Vol. 96: The Letters of John Collier of Hastings 1731-1746

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Author: Richard Saville
Volume: Volume 96
ISBN: 978 0 85445 078 7

THE LETTERS OF JOHN COLLIER

“Being all alone this long evening and in a very pensive mood on the losse of our dear child, and the necessity I was under of comeing from you, and as the post will convey this to you tomorrow evening, I could not devote the time better than in writing to you; and itt’s a pleasing satisfaction to me, and I hope not dissagreeable to you”
John Collier to his wife after the death of his son, John, 8th February 1733

The Sayer MSS comprise one of the most important collections of business and social correspondence involving a Sussex family in the 18th century. The papers describe the rise to affluence and political and social influence of John Collier (1685-1760), five times Mayor of Hastings. Originally from an Eastbourne inn owning family, he trained as an attorney and, when only 20, became town clerk of Hastings. As well as his work for the Corporation, appointments followed as solicitor for the Cinque Ports, clerk of the port militia and commissioner of the Land Tax for Sussex. In addition he developed a legal practice in London and the port which brought contacts with leading officials and politicians of his day. His legal acumen, negotiating skills and boundless energy gave him a key place in the politics of the Cinque Ports; and under the care of the Duke of Newcastle and Henry Pelham he was later appointed Usher and Cryer of the King’s Bench, and received lucrative offices in the Customs of Kent and London in organising the prosecution of smugglers. Collier acted also for the Duke and the Whig interest in elections and in local Corporation policy. Diverse incomes from office and legal practice enabled the family to buy lands in and around the port and considerable holdings in government and company stocks.

The letters in this volume explain how his legal and government work was organised and give the reader a vision into the range of work of this Sussex lawyer during the era of Walpole, Newcastle and Pelham.

The correspondence offers valuable insight into the business partnership between Collier and his brother-in-law, William Cranston, located in London. Cranston, also an attorney, managed their London accounts and settled business when Collier was in Hastings. Their letters show the crucial role of a wider network of associates and landowners. Most of the surviving Collier letters during law terms were destined for Mary Cranston, his second wife, who organised much of his affairs when he was away from Hastings. Their correspondence also offers up much on their social life and illustrates the tragic side, the sufferings of childbirth and the death of children, the effects of disease and ailments, the constant worry over relatives, as well as the wear and tear during the weeks of separation. Schooling looms large in these letters and the details of the five Collier girls who survived into their teens and went to Elizabeth Russell’s girls’ boarding school in Hampstead are of especial value in illustrating their upbringing and that of their contemporaries. Beyond school the girls’ life in East Sussex underlines the upward mobility of the family by the 1730s, with the girls moving between the great houses, organising dances and games, meeting those of similar standing, going on country walks, finding out about servants and managing staff – all this with an insistence on the latest fashions and accessories to be bought by their father or uncle.

As expected from the offices held, political life was rarely far from Collier’s concerns. Promoting the Whig interest in East Sussex was a particular concern; and the letters here add to our understanding of how the Whigs advanced their cause in the 1730s and 1740s. Letters also cover weather conditions, travel over the Weald, the connections with London, the social season at Bath and Tunbridge Wells and the effects of legislation upon Hastings townsfolk, notably the troubles caused by the smuggling trade.

Richard Saville is an economic and financial historian who has published on Britain from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. His previous publication for the Society was The Fuller Letters, Guns, Slaves and Finance 1 728-1 755 (edited with David Crossley) SRS vol. 76, 1991.