What an Englishwoman’s Letters Tell About Life in Britain during the American Revolution | Story
“My whole soul … is busy waiting for more from you, and although I am told that I must not be surprised if he does not arrive these ten days, I cannot help but jump. every time I hear the bell at the door, or the door open.
These lines, written a month after the United States declared independence from Great Britain, recall the letters Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, while he was in the Continental Congress. Between 1774 and 1777, the couple exchanged more than 300 celebrated letters for their poignant blend of war and politics with domestic concerns and sincere dedication.
Yet the above words came from the pen of Englishwoman Jane Strachey, who was separated from her husband by 3,000 miles of ocean. In August 1776, English MP Henry Strachey was at the epicenter of the looming confrontation between the British and American armies in New York, serving on the administrative staff of Admiral Richard Lord Howe and General William Howe.
Jane’s letters, composed between 1776 and 1778, are buried in the Strachey family papers at the Somerset Archives in England. A private correspondence from a middle-class English bride, they were virtually ignored by historians of the Home Front in Britain during the American Revolution. Yet they open a unique window into the experience of ordinary British women. And their intimate tone, everyday details, and authentic chronicle of the events of the war offer a fascinating parallel to Adams’ letters.
Henry, like John, was on a political mission: he was Richard’s secretary as peace commissioner, a last-ditch effort by the British government to replace fighting in America with talks. Jane, like many women on both sides of the conflict, took sole responsibility for her family and home as she endured the prolonged wait for news in an age of wooden ships and horse-drawn communication.
Jane said goodbye to her husband in May 1776, when he left for America with Richard and his fleet. “I saw your concern to leave me, me and your poor little ones,” she wrote a few days later, in the first of her many letters.
In the months that followed, Jane and the rest of the nation waited for news of a battle between British and American troops. The British press has heightened public fears by publishing exaggerated reports on US preparations to defend New York. The Battle of Bunker Hill a year earlier had shocked the British people, as American snipers massacred the troops in red tunics attacking the hill above Boston; now the fear of another bloody encounter was widespread.
On August 9, unaware that the Battle of Brooklyn was only a few weeks away, Jane confessed to Henry: America to help in negotiations with rival leaders. “[A]And yet I can only shudder when I read the story of the enemy’s prodigious armament.
Like most Britons, Jane had little understanding of the abstract rights arguments that had sparked the settler rebellion. She wrote in bewilderment about the “ambitious and restless spirit of Americans” which destroyed “the domestic tranquility of many happy families” in the British Isles. Yet Americans were a related people. With characteristic gentleness, she concluded, “How much more will you say they got hurt?” I am not mean, I only wish them peace, and that my dear Harry may appear soon with the good news.
Jane was convinced that her husband had embarked on a humanitarian mission. She believed that the British war machine that had transported her to New York was not meant to despair the Americans, but to force them to sit down at the negotiating table. The work of the peace commissioners could not begin until the rebel settlers stopped challenging the right of the British Parliament to tax them.
At home in the London suburb of Greenwich, Jane found herself isolated with her children. Even the youngest Strachey understood his father’s mission. Edward, three, galloped around the house on his recreation home shouting, “Make peace in America!” Charlotte, 6, betrayed a sense of abandonment when she asked her mother if her father had any other children in America. The middle child, Harry, approached a strange British officer in a park, innocently asking for news of his father.
Jane was fortunate to have a comfortable house with a large garden at a time when the British government gave no support to the families of poor men serving overseas. (The wives of privates had to apply for parish help.) Like Abigail Adams, Jane was forced to take on unusual responsibilities: financial decisions, maintenance of property, management of household staff. His mother, who was seriously ill, could not help him. Fortunately, Jane soon found herself drawn into a support network of families of British men serving in America. The wives of officials working in government offices in Whitehall helped her with her young children, and social gatherings were frequent.
The war broke down some social barriers, when Howe’s aristocratic women joined this London network of families of men serving overseas. Jane exchanged visits with Richard’s wife, Lady Mary Howe, and put on a musical evening that included both Mary and other Howe women. As the wait for the news from New York dragged on, William’s wife Fanny, too young to be a seasoned army wife, became visibly uncomfortable. But Jane was impressed with Mary, who coped with the stress by focusing on domestic responsibilities. Mary has denied the contemporary stereotype that aristocratic women are frivolous and indulgent to themselves, devoting themselves to her three daughters and the management of her country estate, where Jane and her daughter, Charlotte, were frequent guests.
The Howe brothers and their army captured New York without the dreaded bloodbath, and the fall of 1776 saw a succession of British victories. But the war did not end, and in a brief meeting held on Staten Island in September, John Adams and two other congressional delegates rejected the meager terms of the Peace Commission.
Jane now realized that no end was in sight for her separation from Henry. At Christmas 1776, in a moment of insecurity and sadness, she wrote to him: “I’m getting old, as you won’t want a pair of glasses to find out when you come back, you might as well drop the subject. She dreamed that she had been transported to New York, only to find out that Henry had been stationed hundreds of miles away. “This mortification caused such distress that it woke me up.” Henry’s letters, each opened with a “shaking hand,” became his lifeline.
When Jane found out that her average status meant that she had received letters from Henry days after the wives of high-ranking officers, a sympathetic Mary intervened. His lordship asked Richard and Henry to report on each other’s health in every letter home. The two wives have now shared their news, sometimes shedding tears together in Mary’s stylish London living room as they sympathized with the long separation.
Jane’s loyalty to the Howe family was solicited when the British war effort began to falter in 1777. When it became clear that the Howe Command was not quelling the rebellion, criticism in the British press turned. multiplied. Fanny even found herself the victim of verbal violence in the public spaces of the British capital. In a storm of media-based character assassinations, William was pilloried as a decadent aristocrat hanging out with his mistress, Elizabeth Loring, in New York City.
No record of Fanny’s reaction to this rumor of her husband’s infidelity exists, but Strachey’s letters contain a personal account of Jane’s embarrassment as the subject was brought up in a West End living room. Feeling called to defend the family, she tries to appear indifferent and takes refuge in the double sexual standards of the time, affirming that a husband has the right to “console himself” when he is away from his wife. Still, she warned Henry, “[A]As not all brides are liberal in their feelings on these matters, it is worth telling you that such stories do not lose by the distance they are carried.
In the fall of 1778, the Howe brothers resigned their commandments and returned home. There they faced newspaper attacks and a parliamentary inquiry into their campaigns in America. The official investigation was inconclusive, but supporters of the war were angered by the Howe brothers’ insistence that it was impossible to win. Two political camps formed that lasted until the end of the war in 1783: one argued that another campaign would bring victory, while the other claimed the clash was a lost cause.
The Howe brothers retained their careers in the armed forces, but William never again commanded an army in combat. In contrast, Richard became a national hero when he defeated the French in the Glorious First of June of 1794, the first major naval battle of the French Revolutionary Wars. The Howe dynasty never fully survived the stigma of failure in America, and in 1800 Mary, then a widow at the end of her life, sadly wrote of the nation’s “bad conduct” towards her husband. But for Jane, the war did end in 1778, with her beloved Henry returned to his wife and children. The Stracheys continued to enjoy decades of married life.
All quotes are from letters by Jane Strachey in the Strachey Collection of the South West Heritage Trust Archives and Local Studies (SHC-DD / SH).
Adapted from The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind the British Wars for America by Julie Flavell. Copyright © 2021 by Julie Flavell. Available at Liveright.