Document of the Month - November

Letter, Elizabeth Murray to her brother, Lieutenant Colonel John Murray, 1st – 8th November 1855

This letter is one of the many that members of the Murray family wrote to John when he was serving at Sevastopol in the Crimean War. It is held at the Archives as part of the papers of the Murray family of Polmaise. John Murray was 24 when he left Scotland for Crimea as a Lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards in 1854.

John saw action at the Siege of Sevastopol, and his letters home give a vivid account of conditions there and the life of an officer during that conflict. His family wrote to him regularly with news and the collection includes letters from his parents and siblings.

Elizabeth, known in the family as ‘Bessie’, had recently started boarding school at ‘The Hermitage Lodge’ in Fulham near London. This was on the estate of Sir John Scott Lillie who had bought the house and lodge at North End, Fulham in the 1820s. He stopped living there in 1836 and the Lodge was subsequently converted to a boarding school for young ladies.

She gives news of the cold weather in Fulham and the reaction of her fellow boarders to the cold, describing them as ‘spoonies’. ‘Spoony’ is an archaic term meaning a silly or foolish person. Elizabeth evidently sees herself as tougher than her English classmates, being used to cold weather when she is in Scotland living on the Polmaise Estate near Stirling. 

In her letter she describes seeing effigies of Guy Fawkes in the local streets, “Today Monday is the 5th of November and the whole streets are full of Guy Foxes we saw 4 today when we were out only think of that Have you any G Foxes out in the Crimea.” Fox is another spelling of Fawkes and this refers to the celebrations for Bonfire Night. The thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament was celebrated right from just after the conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, were discovered in November 1605. In fact an Act of Parliament calling for an annual public thanksgiving and celebration of the ‘miraculous and gracious deliverance’ of the government from being blown up was passed on 23rd January 1606.

Traditionally, bonfires were lit and effigies of Guy Fawkes placed upon them to burn on the night of November 5th. Towards the end of the 18th century, reports exist of children making their dummies of Fawkes and using them to beg, asking for ‘a penny for the Guy’. The celebration became known as ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ shortly after this. Elizabeth is writing on the 250th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot and evidently the occasion is being marked in the usual fashion. The Observance of 5th November Act was not repealed until 25th March 1859.