Bamburgh “Ghosts”-Tales from the Eighteenth Century- The Power of Patronage

Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of working as a volunteer at Woodhorn County Archive, on the Lord Crewe papers. These are a fabulous collection reflecting life in the 18C in Bamburgh, and in the Castle; I would like to share some of the stories I have found with you


In reading through so many intriguing letters written to Dr John Sharp, the foremost inspired Trustee appointed under the Will of Lord Crew to oversight the restoration of the Castle, I am struck that so much is utterly familiar-and so much alien. Letters are easily readable; most of the language we use; but there are also many words now out of usage. ( For example, in accounts of the restoration of the Castle undertaken in the mid/late 1700s there is constant reference to the noun “Solled/Sollid”, used in the context of building-like a pillar or jamb. Extensive research- but I cannot discover its meaning!) Likewise in descriptions of the Castle, which as a volunteer Guide I know at least parts of fairly well, and have seen 18C maps of the Castle-but where was “High House”, “Peter’s House” “the Bastion”? So both familiar; and unfamiliar. One area that feels very different-fortunately-is the influence of the huge power of patronage, in an age of extremes, well before any move to a welfare state. If the Trustees had a vacancy, word spread like wildfire, and I have read with fascination the dozens of super polite, sometimes even groveling letters addressed to Dr Sharp and the Trustees, in whose gift the vacancy lay.


The following three letters illustrate the studied politeness and florid expressions of that age, and also the sharp divide in the layers of polite society-and are here illustrated very definitely in descending order….!


In NRO452/C/3/2/31 the secretary/relative of the Duke of Northumberland writes from Alnwick Castle on Aug 14 1769-


“I am desired by the Duke and Duchess to present their compliments to you and your Lady, and if not inconvenient they will do themselves the pleasure to breakfast with you tomorrow between 12 and 1 o’clock. Their Graces hope you will excuse their dining with you as the Duke is still so much an invalid as to make it necessary for him not to be abroad late in the afternoon. I shall have the honour to attend them + our company will consist of about 5.


I am, with great respect

Dear Sir

Your Most faithful Servant

Thomas Percy


PS A Detachment of our company lie tonight at Belford where I hope to be favoured with your answer

The ladies hope you will excuse their waiting upon you + Mrs. Sharp in their travelling dress, as they are going a little expedition today. I will pay their respects to you on their return”

In contrast, coming down the social scale, is the following letter of application for a post at the Castle as School Master, written on October 16 1786 in the most exquisite copperplate hand by one Adam Oliver-I wish I could reproduce it for you-


“Worshipful Sir

Being informed that one of the Masters of Bambrough Castle School intends to enter holy Orders, I take the Liberty of Offering my service

I teach English, Writing, arithmetic, Book-keeping by Singles and Double entry, Geometry, conic Sections, Mensruation, surveying of Land, Gauging, Plain and Spherical trigonometry, the Projection of the Spheres, astronomy, Geography, Navigation, the Principles of Mechanics, Gunnery, the Laws of Centripetal and Centrifugal force, Algebra, and the Application of Fluxions to the several Branches of the Mathematics.

Should you be pleased to honour me with your Patronage, I would ever retain a grateful Sense of the Obligation conferred on, Worshipful Sir,

Your most humble servant

Adam Oliver


PS I can procure a Certificate of my Moral Character if required”

As yet I cannot confirm if such a catch was employed by the Trustees

Now contrast with NRO 452/C/3/2/17/27, no less sincere from a grateful parishioner in (North) Sunderland, Margaret Carns, who in October 1787 wrote-

“Sor I Return you humble and harty thanks for your trobel that you hav had with or mony for you hav ben as a father to the fatherls and a hosbent to the weadow

But I hop the good god of heven will reward you for the good you hav don

For if it ples your oner to let me no wether I most Bring the papers that I got from you for the money

For I hop you will exyus me for making bold to writ to you

Your humble servent

Margaret Carns


There is so much evidence that Dr Sharp really did act as a “father to the fatherless”, and the huge range of charities he established based at the Castle, as directed by Lord Crew’s Will, is testament to this-first and foremost help for shipwrecked sailors, Charity Boys and Girls Schools, an Infirmary, Dispensary, subsidised corn for the poor when prices rocketed and famine threatened, distribution of beef and tallow to the poor in the area, and he was surely a pioneer in offering free inoculation to children and the poor against smallpox. Come (again) to Bamburgh Castle, or explore Woodhorn Archive to learn more about this formidable man


Carol Griffiths

4 thoughts on “Bamburgh “Ghosts”-Tales from the Eighteenth Century- The Power of Patronage

  1. Is the letter from Thomas Percy something that the current Percy family might not be aware of?

    If they do not have it in their own archives perhaps you could see if they are interested and send a copy to them.

    Valerie Forster-Gorski


  2. Hello Graeme- I meant to have contacted you earlier-there were three stories in this piece-you only provided the first. Could I suggest if you do use the Tales in two parts that you mention that Part 11 is to follow? Not sure if you have put the second and third stories in a separate Blog yet? Cheers Carol

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