Can you read this letter? There’s a prize on offer if you can

Below is a letter from the Hackworth family archive. The letter is cross written, a technique that Victorians used to save paper and reduce the cost of postage. The Hackworth archive is full of letters like this, and our team have been working to decipher them. This one is actually one of the easiest to read.

Can you unlock what is being said? To encourage you, we’ve arranged a fantastic prize – a behind-the-scenes tour of Search Engine, or a framed reproduction of an engineering drawing showing either Mallard, Duchess of Hamilton or Flying Scotsman. The first person to comment on this post with an accurate transcription of the letter (in the eyes of the judges) will win. Terms and conditions

You’ve got a week to post us your deciphered text: on 5 December 2011, we’ll post a full transcription ourselves. Good luck! (You can click the images for a larger view.)

The Hackworth archive consists of the papers of Timothy Hackworth. The archive is held here at the museum and is available for consultation through Search Engine. This cataloguing project has been made possible by The National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives.

Update 5 December: Thank you for all the entries to the competition: the winner will be contacted in the next couple of days. I’ve added a full correct transcription to the comments below. And here’s some information you may find interesting about the letter:

  • Timothy Hackworth Jr wrote this letter to his sister Jenny, Jane Hackworth (later Young). The letter was sent to Vilvorde, Belgium, where Jane was at school.
  • The family lived in Soho House, which was close to their business Soho Works, Shildon. Shildon reminds Timothy of ‘London parks on Sunday’. The family were surrounded by railway lines and men working, thus the ‘spoil bank’ – which was a pile of waste materials.
  • The ‘Company’ refers to the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company. Timothy remarks on them building a reservoir at the top of the hill near Soho works, with a light-hearted comment: ‘we hope they do not mean to drown us out of the place’.
  • From Timothy’s account Soho Works appears to be successful. But at this time adverts had been submitted showing the works were up for sale. Timothy attempted to buy Soho, but his bid was rejected. The works were sold to the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company in 1855.
  • The letter refers to Timothy’s sister Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ Holmes and her children, and another sister Prudence ‘Pru’ Hackworth (later Nightingale). ‘Mrs John’ is the wife of his brother John Wesley Hackworth. The letter also refers to John Wesley’s children.
  • “Our people are very well with the exception of ‘Mrs A'” refers to Timothy’s eldest sister Ann Ambler, who was committed to a mental asylum around this time.
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11 Responses to Can you read this letter? There’s a prize on offer if you can

  1. mike says:

    March 7th 1852

    My Dear Jenny,

    I really do not know how to begin to write you. I am such a stupid block & apologise for not doing so before seems absurd the fact of the case is that laziness and the antipathy I have to letter writing have prevented me doing so on paper although I have often written in mind.

    I have just had a walk on the sport-bank for a few minutes it is becoming quite a place of attraction the men are now getting their gardens put into order and besides the Company have commenced making a reservoir on the top of the hill just opposite our works we hope they do not mean to drown us out of our place

    It is such a splendid afternoon there are hundreds of people walking out in the fields round our City it quite reminds me of the London parks on Sunday. I felt rather lonely when out by myself (Mr. James being in the dales) so I determined to try to scribble a few lines to you.

    We are going on pretty comfortably at present having two engines in hand & expect to get another shortly. You would be astonished at the number of people that come to see the eng. that is nearly finished for Mr. Stobart – it is a tidy little thing.

    You will perhaps have heard us talking about Geo. Thompson putting down a little Engine for Mr. S for thrashing we expected to have got the job we gave them a price for erecting one for that purpose but Thompson got to Mr. Stobart & persuaded him to have his – now they have got it put up and find it is too light for the work therefore they ordered one of ours to be made immediately we have nearly double the price for our Engines than we offered them in the first instance aint that stunning! There is quite a mania for our patent Engines Mr. Fletcher is wild about his he tells nearly every body he meets with that it is the best Engine in the World. I quite believe if we had a few more put down that we shall have plenty of work and go on charmingly. Lizzy has this morning recd. a letter from dear Pru in which she says she wrote Mrs. Boyle a fortnight ago a note enclosed from Mrs. Simpson informs us that Miss S. is engaged to Mr. J.G. Horton Lizzy seems quite affected with the information.

    Jane Elizabeth and her Mamma are hanging over me snuffing out of my box (which is on the table by me) & sneezing immoderately. The three young ones are running about the garden all alive & kicking I am just writing the copy of my letter on a piece of paper where Sam has been making his first attempts to copy a hymn out of the youth’s instructer which is quite alarming.

    Monday evening – I have just come in to try to finish my note after doing some work for Messrs. Duckett and Steads Loco. Engine that their man was waiting for I understand the young man at West Cottage has to be named after his papa what do you think to that?

