A Nineteenth Century Love Story

Vol. 7 No. 1 - 1995

A nineteenth century love story

by Ian Wilson

They say that, "All the world loves a lover'', and the popularity of the great love stories, like Anthony and Cleopatra, or Romeo and Juliet, would seem to confirm this. One story that I'm sure you haven't heard, however, is set in Lurgan in the early 1880s, and involves a young couple, Albert Lewis and Edie Macoun. We can follow the course of the romance through a remarkable series of letters that survive in the Lewis family archives, and which I have had the privilege of studying, through the generosity of Mr Walter Hooper, the present custodian of the archives.

Rather more is known about Albert Lewis than about his paramour. The Lewis family hailed originally from North Wales, moving to Belfast in the 18th century, where they became involved in the rapidly developing engineering industry. Albert Lewis was born in 1863. His father had ambitions for his son to enter one of the learned professions, and, in order to prepare for an apprenticeship in a firm of solicitors, the young Albert was sent as a boarder to Lurgan College. The Headmaster, the redoubtable W T Kirkpatrick, took a great interest in the young Lewis, and he was eventually indentured to the Dublin law firm of Malcolm, Boyle and McClean. In later years he was to have a thriving practice of his own in Belfast, but he is perhaps best known as the father of C S Lewis, author of "The Screwtape Letters" and the Narnia stories, as well as being one of the leading academics of his time.

Edie Macoun is more of a mystery. The Mocoun family had originally settled in the Magheralin area, in the 17th century. By the 19th, they had become prominent figures in the Linen trade in Lurgan and Edie's father, James Macoun, was involved in that trade until the collapse of the family business in the early 1880s, an event that is mentioned in the correspondence. James Macoun's wife was Mary Martelli, from Dublin. Her father, Thomas Martelli, was Registrar of the Petty Sessions Clerks Office at Dublin Castle, and a number of the love letters were written from the Martelli family residence at 35, Wellington Place, Dublin. James and Mary married on 14th February, 1865, moving at that time into the family home at Church Place in Lurgan. We do not know the exact date of Edie's birth, although given the nature of the correspondence, we must assume that she was the first born of the family, and that she was born either late in 1865 or at the very beginning of 1866. I say this because, although the love letters are undated, we can probably date the earliest ones from about 1881. I would find it hard to believe that a young teenager, writing in Victorian times, would have been allowed to write to a young man in such romantic terms and even an 1881 date would have made Edie barely 16 when she started writing. I will say some-thing more about this when I come to discuss the dating of the letters. What happened to Edie after the end of this correspondence is a totally closed book. I have tried to trace her movements, but to no avail.

How Albert became involved with Edie is not explained, but we can easily guess. He was a pupil at Lurgan College from 1878-1880, and during those years, he would have known three Macoun boys, James (1877-83), John (1877-81) and John Horatio (1879-84). It seems probable that one of these boys was Edie's brother, and the others her cousins. We can glean this much from the correspondence itself, which makes several references to one of the Macoun household called "Jack" - the final letter actually referring to the fact that, "Jack intends to go to Belfast tomorrow to play against the Academical Institution, so I shall give him this to post in Belfast". From all this we can quite easily construct a scenario to explain the lovers first meeting. Albert Lewis, a boarder, would have befriended the Macoun boys, who shared classes with him. Through this friendship he would have met the pretty sister of one of these friends, and that boy-girl relationship would have begun to flourish. Lewis himself refers to the early days in a rather comical way.

"As I read them [her letters], we are standing together on the stone bridge which spans the little river that comes rushing down the meadows... (You know the spot I mean, it is on the road to Mrs Brown's) ... I see the church and the familiar house. Now I am raising my eyes and looking into the upper windows, to see if I can catch a glimpse of that fond, smiling face, and Ferguson is muttering at my side 'Ah! Ah! Neddy, you are looking to see if you can see Miss McC'... Now I am standing in the pew at the side of the church, glancing up to see you entering your seat. At length you come, and my joy for that morning's service is complete". The church mentioned is Shankill Parish, which the Church Place house would have overlooked. Ferguson refers to Stanley Ferguson, a fellow boarder with Lewis at Lurgan College, later to become Managing Director of the Ulster Bank, and first President of the Lurgan College Old Boys' Association.

