Harriett Dench: in Memoriam

First extant letter from Harriott to William Pamplin Sen. who was working for Richard Crawshay at Cyfathfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil. Dated September 1792

Harriott or Harriett Dench was the grandmother of Thomas Ruddy’s second wife, Frances Harriet neé Williams. When papers were passed down first through the Pamplin family, and then through the Ruddy family, they finally arrived literally at my door, when I became Executor to Denys, the last surviving member of Thomas Ruddy’s second family with Frances Harriet. Her letters, which commence in September 1792 were some of the oldest items in the trunk of family journals, letters and memorabilia. They detail the relationship between Harriett (1774-1837) and William Pamplin (1768 – 1844) during their long-distance courtship and engagement.

Harriett lived with her mother Sarah and father John Dench (1748-1798) and elder sister Elizabeth in Walthamstow. Her future husband William also born in Walthamstow was by the time the letters were written working as Gardener to the Ironmaster Richard Crawshay in his increasingly industrialised works. Distance strained the relationship between the couple, as the first two letters indicate. The first – outside posting surface displayed above – (none of the letters has those latecomers to the postal service an envelope or stamp) is sharp in tone as Harriett has obviously been charged with displaying affection for another. That first letter written in September 1792 was nevertheless kept by William, and evidence shows how much handling it received from him.

It was not until February 1793 that Harriett wrote again to William. She goes into details about her acquaintance with the supposed suitor, whom she refers to as ‘that Gentleman’ Her letter reads like an extract from a Jane Austen novel, but this was real life. All the capitals are Harriett’s own.

I really did repent writing to you and joined with a little natural impatience I had almost given over the thoughts of an answer to my letter but as I wish to be candid and inform you of all my acquaintance with that Gentleman alluded to in your letter You must summon all your Patience to your Aid to hear the tiresome Story. I went to a Dance at Money’s. Mr . Stock was dancing with me, Mrs Hedge with that Alan who was an Acquaintance of hers. He called a dance which Mrs Hedge was ignorant of and it was agreed by all parties to change partners. It was agreeable to me as he danced very well. And we danced the rest of the evening together. He called the next day and in about a Month after he came down to see Mrs Hedge. She happened to be out and he drank tea at our house that evening you were there since which time I have never seen him. He behaved in a very polite manner but no more that ever I observed nor till I received your last letter had I the most distant idea of the kind.

That there are those capable of such an Untruth is plain from the above now as you are Credibly informed it is but a reasonable request that you will with inform me who told you this. I hope it will be complied with for my satisfaction.

Despite the sharp words, Harriett concludes Yours Affectionately H. Dench. And so the correspondence continues, with 24 more letters from Harriet over the years until their marriage in February 1801.

William and Harriett met only once or twice during those years. Harriett visited William in Wales once, but their wedding arrangements were conducted by letter. Richard Crawshay kept William hard at work during his employment, and several times a visit to London by William was apparently prevented by Crawshay’s demands on his time.

During his work there, William produced two pencil sketches of Crawshay’s works, which are now given pride of place in Merthyr’s Cyfarfa Castle Museum, having been donated from the Ruddy papers in the 1930’s.

Cyfathfa Works and Water wheel by William Pamplin. The only extant depiction of the mechanism

I suspect the drawings were intended for Harriett as a Christmas gift, as her letter of December 30th 1799 indicates: I fear you have been that much trouble and Expense to procure those things you have sent to me, for which be assured I feel myself very much obliged to you. I think them all very Handsome, particularly the Inkstand. The drawings I must acknowledge I am sorry to lose, had I been fortunate enough to receive I should have prized them very much, as it is I can only wonder how a man of Mr. Crawshay’s rank in Life can behave so much unlike a Gentleman. Crawshay may have been worried about industrial espionage, as the wheel was famous and unique.

By December of the following year, William had left Crawshay and taken a post as Gardener at Royal Fort House in Bristol. It seems that there was an intention for the couple to marry and live in Bristol. Harriett writes: My Determination I trust you will not at this time expect, the house when you wrote to me not being furnished, will take some time and I hope you will have the goodness not to hurry me too much in an affair which I feel is of so much consequence to us both. I am glad to hear the house is a good one, will you inform me if Linen is allowed for its use.

However, by June of that year plans had changed, and William had decided to return to London, where he would set up in his own Nursery in Chelsea, then a small village just outside London. Harriett was not convinced: The frequent mention you have made of your intention to settle near London has prevented me from entertaining a thought to the contrary, and I found myself equally concerned and surprised at the change which has taken place in your determination. It appears giving up too much of the comfort of life for the prospect of getting forward. Tho’ I am not obstinately attached to any place, yet to what factors which will deprive me of the Society of every friend (Yourself excepted) it would be very far from being pleasant or even comfortable to me, but as it is your wish I should be sincerely glad to think other ways of it.

William Pamplin’s business card. Note the offer of fashionable Pineapple plants.

Despite the chilliness of Harriett’s letter, it seems that by December 1800 the relationship had grown, although William was not a regular correspondent: … as nothing particular appears to have prevented you, it occasioned much alarm to your Friends, they with myself began to think you were unwell. Tellingly, however, Harriett’s final greeting changes at this point from ‘Yours affectionately’ to ‘Most affectionately Yrs.’ it seems Harriet had decided to link her life to her absent, hard-working but sometimes negligent suitor.