    It strikes me all things are going on right up west the girl said last night that Mrs. John had been downstairs but it is a bit of business I hardly understand. Fearing you will be tired of reading a note about nothing at all I must come to a conclusion but before doing so I must give you Sams’ message I asked him what message he had to send he said I was to give you his best love & kind wishes I was also to send a kiss from him. Our people are all very well with the exception of Mrs. A. who is much as usual they all join me in warmest love to you and believe me

    To remain

    Your most affectionate Bro.

    Timothy Hackworth

    P.S. Love & kisses to all your young friends. T.H.

  2. Luke Bridges says:

    Like the idea of this, It tells a good story of a small moment in his life.
    I have put a full transcription on google docs at

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GakxD7-bhZ4DCwwN01lx3Fkpw_85Z1POCGxAG5x2IHk/edit

    Quite a personal moment there between him and his sister, about his work and family. Shame a bout the punctuation though, but for a Victorian engineer, not bad

  3. John Savage says:

    March 7th 1852

    My Dear Jenny

    I really do not know how to begin to write you I am such a stupid block & to apologise for not doing so before seems absurd the fact of the case is that laziness & the antipathy I have to letter writing have prevented me doing so on paper although I have often written in mind.

    I have just had a walk on the spoil-bank for a few minutes it is becoming quite a place of attraction the men are now getting their gardens put into order and besides the Company have commenced making a reservoir on the top of the hill just opposite our works we hope they do not mean to drown us out of our place

    It is such a splendid afternoon there are hundreds of people walking out in the fields around our City. It quite reminds me of the London parks on Sunday. I felt rather lonely when out by myself (Mr James being on the dales) so I determined to try to scribble a few things to you.

    We are going on pretty comfortably at present having two engines in hand I expect to get another shortly. You would be astonished at the number of people that come to the eng. that is nearly finished for Mr Stobart it is a tidy little thing

    You will perhaps have heard us talking about Geo Thompson putting down a little engine for Mr S for thrashing we expected to have got the job we gave them a price for erecting one for that purpose but Simpson got to Mr Stobart & persuaded him to have his – now they have got it put up and find it is too light for the work therefore they ordered one of us to be made immidiately we have nearly double the price for our Engine than we offered them in the first instance aint that stunning!

    There is quite a mania for our patent engines Mr Fletcher is wild about his he tells nearly every body he meets with that it is the best Engine in the World. I quite believe if we had a few more put down that we shall have plenty of work and grow charmingly. Lizzy has this morning recd. a letter from dear Pru in which she says she wrote Mrs Boyle a fortnight ago a note enclosed from Mrs Simpson informs us that Miss S is engaged Mr JG Horlow Lizzy seems quite affected with the information.

    I can scarcely write a word for Jane Elizabeth & her Mamma are hanging over me snuffing out of my box (which is on the table by me) & sneezing immoderately. The three young ones are sunning about the garden all alive and kicking I am just writing the copy of my letter on a piece of paper where Sam has been making his first attempt to copy a hymn out of the youth’s instructer which is quite alarming

    Monday evening I have just come in to try to finish my note after doing some work for Messrs Duckett & Steads Loco. Engine that their man was waiting for I understand the young man at west cottage has to be named after his papa what do you think to that. It strikes me all things are going on right up west the girl said last night that Mrs John had been down stairs but it is a bit of business I hardly understand.

    Fearing you will be tired of reading a note about nothing at all I must come to a conclusion but before doing so I must give you Sam’s message I asked him what message he had to send he said I was to give you his best love & kind wishes I was also to send a kiss from him. Our people are all very well with the exception of Mrs A who is much as usual. They all join me in warmest love to you and believe me
    I remain
    Your most Affectionate Bro
    Timothy Hackworth

    P.S. Love & Kisses to all your young friends. T.H.

    I think on close inspection the words “spoil-bank” rather than “sport-bank”, and “grow charmingly” rather than “go on charmingly” are in there, but otherwise I concur entirely with Mike’s transcription.

    John

  4. March 7th 1852

    My Dear Jenny,

    I really don’t know how to begin to write you. I and such an stupid block and to apologize for not doing so before seems absurd. The fact of the case is that laziness and the antipathy I have to letter writing have prevented me doing so on paper, although I have often written in mind. I have just had a walk on the sport-bank for a few minutes, it is becoming quite place of attraction. The men are now getting their garden put into order and besides the company have commenced making a reservoir on the top of the hill just opposite our work. We hope they do not mean to drown us out of our place.

    This such a splendid afternoon. There are hundreds of people walking out in the fields round our city. It quite reminds me of the London parks on Sunday. I felt rather lonely when out by myself (Mr. James being in the dales). So I determined to try to scribble things to you.

