Librarian’s Pick #5: 19th century letters from an alumnus

Over the course of Trinity Term 2020, the library staff at St. John's College will be taking you on a 'tour' of some of their favourites among our special collections. Every Monday, we will upload a new note on the item of the week. Read on to discover more about our chosen items...

‘I have a thousand things to say….’, early 19th century letters from an alumnus

by Ruth Ogden, Deputy Librarian

Among our manuscripts is a largely unknown collection of 130 letters written in the first twenty years of the 19th century by an alumnus of the College.

John Rose (1754-1821) attended Merchant Taylors School, matriculated at St John’s in 1772 and after obtaining his degree returned to teach at Merchant Taylors for 17 years. During this time, in 1779, he was ordained. In 1795 he was appointed rector of St Martin Outwich in the city of London, a post he held until his death in 1821. He held other appointments alongside this, being for several years Chaplain of Archbishop Whitgift’s Hospital, Croydon and in 1814 and 1815 was President of Sion College. 

In 1776 he married Ann Bunce in St Giles Church, Oxford. Over the following 29 years they had 17 children, of whom six or seven survived to adulthood. Two of his great-great-granddaughters, sisters Dorothea and Joan Dakin, gave the letters they had inherited to the College in 1975. Some of John Rose’s earlier letters were burnt by another member of the family but the rest were rescued. John’s eldest daughter Ann, to whom he wrote often, went through the letters after his death and tied them into tight little bundles – the state in which most of them were when they arrived:

While he was a teacher Rose found time to write several ‘musical entertainments’ which were performed at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket. These were short one or two- act pieces, such as The Prisoner, advertised in the copy of the Times of 18 October 1792 that came with the letters:

The libretti of these entertainents may be viewed via Gale’s Eighteenth Century Collections online. Not all his publications were light-hearted. A volume of his sermons published in 1796 is also available online.

John Rose’s letters reveal a man of great wit, vitality and warmth of heart. Whenever he was away from his family he wrote to them frequently. There was nothing he did not consider worthy of observation and he loved to pass on his thoughts on diverse subjects: on contemporary literature, particularly theatre, which held an abiding interest for him; on the latest fashions in dress; on local beauty spots and most of all, wherever he went, on the people he met. ‘Capt. Birt is a large man, not more nor so much in height as in corporation  –  with a friar like countenance warm sleeky & glistening.  He has much observation & point about him, & all he utters has a dryness in the manner which conveys more “than meets the ear”’. Rose comments on an acquaintance, ‘Price is just as usual  –  precise & pettish  –  he should be no longer a bachelor. If marriage would not improve him I don’t know what will.’ He adds, ‘This is very saucy isn’t it  –  but I cannot help it.’ He is also fond of quoting epigrams and of making up his own verses.

His family was close-knit, his daughters addressed as ‘my dear girls’ and on one occasion ‘you most idle baggages’. His marriage was evidently extremely happy. One of the earlier letters in this collection would surely be prized by any partner of many years’ standing. He is staying in Oxford and writes to his beloved wife of 20 years:

                                                                               Pembroke Coll: –

                                                                       Oxford Dec 12 [or 13] 02 –

My dear Love,

                We came here last night sopp’d like a Toast in a Tankard, din’d comfortably and took an additional glass which prevented me catching cold.

—Oh, how many dear remembrances have every spot & almost every house suggested to me, every endearing moment has been recalled to my memory – I can see you whisking round the Turle in your barré shot silk, light as a Grace, beautiful as Hebe; still not as dear then, as now, because however I might anticipate, I could not know your value.

         I snatch only a moment, a moment of actual enjoyment, for I glance over all the thousand nameless occurrences which blessed me in this Place – but I can only snatch a moment while we are taking a snap…….

Transcripts of some Rose letters given to the library from a private family collection show that he kept in mind his family’s spiritual welfare. A letter known in the family as ‘The Bible letter’ gives advice to two of his adult daughters who are about to start a complete reading. He regards this as an undertaking that is sacred but could be ‘dangerous’ because of apparent abstruseness and contradictions and he gently guides them through the various books of both Testaments so that they may read for ‘practical improvement’.

There is another aspect to these letters that strikes the modern reader: the working of the postal system in the early 19th century. When these letters were written, the recipient paid the postage. This obliged the writer to make the letter worth reading and to fill up the paper, preferably one sheet folded. One of his letters has ‘cost you a multitude of postage more than it was worth  –  by the way you must continue to write single sheet as yours cost 2/- s.’ Another time, when with a daughter who is sending a letter:  ‘Delia… has left a part of the paper unfilled, it shan’t go off so’.

The original Rose letters held in St John’s have not yet been transcribed or photographed, with the exception of the one above.  This collection deserves further attention: it is a delightful, as yet untapped, resource which might perhaps form the basis of an interesting research project.


Publications viewable online include:

Rose, John. The Prisoner: A Musical Romance [electronic Resource], in Three Acts. First Performed by His Majesty’s Company from the Theatre-Royal, Drury-Lane, at the King’s Theatre. Hay-Market, on Thursday, October 18th. 1792 (1792)

Rose, John. A Quarter of an Hour before Dinner; Or, Quality Binding. A Dramatic Entertainment of One Act [electronic Resource]; as Performed at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket (1788).

Rose, John. Caernarvon Castle; Or, the Birth of the Prince of Wales: An Opera, in Two Acts. First Performed at the Theatre-Royal, Hay-Market, August 12th, 1793. Dedicated, by Permission, to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (1793).

Rose, John. Sermons [electronic Resource] by the Reverend John Rose, .. London: Printed at the Minerva-Press, 1796. Web.

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