The marriage between William and Harriett would be arranged via letters, he in Bristol, she in Walthamstow. It seems that William had stepped up the frequency of his letters, and Harriet had got down to practicalities! Your Letter was so quick a return that I was indeed much surprised by it. Respecting the Furniture you propose to buy I can have no Objection to. The Bed it will be necessary to have someone with you who understands buying unless you can depend on those who sells as there is great deception in things of this kind. My mother will give me a pair of good Sheets and Blankets which I think will be as much as we shall want for the present.

This long distance approach to marriage caused some tension, both as to when the event might take place and in particular with the purchase of that ‘Bed’. Freud would have something to say. On January 17th, 1801, Harriett’s tone is tense: The request in my last was, that if the time I proposed there, was any material difference to you I should wish an answer by return of Post. As you did not write I suppose it would not interfere with any Business which you were engaged in. Excuse me therefore from consenting to your coming sooner than the last week in February. I feel assured I shall not be thought unreasonable, the Bed, I think it will be much better to purchase when I come, for what you have bought no doubt you must be much better Judge. Poor Harriett, like so many before and since, Bridezilla has taken over!

Tension continues on the 19th January, Harriett having received a letter from William later in the same day that she sent her letter. Although there is some regret at having sent her snappy letter, the ‘Bed’ remains an issue: Our friends all think it will be most advisable to buy a Bed at Bristol … on this account I write early as I can that you may have the opportunity of asking the Upholsterer’s advice on it and getting him to go with you when you buy.

By the 30th January, the Bed issue is on hold: I think you had better not trouble yourself further about it at present, as we can put up with what you have till I come and can get one. However, a new issue is the length of time William will stay in London after their marriage, before returning to work in Bristol – without Harriett: I should be very sorry if you thought you could not stop week when you do come as remember that you proposed the Time Yourself and as I found it would be of no use to complain reconciled myself to it but you will now give me fresh cause if you don’t keep Yr Word with me. She does assure him of her love: My Dear Friend, I remain Most Affectionately Yours H. Dench.

St George, Hanover Square

Despite all issues, and with the date of William’s departure still an issue: I was extremely sorry to find that you think to set off for Bristol so soon in the week as Thursday , William and Harriett were married at the fashionable St George, Hanover Square on the 23rd February 1801. They were not in fact parishioners, but used the address of Harriett’s aunt as a convenient residency. This was useful, as the marriage appears to have taken place on the very day of William’s arrival from Bristol by coach: Our friends all think the time will be so very short it will be better for me to meet you in Ranelagh Street the day you propose coming to London I imagine you have not wish to ask anyone but your father who with Robert [her brother] could come to London early Monday morning.

In the same letter The Bed I think you had better buy at Bristol. Hope you will be careful to have it well aired before you sleep on it.

One more letter remains from Harriett to William. Written in October 1801, three months after their marriage, it finds William still in Bristol, while Harriett is in Kings Road Chelsea working on their new project together, the Nursery whose business card is shown above. Her spirit demonstrated in the earlier letters made her a determined project manager.

Mr Gibbs called on me the beginning of the week with the bricklayer they looked over the repairs and Mr G valued the bedsteads, sent a man to repair the Tiling which he finished before the afternoon and left. Mr G promised to send his men to begin which he has not done nor sent those Locks for the Gates which I mentioned to him but I will call on him tomorrow or the beginning of next week and tell him what you have said of it. Lenny has housed all the Green House plants. He is very steady and indeed very obliging to us.

Harriett and William went on to have five children, Harriet in 1803, Sarah in 1804, William in 1806, Frances in 1808 and Robert in 1811. William became a noted botanist and botanical bookseller, first in Chelsea, and later moving to Llandderfel, Wales, where he met and befriended Thomas Ruddy.

William Pamplin, son of William and Harriett, in old age.

Through William Pamplin, Thomas Ruddy met and married William’s nice, Frances Harriet Williams, daughter of William’s sister Frances. Their family preserved the letters and the last of their descendants in the line handed them on to me.

In due course the village outside London, where William from time to time saw King George III ride past on his horse, was developed and William and his family moved to Lavender Hill. The information contained with the papers is now in the care of the Garden Museum.

And there it would have ended, until fresh material became available on line, adding a final and devastating chapter to Harriett’s story. This was the publication of the written records of Bethlehem Hospital – ‘Bedlam’.

Feisty, patient, practical and loving Harriett ended her days in that dreaded and pitiful place, having been admitted several times.

Transcription: Harriet Pamplin Admitted June 26th 183[?]. At 61 A married Woman. ( See Curable Patents Books) Left this hospital on the 10th of October 1834 as has been out at Mrs. Bradbury’s Earls Court latterly. At present in a very excited state occasionally refusing her food and obliged to be fed with the Stomach Pump. Oh Harriet!

1837, August 9th died of Exhaustion after great Cerebral Excitement and the refusal of food. The body was not Examined Anatomically.

Poor, poor Harriett and William. I have lived with them through the letters for 15 years as I have transcribed and researched the related papers. She is not my ancestor, but I feel I love her and honour her life, and mourn her sad last years. So it was with enormous pleasure that I recently entrusted her letters to the Garden Museum, where her husband’s journals and business card are now preserved. You may have died in Bedlam, Harriett, but your life is not forgotten.