Mary Cummin's

Letters home to Lisburn

Edited by Jimmy Irvine 1982



The Browns of Brown, Shipley and Company, Merchant Bankers of Liverpool and London.


William and Mary Cumming's travel companions across the Atlantic aboard the "Lydia" were William Brown of Liverpool and his wife. William was returning to Baltimore to report to his father, Alexander Brown, on trading conditions in England: and also to introduce to his parents his wife and baby daughter.

Alexander Brown was a Ballymena man. In his younger days he had built up there a thriving linen business. At first he auctioned locally made webs at the Linen Hall man Belfast, but later sold direct to the Liverpool and American markets. At the age of nineteen he married his cousin Grace Davison of Drumnasole, Co. Antrim, six years his senior. This partnership stood at the heart of his long and successful career. That he was able to send his four sons to boarding school in Yorkshire suggests that his Ballymena business was already doing well.

Then came the rising of 1798. Whether Alexander was actually implicated or not is uncertain, but like many another good North of Ireland Presbyterian, he decided thereafter to emigrate. This decision cannot have been taken lightly, for it meant leaving his three younger sons to complete their schooling in England while he and his wife, together with their eldest son William, then aged fifteen, started a new life in America. They settled in Baltimore, partly because they already had friends there. (Stewart, Alexander's younger brother was there, as was his sister-in law, Ann of Drummasole and her husband, Dr. George Brown - he was no blood relation). They took with them by way of initial stock an assortment of best Irish linens, three dozen mahogany chairs and four eight-day clocks. By the end of December 1800, Alexander Brown was again in business, this time in Baltimore.

When the boys' schooling was completed they rejoined their parents in America. Each entered the family business where, under the strict direction of his father, he learned the ropes. Soon the firm handled business in both directions across the Atlantic, much of it later in their own vessels. These carried chiefly cotton and tobacco and returned with Irish linen and manufactured goods. To manage the Lancashire end of the trade, William returned to England in 1808 and established himself in Liverpool as an independent trading house. Eventually his brothers also established themselves independently, James in New York, John in Philadelphia, while George remained in Baltimore to assist his father run the parent company there. This network of integrated independent units, always under the far-sighted direction of Alexander brown himself, was able to withstand the strain of the prolonged period of hostilities with France and the war between America and England of 1812-14. By the time Alexander died in 1834, he had become one of the wealthiest men in America; and he left to his sons a trading enterprise by which they too became immensely rich. Later they gave up trading goods and used their accumulated resources in the realm of merchant banking.

Immediately the war with America broke out in 1812 William Brown returned to England. When peace was declared two years later he was ready to ship over to America vast quantities of manufactured goods and to accept in return the amassed cargoes of cotton and tobacco his father and brothers had collected over there. His Liverpool firm grew rapidly into one of the strongest and most respected trading houses in the country. William entered public life first as a magistrate and alderman and then in 1846 as M.P. for South Lancashire. In 1860, at his own expense, he built Liverpool its museum. Two years later he was created baronet and the following year he as High Sheriff. In 1864 he died, aged 79, and was laid to rest beside his wife in St. James' cemetery, Liverpool.

A Cross Section of the Southern Appalachians, Virginia

Click for larger Image


Petersburg lies on the North American East Coast Fall Line. This is a narrow belt of comparatively steep gradient which separates the gently sloping Appalachian Piedmont from the almost horizontal Coastal Plain. The Fall Line marks the limit of navigation of all eastward flowing rivers and also provides water power. Thus it became marked by a chain of towns as far from the sea as vessels could sail and where water power was available to start their industries. Along its northern section much of the Coastal Plain is 'drowned' so that the Fall Line towns there are sea ports. e.g. New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Further south the inland capitals of all the coastal states as far as Alabama (except Georgia) stand on the Line. So Petersburg, situated immediately down stream of the Falls of the Appomattox River, stands as a natural nodal point of considerable importance.

The site had its disadvantages, however. Owing to the lowness of the ground on either bank and the almost complete lack of gradient on the Coastal Plain, the area was subject to flooding and the river below the Falls was in an almost stagnant condition which caused fevers of every kind.





On hearing of Mary Cumming's death, Henderson Wightman wrote from Genoa on 1st January, 1816, to his sister Nancy in Lisburn. See Letter No. 15 footnote 1. He said: "It is with infinite regret that I heard of poor Mrs. Cumming's death. Most amiable she was, and one of our earliest acquaintances, both sufficient to make us deplore her loss. I was particularly touched by her untimely fate . . . "

And in his next letter dated Malta, 11th July, 1816, he wrote:

"On the other side I send a copy of verses I wrote tributary to the death of Mrs. Cumming one of our earliest friends on whose virtues I need not expatiate. Being devoted to her you loved, I am convinced they will be acceptable to you, though they may recall some sad sensation."

Elegy on the death of Mrs. Cumming  

Sad was the Bark across the Atlantic borne,
In plaintive dirges sighted the Western Gale,
Which bade the flood of weeping friendship mourn
The tidings Mary, of thy hapless tale.