As I have already suggested, one of the great problems with the letters is that they are undated. Warren Lewis, C S Lewis' brother, who compiled the Lewis Papers, suggested that they dated from the period 1879-1884. This creates real problems, for, although Albert would have reached the ripe old age of 16 in 1879, Edie would have been barely 14, and, as I have already said, I find it hard to accept that the early letters are the work of such a young girl. However the first problem in dating the correspondence comes from the inexact nature of the Lurgan College records for the period. According to Kirkpatrick's notebooks, Albert Lewis was a boarder from the first quarter of 1879 until the last quarter of 1880. However, Albert Lewis himself said that he was a pupil in 1878, and I am inclined to accept that his attendance was from 1878-1880. This means that he was 17, going on 18 when he left Lurgan, with Edie being 15+.

It still seems highly unlikely to me that a 15 year old girl, writing over a century ago, would have been allowed to be so forward with a young man, even if she wished to be so. However, there is a suggestion that this might just be the case, for Albert urges Edie in one of the letters to destroy anything that he had written to her, since if her father found out he would be very angry. Nevertheless, I am still led to the conclusion that there must have been a gap between Albert Lewis leaving Lurgan at the end of 1880, and the commencement of the correspondence possibly in the autumn of 1881 (see below). The second major problem arises from the order in which the letters have been placed. Warren Lewis had clearly tried to link what he considered to be associated letters, so that they would appear in order. It seems clear that he has the last letter in the right place, but I have serious doubts about the first ones. Letter number 1 was written from Dublin, and is partly a "thank you'' for a Christmas card, and partly a rather conspiratorial arrangement to meet while Albert is in the city.

There is a complete absence of clues as to when the letter might have been written. However, letter 4, in a series clearly written in fairly quick succession, refers to the death of one Douglas Wilson, in Lurgan. From the Macoun papers it is possible to date this event exactly, because the death is recorded as having been early in May, 1883. This enables us to date the first letter in the last week of December 1882. However, there are a number of reasons why I find it hard to accept this date as the start of the correspondence. For a start, in one of the later letters, Edie writes, "I will have a great many things to tell you about the Wilson's when we meet, especially Douglas". Since Douglas's death is recorded in one of the early letters, I can only conclude that particular letter is out of order. There is also a postscript to one of Edie's letters, which reads, "The College is very much changed since you left, Mr and Miss Kirkpatrick both being married. I know Mrs Kirk very well, I knew her in Dublin".

We know that the two Kirkpatricks both married in July, 188 1. W T married Miss Louise Smyth, in Dublin, while his sister married Mr A S Mitchell, a former assistant master at Lurgan College, two days earlier, in Belfast. I would suggest that it would be unlikely that such a postscript would be added to a letter written two years later. I suspect that this particular letter was one of the earliest written, probably at some time in the autumn of 1881. As to the date of the last letter, there is nothing that can date it with certainty, although there is one plaintive comment from Edie -

"I have come to the conclusion that after 5 years (or nearly so) loving me, you can't be quite indifferent to me yet". The problem here is that we must assume a relation-ship that commenced before the first letter, and here we are completely in the dark, although Albert does refer twice in his letters to the fact that they had established a relationship before he left Lurgan. On one occasion he speaks of his wish to be, "some-thing more than a fickle school-boy lover" and elsewhere he says that he believed that when he left Lurgan he had convinced Edie that he had some feelings for her. As for the conclusion of the relation-ship, Warren Lewis suggested 1884 as the last year, and I feel that this might not be too far out. Certainly, the last of the Macoun boys left Lurgan College in 1884 (or possibly early in 1885), and if Jack Macoun was going to Belfast to play for the College against RBAI (as quoted above from the last letter in the series), then 1884-85 seems an acceptable date. However, if the sequence started about 1881, then the chronology does suggest a period of about five years covered by the correspondence. Therefore the last one may date from some time in 1886.