    We are going on pretty comfortable at present having two engines in hand. I expect to get another shortly. You would be astonished at the number of people that come to see the engine that is nearly finished for Mr. Stobart. It is a tidy little thing. You will perhaps have heard us talking about Geo. Thompson putting down a little engine for Mr. S. Gorthrashing. We expected to have got the job. We gave them a price for erecting one for that purpose but Thompson got to Mr. Stobart and persuaded him to have his – now they have got is put up and find it is too light for the work. Therefore they ordered one of ours to be made immediately. We have nearly double the price for our engine than we offered them in the first instance, ain’t that stunning! There is quite a mania for our patent engines. Mr. Fletcher is wild about this. He tells nearly everybody he meets with, that it is the best engine in the world. I quite believe if we had a few more put down that we shall have plenty of work and go on charmingly.

    Lizzy has this morning read a letter from dear Prw in which she says she wrote Mrs. Boyle a fortnight ago. A note enclosed from Mrs. Simpson informs us that Miss S. is engaged to Mr. F. G. Horton. Lizzy seems quite affected with the information. I can scarcely write a word for Jane Elizabeth and her mamma are hanging over me snuffing out of my box (which is on the table by me) and sneezing immediately. The three young ones are running about the garden all alive and kicking. I am just writing the copy of my letter on a piece of paper where Sam has been making his first attempt to copy a hymn out of the youth’s instructor which is quite alarming.

    Monday evening. I have just come and to try to finish my note after doing some work for Miss Duckett and steads loco. engine that their man was waiting for. I understand the young man at west cottage has to be named after his papa what do you think to that.

    It strikes me all things are going right up west. The girl said last night that Mrs. Lohn had been down stairs but it is a bit of business I hardly understand. Fearing you would be tired of reading a note about nothing at all I must come to a conclusion, but before doing so, I must give you Sam’s message. I asked him what message he had to send He said I was to give you his best love and kind wishes. I was also to lend a kiss from him. Our people are all very well with the exception of Mrs. A, who is much as usual. They all join me in warmest love to you and believe me
    To remain
    Your Most Affectionate Bro
    Timothy Hackworth

    PS Love and kisses to all your friends of H.

    This is my Attempt. Is this a different Timothy Hackworth? Or perhaps a mistake in writing the date? I agree it looks very much like 1852, but Hackworth died in 1850 . It would make more sense if it was 1825.

  5. Alison Kay, Project Archivist says:

    Dear Scott,

    Well noticed! This is in Fact Timothy Hackworth’s son writing to his sister Jane Hackworth (later Young), Jane and Timothy Hackworth Jr were close, as we can see in this letter. Both of Hackworth’s sons John Wesley and Timothy worked alongside their father, this letter shows Timothy continuing his father’s business at Soho Works, Shildon, near Darlington. Timothy Hackworth Jn died aged 31 of diabetes in 1856 after being ill for some time, his illness contributed to the works being sold in 1855.

    The archive is full of letters like this one that give a real insight into what life was like for the family.

    Alison

  6. Pete Speller says:

    Here’s my stab at it. I love the ‘snuff incident’ :D

    March 7th 1852
    My Dear Jenny,
    I really do not know how to begin to write you I am such a stupid block & to apologise for not doing so before seems absurd the fact of the case is that laziness & the antipathy I have to letter writing have prevented me doing so on paper although I have often written in mind.
    I have just had a walk on the spoil-bank for a few minutes it is becoming quite a place of attraction the men are now getting their gardens put into order and besides the Company have commenced
    making a reservoir on the top of the hill just opposite our works we hope they do not mean to
    drown us out of our place
    It is such a splendid afternoon there are hundreds of people walking out in the fields round our City it quite reminds me of the London parks on Sunday. I felt rather lonely when out by myself (Mr. James being in the dales) so I determined to try to scribble a few lines to you.
    We are going on pretty comfortably at present having two engines in hand & expect to get another shortly. You would be astonished at the number of people that come to see the eng that is
    nearly finished for Mr. Stobart it is a tidy little thing
    You will perhaps have heard us talking about Geo. Thompson putting down a little Engine for Mr. S. for thrashing we expected to have got the job we gave them a price for erecting one for that purpose but Thompson got to Mr. Stobart & persuaded him to have his – now they have got it put
    up and find it is too light for the work therefore they ordered one of us to be made immediately we
    have nearly double the price for our Engine than we offered them in the first instance ain’t that
    stunning! There is quite a mania for our patent Engines Mr. Fletcher is wild about his he tells nearly
    every body he meets with that it is the best Engine in the World.
    I quite believe if we had a few more put down that we shall have plenty of work and go on
    charmingly. Lizzy has this morning recd. a letter from dear Pru. in which she says she wrote Mrs. Boyle a fortnight ago a note enclosed from Mrs. Simpson informs us that Miss S. is engaged to Mr. T. G. Horton Lizzy seems quite affected with the information.
    I can scarcely write a word for Jane Elizabeth & her Mamma are hanging over me snuffing out of
    my box (which is on the table by me) & sneezing immoderately
    The three young ones are running about the garden all alive & kicking I am just writing the copy of my letter on a piece of paper where Sam has been making his first attempt to copy a hymn out of the youth’s instructer which is quite alarming
    Monday evening I have just come in to try to finish my note after doing some work for Messrs Duckett & Steads Loco. Engine that their man was waiting for. I understand the young man at West Cottage has to be named after his pappa what do you think to that.
    It strikes me all things are going on right up west the girl said last night that Mrs. John had been down stairs but it is a bit of business I hardly understand. Fearing you will be tired of reading a note about nothing at all I must come to a conclusion but before doing so I must give you Sam’s message I asked him what message he had to send he said I was to give you his best love & kind wishes I was also to send a kiss from him Our people are all very well with the exception of Mrs A who is much as usual they all join me in warmest love to you and believe me
    To remain
    Your most Affectionate Bro
    Timothy Hackworth
    P. S. Love & Kisses to all your young friends. T. H.

