Your Humble Servant

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At a time before labour-saving mechanisation and supermarket shopping; when a cookbook could start a recipe with the instruction to ‘first catch your pig’, managing house and home in the 18th century was very labour intensive; it required many hands to make anything work and most of these hands belonged to servants. Despite their numbers, servants are all but invisible in the historical record. For the most part all that survives is their employers’ complaints about them (‘gave the children the itch’; ‘a little inclined to whoring’). It is quite unusual to come across a letter written by a servant but there is one among the recently-donated papers of the Auchmuchty family.

The letter, currently on exhibition in the Long Room, was written by Bryan Rock, travelling in England with his employer Mr Lyons, in 1759. It is probably written to his employer’s son and daughter.

The survival of this letter was not accidental – it is obvious, from its physical fragility, that it was constantly read and re-read over time; when it fell apart, it was carefully, if crudely, patched back together again. We cannot know exactly why it was preserved but thank goodness it was as it permits us to share in Rock’s delight at what may have been his first foreign trip. He was astonished at Gloucester Cathedral, clearly the largest building he had ever been in; he thought ‘it would be a good day’s work for a man to get to the top’. He was also impressed with the sculptures of ‘all the Kings and Princes that ever reigned there drawn in marble stone’ and he was captivated by the choir and the organ playing so much so that he could not ‘get the music out of my ears for three hours after’. His only complaint was sea-sickness; after a day under sail he felt he could barely stand because ‘the sea was swimming in my head’. He apologised to Miss Lyons that it was not in his power to describe the fashions that he has seen but, eloquently, says he hopes to ‘bring some of them [home] in my Eyes’.

Jane Maxwell

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