parliamentary family, he was a British Whig M.P. for Exeter from 1830-35.

    Image; page from letter mostly focused on the by-election 1839.
Purchased with the support of the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund

 Charlotte’s letter is marked by the emotional fall-out and impact on her and her husband following his failed attempt to regain his seat. After apologising for a long delay in writing to her sister (who is away, in Athens) she conveys her overwhelming sense of turmoil, a mixture of bitter disappointment and disillusion, tempered by the consolation of realising that the family can enjoy more privacy than would have been the case if her husband had kept his seat. (The impact of the phenomenon of intense public scrutiny for those in public service is not unique to our times):

 … a month ago no one had the slightest anticipation of a contested election in this county, and now within the month a definite battle between has been fought and lost, to us, at least this has been such an overwhelming subject of interest and excitement to me, that as you may imagine I could with difficulty bring my mind to attend to anything else and could not persuade myself to write to you in the middle of the struggle when hope and fear alternatively predominated. Now it is over and 5 days have elapsed since my dear Hub’s defeat and I have had time to check my bitter feelings that will spring up and time also to remember how infinitely more happy is our present life that it would be were we in a more public situation.

In this letter Charlotte comes across not only a woman of great intellect, keenly aware of the repercussions of the political situation, but also as someone with sophisticated understanding of self (we’d call it self-awareness), who's capable of analysing and holding conflicted emotions. She also articulates her deep feeling for and empathy with her husband:

… I first felt this result to be both a trial and a disappointment … there never was so much desperation and every nerve was strained, especially in the Tory side, so that I fear you would have found it difficult to remain neutral. For my part I see good in all ways to us – my dearest Hub’s character certainly never stood higher … and I feel it has drawn out a delightful feeling for him in his own immediate neighbourhood.

Emphasising Charlotte’s ability to dissect the complex politics involved, the letter goes on to analyse the effect of the reverberations of the failed election on the Buller family and its wider impact on the community; her comments implicitly imagine a utopian time beyond the present, when the dual Party system set up with its inevitable power-grabs might be replaced by resolute men of power who have what she calls  ‘uncompromising integrity’, (implying, of course, that James is one such):

… the Clergy were bitter in their hostility …The more I see of both Parties as parties the less I like either and the more clearly am I convinced that men of uncompromising integrity and honourably and conscientiously independent character would not long satisfy either party and having seen (once returned?) it would be infinitely more mortifying to be thrown off by one’s former supporters, than as now, to have fought a good fight honestly with hearty feeling on one side at least.

Charlotte’s bitterness following the political furore occasioned by the election is mostly focused on her anger against Tory supporters – especially as in the passage above, the local clergy. Further on in the letter, she elaborates:

… the Tories poisoned the minds of the Liberal party against Mr Buller on the grounds of his being against the presence of the Corn Laws, which they know to be false, and know also was not the real point of difference between him and their champion, who however spoke about nothing else at the nomination, ditto both his proposer and seconder, but who, now that he has won, turns round and says it has nothing to do with agriculture but is a triumph of conservative principles …

I’m not professing to be knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the political circumstances of the C19 let alone specifically the 1930’s, but have had a quick read around about the background of the North Devon 1839 by-election and the Buller campaign. At least one source suggests that Charlotte’s bitterness against the clergy was justified:

In the North Devon by-election of 1839 it was the Anglican clergy who released voters from their earlier promises to James Buller therefore helping to ensure the totally unexpected triumph of the Conservatives. (Letter from Charles Buller 1839 quoted in  'The Election after 1832: Tradition and Transformation', in Electoral Reform at Work, Philip Salmon (Royal Historical Society, 2002).

There was also political controversy regarding James' attitude and intentions regarding the notorious Corn Laws, but it is beyond the scope of my post to begin to analyse those concerns here. 


For anyone who's interested in following up about this generation of the Buller family from Downes, the book Buller: A Scapegoat?: A Life of General Sir Redvers Buller VC, by Geoffrey Powell, whose subject is Charlotte Buller's famous son Sir Redvers Buller, contains fascinating insights about the family, including a cameo summarising Charlotte as a person: she was a 'mature and motherly woman ... charming and most attractive woman of the world, whose literary and artistic talents matched those of her husband'.

Sadly, Charlotte's death at the age of only 46, was untimely and  traumatic. She travelled to Exeter by train to go Christmas shopping and was taken ill at Central station. The terrible event was witnessed by some of her children, including son Redvers. Powell tells how, too ill to be moved, she lay in the waiting-room for three days on a hastily improvised bed continuously fanned by her son, until she passed away. It is perhaps not much wonder that later in life it was said that Redvers remained devoted to his mother and carried her photo wherever he went. 

As I've noted above Charlotte was not the only woman from the extended Buller family who left some kind of literary legacy. Her sister Henrietta also left correspondence and from one source (I think it's mentioned in Buller: A Scapegoat?: A Life of General Sir Redvers Buller VC), I understand that Charlotte's daughter, another Henrietta kept journals, but I've not managed to locate them, as yet.

It is important to note here that one or two reading this post might well conclude, correctly, that Charlotte Buller’s aristocratic and privileged family background doesn't really qualify her for the label ‘woman on the margins’. But forgotten literary contributions, even from a woman of her background – not only from the upper class, but educated, intelligent, literary and eloquent, can still so easily be side-lined. As far as I’m aware no one has yet sifted through the relevant correspondence to see what fascinating extra material it might provide about the historical context of her time. I hope someone out there finds this piece and decides to delve into Charlotte’s other letters, as well as those of the other women correspondents and diarists in her family. I'd love to have more time and space to acquire and read more of Charlotte Buller’s letters, but given that there are other literary documents to search out from her familial networks, I’m going to forgo that pleasure and move on to take a look at some writings of Barbara Kirkpatrick, another fascinating woman who also married into the Buller 'clan'. My next post on this blog will be about her journals.

Many thanks to Hampshire Record Office for their kind help in providing information and copies of  extracts from Charlotte Buller's correspondence. Appreciation and thanks also to the Downes Estate for permission to publish extracts from the letters.


Popular posts from this blog

H ... Her-Story at Hartland

C ... Caribbean Seas at Cheriton Fitzpaine

Noting the Ns in North Tawton