As to the content of the letters, there is much to interest the local historian. One of the things that appealed to me at first reading was the number of personalities who are mentioned. Many would have been fellow pupils with Albert Lewis at Lurgan College.

I have mentioned already Stanley Ferguson, a member of the well known linen family from Banbridge. Amongst others mentioned is R G Brown, who was a student at the College from 1877-79, and who, I fear, had his eye on Miss Macoun! In the very first letter she refers to the fact that she and her mother had both received Christmas cards from "our old friend, R G Brown", and that hers had included a photograph. Later on she reports that she has "met Robert Brown on Good Friday last. He is looking very well and has got a tremendous swell!" Another old pupil of the College was Fred Lindsay. He had acted as go-between, carrying letters to Belfast for Edie. However, he turned out to be a snake in the grass, because he was not only reading the letters, but was also harbouring a secret passion for Edie, which he eventually disclosed, much to her disgust, if her letters are to be believed! An additional warning is included by Edie to the effect that Albert is to make sure not to send letters through the post, for they will certainly be read at the Post Office. It is perhaps appropriate to note that Fred Lindsay's mother was Postmistress in Lurgan!

Other comments in the letters refer more specifically to Lurgan College. I have already referred to the note mentioning Kirkpatrick's marriage. Also mentioned is Dr Hermann Rostig, the languages teacher at the College, who died in March, 1883. The third letter in the series reports "I believe Herr Rostig is dying; his brother has come to be with him; he [the brother] can't speak any English, and I hear Mr Kirk-Patrick can't speak German, so it must be awkward". It is strange, however, that it is not until letter 15 that Edie writes "Herr Rostig's brother left yesterday for Germany, I saw him going to the train as I was going for a walk". Her first mention of Herr Rostig's illness is the letter in which she refers to the fact that, "Douglas Wilson is also very ill, I am afraid he won't recover". We can safely date this letter in the period January/February 1883, and I would suspect that Rostig's brother would wish to stay in Lurgan no longer than was absolutely necessary following the death. However, the letter noting his departure come a long way after that telling of Douglas Wilson's death, which we have already noted was in May, 1883. Again, I suspect that the letter referring to Rostig's departure is badly out of place.

Lengthy stays in Dublin

The letters are also interesting social documents. The life that young Edie Macoun lived would, I think seem very unfamiliar to today's teenagers. By her own admission, she was not rich (although this may well be purely relatively speaking!), but she seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time away from home. There are references to lengthy stays in Dublin, with "Grannie Martelli", and to month long sojourns in Bangor during the summer. Also mentioned are visits to various relatives, including the Masterson family (cousins), who lived in Sydenham, not far from the Lewis home.

There is no mention anywhere of schooling, or even of any work, and in one of his more cruel moments, Albert makes reference to Edie's friendship with a Mr Anderson, saying that as he was writing his letter at nearly midnight "doubtless you are dreaming of Mr Anderson and the pleasure of marrying a gentleman with a large private income". Even Albert's letters give us an insight into the way of life at the time. He refers to his membership of the Belmont Literacy Society and he says,

"I am considered one of the best speakers in the society (although I should not say so were I writing to any other person). One of the elderly gentlemen remarked not long ago, 'Since Mr Lewis joined the Society his matrimonial prospects have gone up 20 per cent'". Arising out of his membership of the society, he received invitations to soirees and balls, at one of which he so insulted a young lady called McDowell that he was forced to write her a formal apology. The whole affair was dealt with in great detail in the correspondence with Edie, and I can't help wondering why, since Miss McDowell had obviously attracted Albert's attention, and one would think he might want to keep this fact hidden from one for whom he had proclaimed his love. Another remarkable passage refers to a visit to a phrenologist who was visiting Belfast. He describes it thus; "I had to undergo the torture of having an old man feeling my head all over, and telling me all sorts of things about what I had done in the past, what I was going to do in the future, about my capabilities and my imperfections etc, etc". However, the most startling comment made by the phrenologist was that, "I did not yet love any person really and in earnest, nor had I met any girl whom I had settled down to love truly and sincerely". Once again, I wonder at the reason for telling this to a girl that he had said he loved.

