Christmas opening times

Over the Christmas period the Royal Observatory, National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark and Queen's House will be open as usual. We are closed to the public from 24-26 December. Plan your next visit

Our archives are full of amazing stories of love and loss. With Valentine's Day fast approaching, Tracey Weller looks at some of our touching love letters.

In June 1812, the wife of ordinary seaman James Whitworth received a letter from her husband rebuking her for not writing to him: ‘..you may be busy and have short little time to spare but my dear wife your time is your own and if you was to steal a few minutes to write only a few lines, you are not in any danger of being flogged as in the case with us poor mortals here.’ Whitworth’s complaint was that he never received letters from his wife, although we know from our archives that she received thirteen letters from him during his short career as a sailor.

Love token given by a lower deck sailor to his wife.
Love token given by a lower deck sailor to his wife.

Sending mail to and from ships was no easy matter during the Georgian period because there was no official postal system for the navy. The next ship heading back to England became the post box and sailors’ letters were carried to ports where they would then be posted in the normal way.

Once on the mainland, mail would eventually find its way to the intended recipient via coach and horses, the local inn and the payment of a one penny fee to receive the letter. Mail sent from land to ships also had an unduly difficult journey, with the added problem of trying to locate the ship, a moving entity, subject to last minute alterations to sailing instructions, as well as unforeseen involvement with enemy shipping.

A Sailor's Return in Peace
A Sailor's Return in Peace, circa 1798

Could Mrs Whitworth’s lack of letters be a result of the complications of the naval post, or perhaps she struggled to find the time to write to her husband with all the added responsibilities of being a single parent while he was at sea?

What we do know is that it wasn’t from a lack of love for her husband and, despite her silence on the epistolary front, our records show that she dramatically intervened to save her husband from a severe punishment. 

For Valentine's Day, we'll be sharing a fascinating selection of love letters at Love in the Archives