What an Englishwoman’s Letters Reveal About Life in Britain During the American Revolution

From Smithsonian Magazine:

“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.”

Like the majority of Britons, Jane had little understanding of the arguments over abstract rights that had provoked the colonists to rebellion. She wrote perplexedly of the “ambitious and restless spirit of the Americans,” which has destroyed “the Domestick Tranquillity of many happy families” in the British Isles. Yet the Americans were a kindred people. With characteristic gentleness, she concluded, “how much more will you say they have hurt themselves? I am not malicious, I only wish them peace, and that my dear Harry may soon appear with the glad Tidings.”

Jane was convinced that her husband had embarked on a humanitarian errand. She believed the British war machine that carried him to New York was not intended to drive the Americans to desperation, but to force them to the negotiating table. The peace commissioners’ work could begin only when the defiant colonists ceased to challenge the British Parliament’s right to tax them.

At home in the London suburb of Greenwich, Jane found herself isolated with her children. Even the youngest Strachey understood his father’s mission. Three-year-old Edward galloped around the house on his hobby-house, crying, “Make peace in America!” Charlotte, aged 6, betrayed a sense of abandonment when she asked her mother if her father had other children in America. Middle child Harry approached a strange British officer in a park, innocently requesting news of his father.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine where you can see a portrait

Most Americans, including PG, have been taught about the American Revolution almost exclusively from the American point of view. He found the OP (which contains far more information than PG has excerpted plus photos of paintings of Ms. Strachey and some of her friends) quite interesting reading about the British Homefront and the burdens some British carried during that revolutionary war.

3 thoughts on “What an Englishwoman’s Letters Reveal About Life in Britain During the American Revolution”

  1. For the one class on American history I took as an undergrad, there was a surprise guest lecturer on the first day of class. He began class by announcing that George Washington was a war criminal and a traitor… and then explained that he was the {can’t remember which} Chair in American Studies at Cambridge. Needless to say, this didn’t go over swimmingly with an American audience at the beginning of the Reagan years, even at a school known as the last bastion of liberalism in the lower Midwest.

    • Oh, Washington was a traitor to his King — but not to his country. It is the latter that counts, for kings come and go, and sometimes they go very suddenly and deservedly.

      Yesterday was the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field, which was won by some thousands of Englishmen who were traitors to their King, and lost by a King who came very near being a traitor to his country. I should think even a present-day Englishman ought to be mindful of such things.

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