The Morice Letters

By Mary King

Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 7 (1998)

In 1996 Chiswick Library purchased a group of twenty letters written between 1783 and 1785 by William Bishop, Steward of the Grove, one of the largest mansions in Chiswick, to his master Humphrey Morice. These letters have now been transcribed by members of the Brentford and Chiswick Local History Society. Extracts from the letters are printed below.

Grove House, Chiswick, published in 1792 (L.B.Hounslow Chiswick Local Studies Collection)

When Will Bishop’s employer, Mr Humphrey Morice MP, wealthy and ill, went abroad in 1782, Bishop was left in charge. Month after month Bishop sent his peculiarly spelt and sometimes rambling descriptions of the lives and deaths of the people and (just as meticulously!) the animals on the estate, together with their occasional excitements. The twenty letters, now in the local archives, start with a mad dog(1) and end with a gale(2)damaging the great trees in the park. After more research we hope that these letters will provide us with a much fuller interpretation of life in Chiswick in the late 18th century.

In the meantime, in transcribing the letters we have listened to this one-sided conversation and tried to guess his employer’s replies from Will’s comments and the notes in the margins made in the crabby, shaky hand which surely belongs to Mr Morice himself. But Will is not Mr Morice’s only contact and whoever told him Will was ‘always out both forenoon and afternoon when it is not stable time, lays under a great mistake’, (he writes), ‘if they had told you that I had lain at home now and then at nights, they would have told nearer the truth‘(3).

From the very first it is clear that Will cares (as does his master who sometimes feels he’s not getting enough detail) for our peopleand everything else on the estate. Elizabeth Roberts, elderly, not too well and holding sway in the kitchen, went a bit too far with the stable lads when a new one, Henry Cross, put on the tea­ kettle and she nearly pushed him into the fire – he kicked her backside and hit her hand and Will had to sort out the quarrel: ‘whatever the animosity between them’, he writes, ‘a woman of her age ought not to be treated by a young lad in that unbecoming treatment nor any other woman. One thing I have remarked, there have never been a woman placed in the kitchen here but there has always been a something between them and the stable lads to create a disturbance in the family ‘(1).

So sick men are nursed by specially-hired women, hospital treatment is arranged with letters of recommendation(4), relatives of the dying are accommodated (Will finds it very extraordinary that John Hankins’s mother ‘. . . took it into her head to go home under pretense to fetch herself some clothes – but she has taken care not to return again notwithstanding she knew that everybody expected every day to be the last’(1) and the funerals are organised.

Considerable attention is given to the needs of individuals even to the extent of virtually hiding one man, Robert Carter, from the Greenwich Overseers(6) who are trying to make him pay out £10 each for two bastards when the most he will admit to (or can afford) is one and he certainly won’t entertain marrying the girl; in the end he writes a begging letter to Mr Morice for a loan to pay the full £20 as the only way to prevent his ‘utter ruin’(2).

The animals all receive as much care as Will can give or organise with ‘the dog doctor‘(3) and others (described in great detail), and there is evident sorrow when some old horse or dog is ‘carried off’. The ‘cockey’ in most letters is declared to be well, as is Mrs Deal (the housekeeper?) who is clearly asked every time if she wants to say anything to Mr Morice but never manages more than giving her duty, and hoping his Honour and all with him are well.

The outside world enters with demands for the various taxes, some don’t get paid for ages because they go to arbitration, the Curate’s afternoon lecture and Christmas Box(4), for which Mr Morice sends a guinea(7) (but only apparently after a full year!), the dealings with the tradesmen, who have to wait a very long time to get paid, the scarcity of oats and the high price of coal and quite a lot of local crime: Will ‘catched two Chiswick men a-cutting the reeds in the lower meadow with an intent to carry away … got a warrant and took them before Justice Lamb who give them a severe reprimand, made them discharge the warrant and paid the expenses &c. and quitted them on their promising never to trespass again’, the lucrative walnuts are vulnerable, the iron railings are stolen (and not found as hoped in the boat of a Strand fisherman among the iron booty therein)(5) and then there is the exciting Armed Robbery (Will gets quite breathless):

August 1784

On the Morning of the 23d June About Half after two Oclock – Jos Vickers see two Men in the Stable Yard as he was in his logg as soon as Jos apeared in site off The men one of em leapt upon the wall by the gates the Other man was Making off towards the necessary house Jos Stept up to him & told him that he had gott him – the Man Emeaditly turn About and snapt A pistole at him – Jos then Snapet his pistole at the Man thare pistoles both mist Fire twice at Each other -Jos finding that his pistole would Not goe off he then made for the logg for his gun in the meane Time one of the men fired at him but mist him the Ball Hitt the wall About 3 Yards from the Logg Door Joseph then catch up his gun and fierd at the man whoe was On the wall as he could not see that whoe snapt his pistole At him at first nor can he tell whare it was the man That was on the wall at first or the other that fierd .at Him, he thinks he hitt him as he heard the Man fall Down on the outside – Jos was Doubtfull to open the gate In case thare was More in the gang – he came And Allarmed us in the house this is the partticlers as neare as I can remember (7)

Not surprising really that Will reports ‘the gentlemen of Chiswick have entered into a voluntary subscription to prevent robberies in the parish…‘(10).

Will deals with it all, as far as possible as Mr Morice did when in England, but never quite sure his Honour will be happy with what he has done. At times he is short of money and sometimes communications with Italy get a bit rocky when a trunk(4) is left at the Grove because it wasn’t properly labelled and a draft doesn’t get cashed because it wasn’t properly made out(7). In June 1784 Will is thoroughly depressed – he has coped with a hard winter, tradesmen and parish affairs, the sickness of horses and dogs including the unexpected birth of a puppy to Phyllis, the white bitch, when no-one knew ‘that she had been lined until she was brought to bed’(6) and then John Hankins was very ill and Robert Carter had to be saved from his Greenwich troubles.

Finally, a puppy follows the carter to Turnham Green and is so frightened by a strange dog at The Packhorse that he runs away and is lost – even a one guinea reward advertised in the papers and cried in the streets fails to bring news. Four days later a horse, old Hasty, inexplicably shatters her thigh so badly that (Will writes) ‘I give her some opium and have her put out of her misery by the same method as poor old Diamond was when he had the same misfortune in the park some years back -I am so unhappy and vexed about the dog & poor Hasty that I can scarse think of anything else at present – I pray God that Your Honour was once more arrived safe in England again for I think there is nothing but misfortunes happens to me latterly’(9). Interesting that the really unbearable thing is having lost the two animals.

But Mr Morice never did come back to the Grove and Will carries on tending his house and estate in all its facets until his Honour dies at the end of 1785. Was he rewarded in his master’s will? Did he stay on to tend his beloved animals? And what of the others? There is still much to be dug out in relation to these letters.

References to letters dated (1) 10 Aug 1783, (2) 12 Sep 1783, (3) 26 Jan 1784, (4) 20 Sep 1783, (5)4 Apr 1785, (6) 29 Apr 1784, (7) 20 Aug 1784, (8) 30 Oct 1783, (9) 24 June 1784 and (10) 29 Nov 1784

Mary King was the Hon Secretary of the Brentford and Chiswick Local History Society.

For more on Grove House and its residents see also:

Colonel Shipway’s Pedigree (Journal 5, 1996)
Tracing Colonel Shipway’s Pedigree (Journal 7, 1998)
Grove House, Chiswick (Journal 3, 1982)


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