What an Englishwoman’s Letters Reveal About Life in Britain During the American RevolutionHistorians in the News
tags: Revolutionary War, primary sources, Colonial History
Born the U.S. and raised in Massachusetts, Julie Flavell has pursued a lifelong interest in Anglo-American relations in the age of the American Revolution, as reflected in her first book, When London Was Capital of America (Yale University Press, 2010). A Fellow of the Royal Society, she obtained her Ph.D. from University College London. She has lectured in American history at Edinburgh and Dundee Universities.
My whole soul ... is occupied with expectation of more news from you, and tho I am told I must not be surprised if it does not arrive these ten days, I cannot help starting every time I hear the bell at the gate, or the door open.”
These lines, written a month after the United States declared its independence from Britain, evoke the letters written by Abigail Adams to her husband, John, while he was at the Continental Congress. Between 1774 and 1777, the couple exchanged over 300 letters celebrated for their poignant blending of war and politics with domestic concerns and heartfelt devotion.
Yet the words above came from the pen of Englishwoman Jane Strachey, who was separated from her husband by 3,000 miles of ocean. In August 1776, English Member of Parliament Henry Strachey was at the epicenter of the looming confrontation between the British and American armies in New York, serving on the administrative staff of Admiral Richard Lord Howe and General William Howe.
Jane’s letters, composed between 1776 and 1778, are buried in the Strachey family papers at the Somerset Archives in England. The private correspondence of a middle-class English wife, they have been virtually ignored by historians of the home front in Britain during the American Revolution. Yet they open a unique window into the experience of ordinary British women. And their intimate tone, everyday detail and authentic chronicling of wartime events provide a fascinating parallel to Adams’ letters.
Henry, like John, was on a political mission: He was secretary to Richard in the latter’s capacity as peace commissioner, a last-ditch effort by the British government to replace fighting in America with talks. Jane, like many women on both sides of the conflict, assumed sole responsibility for her family and household as she endured the protracted wait for news in an age of wooden ships and horse-drawn communication.
Jane said farewell to her husband in May 1776, when he left for America with Richard and his fleet. “I saw your concern at leaving me and your poor little ones,” she wrote a few days later, in the first of her many letters.
In the ensuing months, Jane and the rest of the nation waited in suspense for news of a battle between British and American troops. The British press heightened public fears by publishing exaggerated reports of American preparations to defend New York. The Battle of Bunker Hill a year earlier had shocked the British people, as American marksmen inflicted wholesale slaughter on redcoat troops assaulting the hill overlooking Boston; now, dread of another bloody encounter was widespread.
On August 9, not knowing that the Battle of Brooklyn was just weeks away, Jane confessed to Henry, “I have never permitted myself to think that there is a possibility of your falling into any kind of danger,” for her civilian husband was in America to assist in the event of negotiations with rival leaders. “[A]nd yet I cannot but shudder at reading an account of the prodigious armament of the enemy.”
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