Newgate Letter

The Newgate Letter

Courtesy of Document Collection of Society of Genealogists – London and Else Churchill

Newgate Letter

Above is the “Newgate Letter” written by William Longmire Oct 21, 1725 just days before his scheduled execution (click image to enlarge). Fortunately it was deposited into Society of Genealogists holdings in London in 1999 – by persons unknown. Thanks to the sharp eye and generosity of Mr Kingsley Ireland this holographic copy has finally found its way to the colonies, almost 300  years later than William’s own arrival here.

Since posting this image some years ago I have been corresponding with handwriting experts and researching where and how William came to write, and figure, as well as he did. Because I had so little to go on I decided to start with researching how William would have come across paper while in prison. Newgate was for centuries a completely corrupt and horrifying institution. If you had means and influence you might get better quarters to sleep in or even have access to wine and meade which was served in a reserved area of the prison. As the letter states in it’s heading William was lodged in the Condemned Hold – an area reserved for those whose execution was imminent.  The Newgate guards were notorious for extracting money for even the most mundane items whether clean sheets, a comb, or perhaps a dirty mattress if so lucky. To acquire even a sheet of paper and pen to write with would have required payment or barter perhaps. As it is unlikely that paper was just laying around I suspect that William may have struck a deal with a prominent or paper-laden inmate to write a letter or other communication in exchange for his own sheet of paper. Given that William was reprieved from his death sentence a mere week or so later suggests that this letter writing ploy, though addressed to a Mrs Cottum and not a court official, paid dividends in securing passage to the colonies instead of a trip to the gallows. And fortunately for William, the various judges and magistrates of London were keenly aware of the qualified labor shortage in the colonies – the ability to write being a very desired trait for merchants and others to conduct everyday affairs.

In looking at the structure and wording of the letter it is hard not to notice a formality that would be indicative of some sort of training. In the case of William this training seems to have been advanced as the writing in the letter and his later documents in the colonies exhibit both Round Hand and Running Hand – the latter developed for quicker and more fluid writing for accounts and documents of all types. Quantity and ease of reading were foremost amongst clerks, merchants, and court officials due to problems with uniformity as competing interests from Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugul, and France vied for trade with England and often had to compare ledger books and transact business in various currencies – something William was adept at while in Virginia in the 1740’s.

It is unknown at this point whether William had been instructed in the writing field as a result of his father’s presumed death about 1708 and subsequently was given over to a parish instructor for training or if his family had a predilection to education as many of the Lake District Longmires demonstrated beginning in the late 1500’s onward. It is curious that there were succesive Writing Masters by name of Miles Longmire (my grandfather’s middle name) in the 1700’s onward and another who was a Hebrew and Oriental scholar – jokingly referred to by his neighbors as Mr Talmud. Perhaps it was coincidence that a Writing Master had such an influence in William’s later life or was it maybe a family tradition of sorts? I will touch upon this subject again as I have been studying the movements of several Longmire families from the Lake District whose wool trade and merchant ties to Shropshire and Southampton, and possibly London, may hold a clue as to William’s ancestors.

Categories: Newgate Letter

5 replies »

  1. CONGRATULATIONS Michael….wonderful to see the letter here, thereby accessible to ALL descendants who are interested in William’s history.
    Kingsley IRELAND “Tregare” 128 Penrice Road Penrice Angaston (Barossa Valley)
    South Australia 5353 Skype:kingsley..ireland Researcher and compiler of the 1972 book about my gr.great grandfather:”The Family History of Hiram LONGMIRE 1814-1880″


    • Thank you, Kingsley! The existence of the letter would not have been possible without you. Too bad we know nothing of how the letter ended up in the records office back in 1999. Cheers.


  2. Interesting to see my 4th great grandfather’s letter, but I can’t make out all of it. Would you have a transcription?


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