March 12, 2012, by H Cotterill

“Will you come into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,

‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy; 

So begins the famous children’s poem, ‘The Spider and the Fly’. This is just one of the many poems and stories written by the celebrated Victorian author Mary Howitt whose collection of family correspondence is held in Manuscripts and Special Collections.

The Howitts certainly encountered their fair share of ‘spiders’, with one such encounter leading to a 19th century case of identity theft. In a letter to her sister Anna, Mary Howitt describes how she and her husband William had befriended a young couple only to discover that the husband was writing begging letters in Mary’s name. He managed to collect several hundred pounds before the fraud was discovered and he disappeared.

The Howitt correspondence collection contains many such stories and personal anecdotes and offers a fascinating insight into the lives of a middle class family in the nineteenth century. Correspondents include Mary Howitt, her sisters Anna Harrison and Emma Alderson and Anna’s daughter Anna Mary. With the majority of the letters being sent to and from women the correspondence inevitably touches on domestic issues, including the raising of children, as well as on the role of women themselves. There are a fascinating series of letters written by Mary’s sister Emma Alderson. Emma emigrated to America with her husband in 1842, settling in Cincinatti Ohio. Emma wrote regularly to her family in England and her letters offer an insight into life in America in the decades immediately prior to the American Civil War. Other key themes in the letters include spiritualism and religion, health and horticulture. The letters also provide evidence about the literary careers of Mary and her husband William who also worked as a writer.

The image above shows an example of a crossed letter from the collection. Until the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840 the cost of posting was affected by the number of sheets of paper used.  Using two sheets of paper doubled the cost. To avoid this people ‘crossed’ their letters, filling a sheet of paper and then turning the page at right angles to continue writing.

The catalogue to the Howitt correspondence collection is available to view online. The collection contains just over 1200 letters. Of these 1200 approximately 400 have been catalogued in full. The remaining 800 require further cataloguing work, to provide a summary of the letters’ contents, but are fully searchable by correspondent and date. The collection was purchased with help from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Other material relating to the Howitts can be found elsewhere in the archive. The Briggs collection of Literary Papers and Correspondence from the Sutton Family contains a series of letters written by Mary and William Howitt and their daughter Margaret to William and Eliza Oldham nee Sutton. The Briggs collection is fully catalogued and the catalogue can be viewed online. There is also a collection of books written by Mary and William Howitt held in Special Collections. These can be searched for using the library catalogue at 

All of the manuscripts and books mentioned above are available to view in the Manuscripts and Special collections reading room at King’s Meadow Campus.

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