A few years ago I acquired a piece of furniture from a neighbour who was clearing out her house in preparation far going into an old people's home. It came complete with its contents, which mostly consisted of old socks, much-patched men's underwear and various remnants of material, but among all this assorted debris was a bundle of old letters, which I kept for later perusal. Reading them some months afterwards I found them to be letters written by a young man to his sister. He had obviously just left home to take up his first job, so he was probably about fourteen, having recently left school. Some are written on a page torn from a shop ledger, so we know that he was working for Thomas Best and Son, drapers and grocers, of Richhill.

Letters Home

The first is dated August 10 1887 and reads as follows:

Dear Bella

I sit down this morning to write you these few lines to let you know how I am getting on in the business I have learned a good deal for the very short time I am at it I cannot do very much at the papering up of the tea yet but I hope I will soon learn it We get very little cash for the goods that we sell nearly all that we sell has to be entered in the book and what we do sell for money has to be entered in another book We have to be in the shop about a quarter to seven in the morning and it closes at nine o'clock at night There is very little done at the cloth all that is sold nearly is except a very odd thing is the grocery business I could not wish for a better as far as I have seen of him We get our meat pretty well it is very clean and nice we have a good clean bed to lie in We wash ourselves every morning after we rise we are supplied with towels and soap all that I want now is a clothes brush and I hope that you will send it up with Francis William on Saturday and I hope Bella you will let me know soon how yous got on at the School feat on Thursday at the Rectors I hope you are all well at home I will be going home on Saturday week to see you all

I remain your loving brother

Robert Conn.

I am transcribing his letters as they are written, and we see that Robert doesn't bother about punctuation, but that does not take away from the excellence of his composition. He would probably have gone to either Grange or Richmount school and had obviously been taught how to set out a letter. Every one begins with "I sit down to write you these few lines..." and ends with "I remain your..."

The first letter shows that Robert is quite excited about his new job and happy enough about his accommodation, but missing home and his beloved sister a little bit. As time goes by this becomes more evident.


Monday 5th 1887

Dear Bella

I just sit down to write you these few lines to let you know that I was sorry you did not get up to see me especially but to see Richhill I was watching out for you on Thursday from about two o'clock till about five You want to know how far Miss Gardiners is from where I am It is about twenty perch.... I suppose you are not getting on very well with the crop this weather it has been very wet this last week past but I hope it will be dry on Sunday next I hope to get home to yous I will leave Richhill about half past nine in the morning I am getting on very strong at the courting this weather could get as many girls as I had a mine to...

From this letter, we can see that Thomas is thinking more about what is going on at home, but by mentioning the girls he is seeing he wants to reassure Bella that he is still happy and enjoying life at Richhill. The next letter however hints that things could be better.

Nov 18th 1887

Dear Bella

I sit down once more to write you these few lines to let you know that I have not got read of my biles yet there is a small one under my throat now but I do not think it will be very big I have got the turpentine of my neck with a deal of bother I thought it very odd when I came up last Saturday I heard this week that there is some of the little ones unwell but I hope it is not the case I suppose your little pig is well enough anyway I suppose it is half a hundred I would think it has got many a tumble since for its bitting I am well enough and getting on well enough at present only for my boils Twill not be going home to you until Sunday week I suppose they were glad to get me away I don't know about you I would think you would not a cared I would a been there another week They were all glad to see me back in Richhill This is all I have to say at present and now I end up my letter hoping you and your wee pig to be all well at home

I remain your loving brother

Robert Conn

Things are really not all that well. Robert is missing his family, especially Bella and his little brothers and sisters.He would dearly love Bella to reassure him that they are missing him too! Before his next letter, Bella seems to have some kind of mishap.

Saturday 3rd December 1887

Dear Bella

I sit down to write you these few lines hoping you are not on the crutches now I suppose it has got all right again I suppose your boy did not come on Sunday after I left but if he did come he felt the weight of the tongs I had no fun after I came home to Richhill on Sunday night at all but I expect I will have a better night on Sunday night coming I have a few Christmas cards that I am going to send to the little folk and to yourself these packages has been damaged that I got the cards off there are two pairs You can give one of them to Lizzie and the other to yourself Any time that you are down at John McCoos you can tell him to be at granpapa for buying me a watch about a Christmas box don't forget This is all I have to say at present and now I end up hoping you to be all well at home but wee Thomas especially

I remain your loving brother

Robert Conn

I will not be down at Christmas write soon remember

This letter is more cheerful, but by Wednesday evening, December 21 1887, when he writes again, he is once more a bit down in the dumps .. but at least he has heard from Bella.

