“A perpetual state of honeymoon” – snapshots from a Victorian marriage – 4th March 1867

In March 1867, the MacGregor family we are featuring in this series of blog posts was separated. Helen remained at the house called Thames Villa in the village of East Molesey in Surrey with the couple’s two children, Malvina Charlotte, born in July 1865 and Margaret Helen Mary born in January 1867, while Malcolm was staying as a guest of William David Murray, Earl of Mansfield, at Scone Palace as he searched for a house for his family. The couple had decided that they wished to raise their children in Scotland, and at this time were looking for a property that was suitable for them to rent.

Over the time when they were separated, Malcolm and Helen wrote to each other at least once every day. At this time, the postal service in Britain was very efficient with 12 deliveries per day in London, and around 6 in the provinces. People at this time expected a speedy postal service and this is evident from some of the remarks in these letters.

Malcolm’s letter to Helen of this date opens with his usual salutation ‘my own wifie’. This affectionate soubriquet was one that he used consistently through the years when writing to Helen. In this letter he describes a visit with two of the Murray family children, Marjory and Bill, along with someone referred to as ‘E’ who might be the children’s Nanny possibly, to Perth City Hall to see an entertainment that he describes as ‘the Thumbs and Little Fingers’.

This refers to General Tom Thumb (real name Charles Sherwood Stratton), his wife Lavinia née Warren, and other little person performers whose show was touring Europe at this time. Tom Thumb was an American person of restricted growth and circus performer who had come to fame through working as part of the touring troupe of circus pioneer, P.T. Barnum.

In his letter, Malcolm says he was not happy about the state of the venue, stating that ‘the entry was dirty, disagreeable badly arrayed and altogether the management was disrespectful.’ The party met various people that they knew also attending the entertainment including Lady Louise Moncrieff and Lady Anne Home Drummond Moray. Clearly the attraction was a popular one. The party seem to have enjoyed the show:

‘The small people who exhibited were very good fun and are really wonderfully small…Commander Nutt [one of the entertainers] performed very well on the fiddle and still better on the drum. They acted well and Mrs Thumb sang well.’

Malcolm comments on national events briefly – ‘What a stramash in the cabinet! I am afraid their prospects are in a bad way, which is so much the worse for the nation.’ It is not clear what this refers to as many things were being debated in Parliament at this time including further electoral reform and the British North America Act relating to Canadian sovereignty.

Helen’s letter to Malcolm also opens with an affectionate salutation ‘my own husband’. Helen usually addresses Malcolm in this way in her letters. She begins the letter with the subject that dominates their correspondence of this time – the problem of finding a house to let in Scotland. The couple were considering various options at this point including Machany House, Auchterarder, a house at St Fillans, somewhere at Lochearnhead and Drummond Lodge in or near Callander. The discussion goes backwards and forwards between the two of them in their letters. Malcolm continually sends his wife the figures he is using to work out wha the best financial options for them might be, and requests her views on all aspects of the situation before taking any further action. It is very clear from these letters that they are an equal partnership in which the thoughts and feelings of both are weighed and considered before any decisions are made.

There is a very sweet section in which Helen describes how their eldest child Malvina, likes looking at a photograph of her father:

‘She points to it and says “Papa – pa – papa” till I take it off & then she turns it round looks… and kisses it repeatedly’

There is also an interesting snippet relating to the discipline of their children:

‘It is very odd, I’ve never whipped her yet with my strap, but if she’s in a passion & I show it her, or even I say only “Strap! Malvina” she stops stamping and screaming directly & tucks back her hands out of the way.’

This should be judged in the context of the fact that it was normal to physically chastise children at this time, and considered good parenting to discipline them in this way. Helen is not being overly cruel in considering it, just a person of her time.

At the end of the letter there are a few comments about the flowers in the garden at Thames Villa, both hyacinths and violets being mentioned, an indication of how much earlier plants like this start to bloom in the south of the UK as opposed to Perthshire.