This Is What Being in Your Twenties Was Like in 18th-Century London

A newly restored collection of letters describes a 27-year-old’s office job, social life and financial concerns beginning in 1719

Dozens of 300-year-old letters that Ben Browne wrote to his father are now on display in England. National Trust

When Ben Browne was 27, he traded his small English town for the bustling streets of London to work as a law clerk. There, he led the typical life of a 20-something in a big city: His social life flourished, he fell in love and he was constantly stressed about money. Oh, and the year was 1719.

Some 65 letters that Browne sent to his father during this period are the focus of a new display at Townend, the historic Browne family home in Cumbria, England. Titled “Letters From London,” the exhibition sheds light on what life was like for a young person living in the city in the 18th century, offering vivid details about work, nightlife, romance and local gossip.

“These letters are so relatable, and they show nothing has really changed,” says Emma Wright, collections manager at Townend, in a statement from the National Trust.

In his handwritten letters, Browne described his new job training as a clerk to a lawyer, Richard Rowlandson. He complained about working long hours, copying legal documents from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. In one letter, he expressed frustration with his father’s decision to apprentice him to his employer for five years, rather than a shorter training period. “I have Lost the prime of my Youth,” he wrote.

Often, he asked his family for help, and “his concerns were not so different from those of today’s young people,” writes the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood. “Mainly: Please send money, everything is so expensive.”

Browne wrote that he needed money to pay rent—and to purchase stockings, breeches, wigs and other items he deemed necessary for his life in London. “Cloaths which [I] have now are but mean in Comparison [with] what they wear here,” he wrote in one letter.

Financial worries didn’t stop Browne from enjoying his time in the city. “Despite telling his father how short of cash he was, Browne maintained a lively social life, meeting friends and eating and drinking around Fleet Street, close to the Inns of Court,” per the Guardian.

According to the National Trust, Browne’s descriptions of his social life evoke the scenes captured by William Hogarth, the satirical artist famous for depicting “London’s bawdy, boozy side,” as BBC News’ Alastair Sooke wrote in 2015.

In one letter, Browne announced that he had married Mary Branch, his employer’s maid, after courting her in secret. He braced for a harsh response from his father, begging for his approval. Unfortunately, Browne only kept a few letters from his father, meaning most of his side of the correspondence was lost to time. 

However, based on the surviving letters, his father appears to have accepted his marriage to Mary. Soon after breaking the news, Browne wrote in a follow-up letter that he “shall ever acknowledge the many and endearing kindnesses and affectionate advices by me rec’d from so indulgent and affectionate father and mother.”

Browne’s letters also offer evocative depictions of 18th-century London. Soon after he arrived in the city, he wrote to his father about a “very great mobbing by the weavers of this town” who were “starved for want of trade.” He was referring to the violent protests led by Spitalfields silk weavers against imports of calico from India, which they said reduced demand for their products.

Although Browne offered up many details about his life in his letters, he didn’t tell his family everything. One aspect of his life that he hid from his father was his passion for buying books, a considerable expenditure. Scholars only learned of Browne’s collecting after discovering numerous books in the Townend library that were purchased, dated and annotated in his hand during the years he was in London. The titles included romances, novels and Shakespeare plays—“not what might be expected of a lawyer’s clerk,” writes the National Trust. Researchers don’t know how Browne, for all his lamenting about being broke, was able to afford them.

In the 19th century, George Browne, a descendant of the family, bound the letters in leather. Book conservator Ann-Marie Miller repaired the fragile missives before they went on display last month.

“It has been a pleasure to tread the same steps as George Browne, as I have charted, and then reconstructed, his work as a bookbinder,” says Miller in the statement. “He took a great deal of care to preserve the correspondence between father and son, and I have tried to honor his intentions. I feel as if I have also got to know young Ben, with his solicitous turn of phrase and the flourish of his handwriting.”

Letters From London” is on view at Townend in Cumbria, England, through November 1.

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