Dear Bella

I sit down to answer your kind and welcome letter about Christmas I think I will get part of Monday anyway and I might get all of it The reason we might get only part of it is the Armagh ones will be out on Monday and they will want goods out of the Shop for Armagh I will go down early on Sunday anyway I suppose you will go to church If you do not go to Uncle Thomas we might have as good crack at home but if I get all day Monday we can go to Richmount I suppose Sarah is not away but if she is not away we might have a better while of it I suppose they will not buy any trousers for me but if they don't when I come back I will just wear my best ones I suppose it will be a good while before I get a watch so I will have the lend of one on Sunday if all bees well I have not got one Christmas card the year nor I do not expect any but I suppose you will not know where to put yours you will have that many I have heard that there is a great large book at the Grange for me that I won when I was at school but I suppose I will get it when I be there on Sunday This is all I have to say at present and I end up hoping you are all well at home

I remain yours faithfully

Robert Conn

excuse this scribble as I am in a hurry

We don't know whether or not Christmas lived up to Robert's expectations nor if he had all of Monday off. What we do know is that he didn't get the new trousers.

The next letter in the bundle is written on a memorandum page from the shop of James Best and Son, Drapers and Grocers, Richhill, which we also note supplies funerals.

27th August 1888

Dear Bella

I sit down to let you know that I am in great need of a pair of pants so I would like very much that my father would get me a pair this week for the ones that I have on me are all gone Don't forget but send them up this week I will be down on Sunday week if all bees well this is all I have to say

I remain yours faithfully

Robert Conn

There are no more letters until May 9 1889, by which time Robert seems to have got himself a girl friend. He says:

'... I want you to get me a pair of slippers them soft kind you got for me before They are blue top ones They are for the girl I will bring the money down on Sunday

I remain yours faithfully

Robert Conn

Robert doesn't come home as often now. Probably he is too preoccupied with the girl. He writes to Bella on Wednesday 29 May 1889 to say that he won't be down until Sunday three weeks, but he boasts about the splendid wreath he made for the funeral of Doctor Best - a relative of his employer, perhaps, for there were sixteen wreaths upon his coffin. They said that Robert's wreath was "as nice a one as was there". He must not have been too well paid for his efforts, however, for two days later on May 31st he writes:

Dear Bella

I sit down to write you these few words to let you know that I would be very thankful if you or mother could spare me a shilling when you are sending up the box I got it from David the day of the funeral in Armagh Don't let father know about it It is not very often that I ask you for any

I remain yours faithfully

Robert Conn

In June he writes:

Dear Bella

I sit down to write you these few lines to let you know that we are going to have an excursion this year but I would be very glad that yous would try and get me the boots for Sunday for I am ashamed of the ones that I have I was not very well pleased when I seen yous would not send them up If yous get them for me send eights for my feet is that sore I would not like them too small I will hardly be down on Sunday week

I remain yours faithfully

Robert Conn

His box, presumably containing his clothes, is sent with the breadman and left at Brownlees where it is collected by one of the family. In July, he tells Bella that she need not be in a hurry sending the 'dickie' as he has another one. He is going to the school fete at Loughgall and he supposes Grandpa went in the coach to Gardners, !n September he sends a brief note to say that he will be down early on Sunday and he wants Bella to get him a hat. By December 31 he is begging again.

Dear Bella

I sit down to write you these few lines to let you know that I am very badly off for waring clothes and I would be very glad if I had any kind if they were second hand itself I do not like to be to hard for I would nearly do without them before I would ask for them I have to nearly tie them on me I would like a little better clothes now on account of being-the way I am now David left on Saturday last but we have got nobody yet I had a splendid Christmas and I hope yous had the same I am sure they were Do all that you can and no more This is all I have to say I don't know when I will be down

I remain yours faithfully

Robert Conn

On April 4 1890, Robert writes briefly to say that he won't be home until Sunday night and gives orders not to soil the collar which is in the box as he wants it for Easter Monday. Following that, he seems to have been' ill, for he writes on May 16 to say that the hoarseness has gone but his back and breast are not better. He will be down on Sunday and: "You can wash that wool shirt for it is not my own I got the loan of it Only for it I would a been m my grave ..." There is only one more letter, written on 8 August 1890, and he is still not well. He also seems to be troubled by vermin!