Alas! Whoever thy matchless worth had known
But would its loss thus premature deplore.
What breast ungirt with adamantine zone,
Would not be bleeding in its inmost core? 

What ear, once by the lively converse blest,
Which from the tidings would not shrink away?
What eye, that saw thee in youth's roseate vest,
Would not embalm with tears thy lifeless clay?

Thou in thy native soil to thee denied
Mid friends beloved to seal thy early doom,
Although Columbia's zephyrs o'er thee glide
And strangers' footsteps pass the unknown tomb. 

Yet be thy Requiem sung by one who trode
With thee thy darling haunts, thy native bowers,
When lightly tripping o'er the verdant sod
In bloom of youth you plucked its sweetest flowers. 

Nor may it aught displease thy sainted shade
Which from the scenes its heavenward flight has sped
If friendship, in the muse's garb arrayed
Strew flowers of Cypress o'er thy earthly bed. 

No, none of Erin's daughters ever owned
A soul more pure, with righter virtues fraught,
Beaming in looks, where mingled sat enthroned
The dew of feeling and the ray of thought. 

How every act, creative of delight
Showed as therein, some Grace its magic wore
Her heart, an open temple where the sight
Could nature's image silently adore. 

Forth from that elegant and cultured mind
How did intelligence its radiance shoot!
Within that bosom sympathizing, kind,
Each soft affection intertwine its root. 

Such were the virtues which with artless charm
Did her parental mansion so illume
Diffusing Joy. Ah! How could Fate e'er harm
And blast a flower that breathed such sweet perfume? 

And from that home when torn with struggling pain
New duties led her o'er the Atlantic tide,
Her heart to wide extent of billowy main
Could e'er a moment from its friends divide. 

To them and her husband still devote
Her thoughts n'er wandered but to seek the skies.
At last the unwonted clime her soft frame smote
Severing with baleful breath those earthly ties. 

But yet by virtue's powerful arm sustained
Mary, undaunted, eyed the coming blow,
Whilst calm religion at her couch remained
And dried the tears affection bade to flow. 

Then when as if with angel hand she traced
The words that told her friends the last adieu,
And their eternal weal their prayers embraced
Which fervent from her quivering pale lips flew. 

Those parting moments, so serene, so mild,
The dawning of eternal bliss might seem
On her pale features resignation smiled
And her last look reflected Hope's bright gleam. 

Thus on the bosom of a crystal fount
In trembling line the lambent sunbeams play
And thus exhaled its drops pellucid mount
And point to Heaven's blue vault their liquid way. 

(Alluding to her parting letters to her friends)

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There was a Derry-owned vessel, the "Mary Cumming," but it is not known if she was called after Mary Cumming of these letters. She was snow-rigged, 237 registered tons, built in Prince Edward Island, and owned by Crompton, McKye and Alexander of Londonderry between 1833 and 1836. In 1833-34 her master was Musgrave Wilkinson and she was employed in the Quebec trade. She was sold in 1836 to Newcastle owners. She was not one of Alexander Brown's ships

(The 'snow' rig differed little from the orthodox brig except that the after fore and aft sail or driver was lowered on to the boom by means of mast-rings sliding on the thin spar set up on the after side of the main-mast.") Details extracted from "The Maiden City and The Western Ocean," by Sholto Cooke.

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Akerson, D. H. and Crawford, W. H. `James Orr, Bard of Ballycarry; 1977.

Ballymena Observer, `Old Ballymena; 1857.

Brown, John Crosby. `A Hundred Years of Merchant Banking,' 1909.

Cooke, Sholto. 'The Maiden City and the Western Ocean,' 1957.

Craig, Andrew. `An Autobiographical Sketch,' Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Second Series, Vol. XIV.

Craig, Rachel. 'Diary,' private collection, 1814.

Cumming, Mary. Original Letters, 1811-1815, private collection.

Transcript copy - P.R.O.N.I. T2757.

Dickson, Charles. 'Revolt in the North,' 1960.

Dubourdieu, John. 'Statistical Survey of the County of Antrim,' 1812.

Ellis, Aytoun.'Heir of Adventure, the Story of Brown, Shipley and Company, Merchant Bankers, 1810-1860,' 1960.

Kent, Frank R. `The Story of Alex. Brown and Sons, 18001975.

Lawlor, H. C. 'Fibre and Fabrics,' September and October issues, 1941    -

McCully, James.'Letters by a Farmer,' originally published in the Belfast Evening Post, 1787.

McSkimin, Samuel. 'Annals of Ulster, 1790-1798,' 1906.

Reid, J. S. 'History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland,' 1867.

Scott, James G. and Wyatt, Edward A. 'Petersburg's Story,' 1960.

Wightman, Henderson T. Letters of P.R.O.N.I. T1475/27. (P.R.O.N.I - Public Record Office of Northern Ireland)

Mary Cumming's Letters, the originals - private collection typescript copy - P.R.O.N.I. T2757.

Henderson Wightman Letters, P.R.O.N.I. T1475/27

Diary (January to March, 1814) by Rachel Craig - private collection.

An Autobiographical Sketch by Andrew Craig, 1754 -1833 Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Second Series, Vol. XIV.


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