John Beale: letters from the grey sheep of the family

John Beale 1811-1873

Farmer of Biddenden and Beckley and my great great grandfather.


Rich Richard Beale, 18th century dog doodler and Twitter sensation, had eleven children.  The second youngest was my great great grandfather, John.  I have been lucky enough to receive some copies of letters once in the possession of my 3rd great grandmother, Frances Beale (nee Witherden – the wife of Rich Richard and mother of John).  These letters are unfortunately not open for public viewing – they are privately owned by a lady who is nearly 90, who was kind enough to make me copies as I am a direct descendent.  If you want to know more about these letters, please direct queries to me.  The last thing any retired person wants is to be inundated with people going on about chickens in trousers.

The letters really bring out the different personalities of the Beale children.  Solicitor William is very pompous in his manner while the girls, Elizabeth and Ann, are warm and chatty, though Ann seems rather hypochondriacal and preoccupied with a boil on her neck.  John, though.  While the oldest son, Crusty Richard, seems to be the black sheep of the family, totally estranged from them and never mentioned, John was the grey sheep.  He was still firmly within the fold of the family, but only to serve as a source of consternation for his parents and siblings.  Compare John’s letter to his mother from his boarding school, Oaks Academy in Tenterden, to his father’s immaculate handwriting in his maths book.  I’m not sure how old John would have been here – the biggest clue is that he refers to his brother George, who was four years younger, starting school, but I have no idea what age children began school in the early 1800s.  In any case, it is likely that John has had several years of schooling, but his handwriting is spidery and his spelling is bizarre.  He neglects to punctuate entirely, and the whole thing comes out as a big jumble.

John 1

Dear Mother

I hope to find you quite well ihope my hen sits very well ihope george goes to school very well ihope you will send my rabbit up town very soon then ihope she will have some yongon en ihope find you all quite well seaman saise I may come to biddenden next saterday iamagoing to church iwent to appledoor on saterday last long with james iam very well iamriting in great haste now I am very well now

I can’t help but think that John must have had a case of 19th century dyslexia.  Considering that as recently as my own childhood, dyslexic children were misunderstood and thought of as stupid or lazy, he must have had a really hard time at school, especially when his brothers were doing so well.

The letters continue in a similar vein throughout John’s school career, with frequent references to the rabbits and to Seaman (the second oldest brother, who would now be in his twenties).  The final school letter is somewhat more legible and in it thirteen-year-old John writes:

… I sincerely hope the progress I have made in my Education will be equal to your expectations and should this be the case, it will be the means of adding very much to the happiness I am anticipating from the approaching recess

He also instructs his brother to sell the rabbits!

After leaving school, John returned home to his parents and at the time of the first census in 1841, he can be found living at Elmstone House in North Street with his widowed mother and his brother George.  Even though George is younger, it is he and not John who is listed as head of the house.  By 1845, he had formed a relationship with Elizabeth, the daughter of a poor local farmer named Thomas Sharp Hope (click to read more about Thomas).  Frances was very unhappy about this union and, according to family legend, told John he would be cut out of her will if he married her.  So John didn’t marry her.  Instead, he just moved in with her, and together they had four children.  I can just imagine Frances’ despair.

John and Elizabeth moved to Three Chimneys (a hamlet on the outskirts of Biddenden with a pub of the same name, in which I once enjoyed a local cider or three) and the letters home resumed.  Notably, John’s grammar is worse here than in the final letters from school, which makes me think he may have had some help in writing the latter.  His letters are full of requests for help – mainly with his laundry – and worries about his finances and health.  But despite the fact that he appears to be a total liability, there is always a sense of great affection between John and Frances.  He is concerned for her health, and is keen to visit regularly, even after Frances’s maid, Mrs Jarvis, starts to charge for doing the washing and Elizabeth decides to save money by – shock horror – doing it herself.

John 2

One gets an even better picture of John’s relationship with his family from reading his siblings’ letters to his mother.  They frequently express concern about his health, finances and behaviour, but despite this, they are generally warm towards him and invite him to stay.  My favourite line, from pompous solicitor William, is the following:

We are much obliged to John for his present of a “March Hare” tho it be in February.

In 1850 John married Elizabeth Hope, who was heavily pregnant with their fifth child.  They seem to have made some attempt to appease their family by getting Elizabeth baptised at All Saints Church on the same day as the wedding.  Anne Beale, Pompous William’s wife, was clearly not impressed, and a year later, she wrote:

You are frequently unhappy and distressed about your son John, and certainly not without good cause, but my dear Mrs Beale, your sorrowing can do no good, but rather pains those who are around you and who have better deserved your love and esteem. Do not think from this I can suppose you can ever forget he is your son, that I am sure you cannot, but perhaps a little coolness on your part for a time, might make him feeling sorry to have aggrieved so good a mother and he might begin to think seriously what his situation may be when you are no longer near to comfort and assist him.  You may still perform the duties of a mother by praying earnestly for him that having reformed as far as he could the wrong he had done, he may now by industry and steady conduct preserve himself and wife and children from the poverty you so much dread and likewise live in such a manner as may ensure him happiness hereafter.

When Frances died in 1854, her will was unchanged from 1847, and John received his fair share.  There were some keepsakes, including an engraving of a hare, which seemed fitting, given his frequent references to rabbits in his letters and his mistimed gift to his brother.  However, while she left bequests to most of her grandchildren, there was nothing for any of John’s children, who by this time were eight in number.  After Frances’s death, he took this total to fourteen.  One of these children was named Frank, and this name was passed through the generations, finishing with my father (it is also my half brother’s middle name) – I wonder if the name was a tribute to Frances?  Another child was my great grandfather, William Percy Beale.

John and Elizabeth moved to a cottage in Beckley, Sussex, not far from Biddenden with their children.  My aunt thinks this was a rented cottage and that John had lost what money he inherited from his parents through gambling and “a bad debt”.  I feel quite sorry for my great great grandfather, who was clearly lacked his siblings’ intellect and common sense, felt inferior to them and was even chastised for his choice of wife.  I imagine Elizabeth, with her less affluent background, put far less pressure on John to succeed and that there was a genuine love between them.

I do find it very interesting that despite all his antics, John remains in close contact with Frances and his siblings, yet his brother Crusty Richard has been cut out entirely and is never even mentioned.  The difference in attitude to the two wayward sons is very marked, and makes me think that Richard must have said or done something unspeakable to be completely ostracised – far worse than having four illegitimate children and failing to do his own washing.  It’s also interesting that Richard still inherited the majority of his parents’ fortune, despite apparently not being on speaking terms with them.  It is a shame that Frances did not see fit to leave it to one of the others, then River Hall might still be in the family.   I cannot imagine John would have done any better (the place would be overrun with children and hares) but I think Pompous William or one of the girls would have been a safe bet.  If only we could speak to our ancestors and give them financial advice with the benefit of two centuries of hindsight.

With many thanks to the owner of the Beale letters, who wishes to remain anonymous. If you have any queries about said letters, please drop me a line at

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