Another thing that stands out from this correspondence, on both sides, is just how much Dublin was seen as the centre of Irish social life among these Protestant and Unionist families in the 1880s. Edie regularly visited the city, always writing about "going up to town", and Albert, although working in the Belfast office of his firm, was regularly at the Dublin office as part of his studies. The train time-tables for the Belfast-Dublin line seem to have been firmly fixed in both heads. The romance itself was clearly a fairly stormy one. There is a distinct difference in tone between the two sets of letters. Edie comes across as a warm hearted direct girl, while Albert's letters are almost too perfectly romantic to be genuine. Warren Lewis's comment on the letters was that Albert was more in love with love than with his Edie. Having said this, it is clear that both parties were guilty of a roving eye. Although Edie says in one of her letters, "I hate flirts", there is no doubt that she was just that. She mentions herself a number of boys who are showing an interest, and on one occasion cautions Albert not to believe any stories he might hear. "You know what sort of a place Lurgan is", she says "if you are seen speaking to a fellow of course you are in love with him".

Albert obviously did hear things, for he berates her for encouraging the man Anderson. "I am informed that you sit in the same pew with him every Sunday evening of your life thing that used to be considered a sure sign of a lady's engagement to a gentleman). That you have been seen walking on the Lough Road with him on a Sunday evening, is undoubtedly true also". On the other side, Edie clearly heard much of Albert's social life. Her letters are sprinkled with the names of various females, with whom Albert has been associated, and one letter contains the rather barbed conclusion, "how many girls have you got at Sydenham, Belfast and everywhere else, 'pour passer le temps'"? It is amusing to note the efforts that both make to explain their actions. Edie roundly denies walking on Lough Road with Mr Anderson, except on one occasion when they were accompanied by another girl, although she does say that Anderson is a regular caller at the house and "seems to have got round Mama". Albert was forced to adopt the same tack. The fledgling lawyer comes to the fore in the letter, because he starts by emphasising that he knows all about Edie's flirtations, then he says, "And now I must say a word about my FLIRTATION. The lady you refer to was at a boarding school at Belmont. I met her, I think, in all, three times. She has now left and gone home. I am to get her a photo one of these days. I will show it to you when you come down, and she has got mine; this is my flirtation, my dear, and I deny that jealousy itself could find any grounds for complaint with it".

However, at the end of it all, the innocence of the love story is compelling. Albert writes of their first kiss. They were out for a Sunday afternoon walk in the Demesne, and had stopped at the Shell House, where Edie had pointed out their names written in several places. He goes on, "I had my arm round you. I remember how you looked up into my face. The opportunity was irresistible, and I had the impertinence to kiss you. You and I alone know of the circumstance, and you and I alone know when the first kiss of love passed between us". Unfortunately, the end of the correspondence is far from happy. It seems clear that the relationship was terminated at Albert's initiative, and that Edie was far from happy about it. The final letter refers to a last meeting, where all will be explained. We do not know if, that meeting ever took place.

What happened next?

However, we do know that Albert did not marry his Edie. He courted, and eventually won the hand of Flora Hamilton who was the daughter of the Rector of Albert's Church, St Mark's, Dundela, and a very gifted girl, having a degree in mathematics from Queen's College, Belfast - possibly one of the first females to graduate there. As for Edie, nothing further is known. Did she find the man of her dreams and marry, or did she carry a candle for Albert to the end?

We shall probably never know!