  7. David Ware says:

    What a fun competition! And the Victorians weren’t the only ones to have practiced cross-writing; I remember doing this myself when composing air letters. One could cram an amazing amount of text onto an aerogramme form using this technique. As I recall, my punctuation suffered when writing this way, so a little charity toward young Mr. Hackworth’s glitches and pitches may be in order.

  8. Alison Kay, Project Archivist says:

    Here is the NRM’s full transcript of the above…

    March 7th 1852

    My dear Jenny,

    I really do not know how to begin to write to you as I am such a stupid block and to apologise for not doing so before seems absurd the fact of the case is that laziness & the antipathy I have to letter writing have prevented me doing so on paper although I have often written in mind.

    I have just had a walk on the spoil-bank for a few minutes it is becoming quite a place of attraction the men are now getting their gardens put into order and besides the Company have commenced making a reservoir on the top of the hill just opposite our works we hope they do not mean to drown us out of our place.

    It is such a splendid afternoon there are hundreds of people walking in the fields round our City, it quite reminds me of the London parks on Sunday. I felt rather lonely when out my self (Mr James being in the dales) so I determined to try and scribble a few lines to you.
    We are going on pretty comfortably at present having two engines in hand & expect to get another shortly. You would be astonished at the number of people that come to see the eng that is nearly finished for Mr Stobart, it is a tidy little thing.

    You will perhaps have heard us talking about Geo. Thompson putting down a little engine for Mr. S. for thrashing we expected to have got the job we gave them a price for erecting one for that purpose but Thompson got to Mr Stobart & persuaded him to have his – now they have got it put up and find it is too light for the work therefore they ordered one of ours to be made immediately we have nearly double the price for our Engine than we offered him in the first instance ain’t that stunning! There is quite a mania for our patent engines. Mr. Fletcher is wild about his he tells nearly everybody he meets with that it is the best engine in the world. I quite believe if we have a few more put down that we shall have plenty of work and go on charmingly. Lizzy this morning has recd. a letter from dear Pru. in which she says she wrote Mrs Boyle a fortnight ago, a note enclosed from Mrs Simpson informs us that Miss S. is engaged to Mr. J.G. Horton. Lizzy seems quite affected with the information.

    I can scarcely write a word for Jane Elizabeth & her Mama are hanging over me snuffing out of my box (which is on the table by me) & sneezing immoderately. The three younger ones are running about the garden all alive & kicking. I am just writing the copy of my letter on a piece of paper where Sam has been making his first attempts to copy a hymn out of the youth’s instructor which is quite alarming.

    Monday evening I have just come in to try to finish my note after doing some work for Messrs. Dunkett & Steads Loco Engine that their man was waiting for. I understand the young man at West Cottage has to be named after his papa what do you think to that.
    It strikes me all things are going on right up west the girl said last night that Mrs John had been downstairs but it is a bit of buisness I hardly understand. Fearing you will be tired of reading a note about nothing at all I must come to a conclusion but before doing so I must give you Sam’s message. I asked what message he had to send. He said I was to give you his best love and kind wishes. I was also to send a kiss from him. Our people are all very well with the exception of Mrs A who is as much as usual they all join me in warmest love to you and believe me,

    So remain

    Your most affectionate Bro.

    Timothy Hackworth.

    P.S Love and kisses to all your young friends of H.

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