1 Introduction

Irregular Correspondence is a collection of 192 letters, mainly written in the ten years from 1855 by the three eldest sons of John and Eliza Laurie, to their parents.  The letters have been transcribed and reassembled, primarily for the benefit of interested family members.

The earliest surviving letter was written by the youngest of the three brothers, Julius, about to embark from Liverpool, initially destined for Malta.  He was a 15 year old Ensign and very excited at the prospect of action in the Crimea where he also hoped to join his two elder brothers John, 19, a Lieutenant in 4th Regiment of Foot and Peter, 17, a civilian on board a merchant vessel.

Julius duly arrived in the Crimea but within a month was severely wounded in the thigh on what turned out to be the last day of serious fighting.  Despite infection, he recovered sufficiently to be shipped home via the hospital in Scutari, Turkey, made famous by Florence Nightingale.

After a period at home, all three brothers set off again in 1857.  John embarked with his regiment from Dublin to Mauritius; Peter from Dartmouth, again on a merchant vessel, this time bound for Calcutta, Shanghai and Hong Kong.  Julius sailed from Southampton in hot pursuit of his regiment, 34th Regiment of Foot, which had earlier been rushed to India in response to reports of mutiny and atrocity, and rejoined them near Cawnpore, immediately before the final recapture of Lucknow.

While Julius reported the progress of the actions against bands of rebels in a matter of fact style, Peter wrote home with more florid descriptions of his experiences of Shanghai and Hong Kong.  Peter secured employment as an agent for Jardine Matheson & Co, based in Hong Kong, at an early stage in the colony’s development.  Pirates, cholera and untrustworthy servants were just some of the hazards he faced.

As Peter settled himself into the life of a China merchant, Julius mopped up rebel forces in northern India and Nepal.  In April 1859 he was with his regiment near Cawnpore when he and Private Richardson were confronted by six rebels.  Private Richardson was shot and wounded, but between them they killed five of the rebels and the sixth fled.   Private Richardson was awarded the Victoria Cross.

As order was gradually restored in India, Julius had more leisure time to spend on his favourite pastime, pig-sticking, and he impatiently waited for promotion to Captain.  This was finally achieved by purchase with his father’s help, in 1861.

John, whose letters from the Crimea, Mauritius and India are missing, took a military appointment in Nova Scotia, Canada.  This period is covered by a transcript of his diary.  While in Halifax he met and fell in love with Frances Collins, the youngest daughter of a respected local family.  He received his parents’ blessing to marry her, but Frances’ elderly father was harder to convince.  However, with her sisters’ support he was finally won over.  Sadly, John’s own father was too old, and the journey too arduous, for him and John’s mother to be present at the wedding.  His father died the following year without ever having met his first daughter-in-law.

The letters were written at a time of remarkable technological progress.  Sail was rapidly giving way to steam power; explosive shells were replacing solid shot.  Photography, electric telegraph, railways and khaki uniforms had all recently been introduced and were becoming more widely available.

The British Empire was approaching its zenith.  Britain had initiated the industrial revolution and led the world in establishing sound financial and commercial structures.  She now had the most powerful naval and merchant fleets and army, at a period in history when large regions of the world were relatively undeveloped and British imperialism was not seen – at least at home – as anything but positive.

In these letters, the three correspondents reveal their individual characters.  John’s fourteen surviving letters from this period show him to be serious minded and reliable.  He went to Nova Scotia to command the militia in that province, serving in the North West Rebellion of 1885 and being appointed Lieutenant General in 1887.  He became an MP for Shelburne in the Canadian House of Commons (1887-1891) and for Pembroke and Haverfordwest in the British House of Commons (1895-1905).  He and his wife Frances produced eight children, of whom four married and had children of their own.

Peter was more flamboyant and artistic.  His letters are full of literary references and he clearly enjoyed writing for the sake of it.  It is not clear quite why he was on board the Tynemouth in the Crimea, other than she was owned by Mr William Lindsay MP, who was probably a friend of his father, and in whose London office Peter had briefly worked.  He does not appear to have had any responsibilities on board, or much idea of the duration of the voyage, and consequently suffered the winter weather without appropriate clothing. 

His second voyage, to the Far East, was evidently aimed at finding work in which, despite early setbacks, he was finally successful.  He remained in China for thirteen years during which time he married Emily Smale, with whom he had five children.  He came home to England in 1871, returning East the next year to represent Jardines in Foochow, where he was Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce.  He finally retired to Essex in 1876 at the age of 38.

Julius was steady and ambitious.  His time line on page in 8 Appendix.7 shows that his first wife, Beatrice Northall-Laurie, died in India leaving him with an eight year old daughter.  Much later, aged 66, towards the end of a full and successful life, he married The Hon. Gwen Molesworth and, no doubt to his surprise as well as delight, they produced a son – the Editor’s father.