Dear Bella

I sit down to let you know that they call the poison vermin destroyer It is in little bottles at three pence each don't forget but get it I will be expecting yous up on Tuesday I am hardly as well this last few days but I am able to move about If you have any ripe apples send me some up as I would like some This is all I have to say

I remain yours faithfully

R Conn

Sadly, Robert's illness seems to have been long drawn out and we don't know if he eventually recovered.

There are four other letters in the bundle, from two friends in Richhill, both employees of James Best. On 3 October 1890 William David son writes:

Dear Old Friend

I was very sorry to hear that you are no better Anna Devlin told me to send you yourbox I put all that I could find of yours in it. Ellen is talking about you every day She is going to see you on Sunday evening on Gardners car She has warned to go away I don't know where she will go or not, but I hope she may not go Things are going on as usual hoping you better

Yours truly

William I Davidson

By 38 January 1891 he writes:

Dear Robert

I received your letter this morning and was very sorry to here that you are no better. We are all well at present Ellen was up at Monaghan on Monday last, her Mothers sister is very ill, she cannot get to see you this week. I was sorry I did not get to see you but Master Jacob said it would not do to go m where there is sickness Him and I will go to see you perhaps Sunday week. I enclose the Recept of the money which you paid for your clows. Master Jacob said it was all wright. The people of Richhill has not forgot you yet They be asking me do I here from you very often The Bread cart driver brings me the news about you

I remain your affectionate comerade

Wm. Davidson

Anna Devlin sends two letters. She omits to put the year on them, but one dated June 2 seems to have been written after Robert became so ill that he had to go home, yet in August 1890 Robert was asking Bella to send him apples, so it is difficult to know whether he had two bouts of sickness or one that lasted for at least a year. In any case, her letter must have been very reassuring concerning Ellen, presumably the girl for whom he bought the soft blue slippers. She writes:

Dear Robert

we received your kind and welcome letter We were all glad to hear you were better Ellen come running up on Saturday to tell us you were just dying I wish you had a seen her She says you might come home for she thinks every hour a day without you She is all right again You might just as well take the month as not but we would all be glad to see you There is hardly one goes into the shop and Jacob has never left it But he is away at the law and the Master and Mistress are both here and Frank is lying with his throat I would never go in only when I cannot help it. Ellen was glad when she heard you were getting better she says she never slept a wink since you went home I hope the oil is doing you good If you don't be going away this week you can let us know and I will send you another bottle I hear Sam was going to see you on horseback. Ellen sends her best love to you and us all.

Your loving friend

Anna Devlin Richhill

The last letter from Anna is not dated at all. But she hopes it finds him in good health and "a grate deal better". She tells him all the news from the shop and Richhill in general. Ellen is talking about him every day. Anna will send him some oranges and more Oil. "There is plenty of fresh Oil come Better than any you could buy and be sure and take it for there is nothing will do you as much good." Lots of people, even Doctor Steen, ask to be remembered to him. She will be down to see him soon and sends all her love.

We can only hope that poor Robert made a full recovery, but we will never know. One wonders what his illness was. Could it have been the same as had Frank "lying with his throat"? Was that the reason "hardly one goes into the shop and Jacob has never left it" and why Master Jacob advised William Davidson that it "would not do to go in where there was sickness"? Perhaps some of our medical friends would have an idea about what infectious illness, starting with a sore throat, was prevalent in the latter part of the last century.

The letters give us a glimpse of life in those days - how far away Richhill appears to be, and yet the breadman seems to make the journey frequently on his horse-drawn cart. We see too the strong bond between siblings - Robert's concern for his younger brothers and sisters, especially wee Thomas, and his complete dependence on Bella to see to all his needs and to fix things up for him with his parents and grand-papa.

As a young woman, Bella must have had the patience of a saint and great diplomacy. I knew her when she was an old lady and she certainly didn't bear fools gladly then - in fact, she was quite formidable. I could very easily picture her taking the tongs to an erring boyfriend! She lived to a ripe old age, as did her mother, whom ! can just remember lying in a big bed. wearing a high-necked nightdress and a frilly linen night-cap. I know there was one other brother, James, and a sister married a Dublin man, but I had never heard of Robert or wee Thomas. I suspect they both died young -indeed, it could well be that the unfortunate Robert never recovered from his long illness, in which case poor Ellen must have suffered a broken heart.