Mary Cummin's

Letters home to Lisburn

Edited by Jimmy Irvine 1982





from America
1811 - 1815

  Edited by Jimmy Irvine

 � Jimmy Irvine 1982

Published by Impact-Amergin, Stone Row, Coleraine. N. Ireland






Mary Cumming

Mary Cumming's father was the Rev. Andrew Craig, minister of Lisburn Presbyterian Church from 1782-1824. The family lived at Strawberry Hill just outside the town. In 1811, when only twenty, Mary married and emigrated to America with William Cumming of Armagh, a cotton merchant in Petersburg, Virginia, who acted as agent for a Baltimore trading house founded by his kinsman Alexander Brown, formerly of Ballymena.

Mary's letters home described the horrors of the Atlantic crossing to New York, the delights of the journey south along the eastern seaboard by steamboat or coach through brilliant autumn forests, the welcome by her husband's negro household - she could not bear to call them slaves, the whirl of social life, the spacious lifestyle adopted by the many Irish immigrants she met - some of them friends of her father before the '98 and the fervour created by the war of 1812 against the British. The letters reveal an emotional conflict between Mary's devotion to her husband and an aching homesickness, only mollified by his promise to return to Ireland within a few years.

However, a shadow fell across Mary's life. Her baby died, and she became desperately ill. When war broke out with Britain her hopes of an early return home were dashed. In 1814 William was eventually able to plan their return for the following spring; but Mary knew she would not live to see it, and on her death-bed wrote farewell letters which make poignant reading.







  Goto Top

1. Genealogical Tables
1. Craig, McAlester and McKisack Families
2.  Davidson and Brown Families.
3. The Cumming Family.
4. Dr. George Brown's Family. with Cumming's family Tree
2. The Browns of Brown, Shipley & Co
3. Note on the siting of Petersburg, Virginia.
4. Elegy by Henderson Wightman.
5. The "Mary Cumming."


  Goto Top


Coloured Plates

1. Mary Cumming, by unknown American artist; IS" x 15", pastel portrait, 1812.
2. The Rev. Andrew Craig, by Thomas Robinson, 37" x 29", portrait in oil, approx. 1800.
3.   Strawberry Hill. by W. J. Carey, 14" x 8", water colour, 1934.
4. Lisburn from Strawberry Hill, by W. J. Carey, 14" x 8", water colour, 1934.

 Black and White Plates

5. Facsimile extract from Mary Cumming's letter dated Petersburg, June 24, 1812
6. Map of the Cumming's Journey from New York to Petersburg.
7. Andrew Craig's grandfather clock. dial face, inscribed "John Heron, Lisburn, No. 64."
8. Sketch of Glasgow College, by Andrew Craig. circa 1790 from the Ulster Journal of Archaeology. second series, Vol. XIV.
9. The Musical Glasses, purchased by Andrew Craigin 1812.
10. Sampler, by Rachel Craig. I I" x 8". worked when she was eight years old.
11. Rachel Craig, silhouette 3�� x 2�� 1833 shortly before her marriage to the Rev. C. .I. McAlester.
12. The Rev. Charles James McAlester, by Frank McKelvey, 27" x 22" portrait in oil from a photograph.
13. Mrs. Elizabeth McKisack, by R. S. Praeger, 9" x 7", pastel portrait, 1908.
14. Alexander Brown, from "A Hundred Years of Merchant Banking."
15. Mrs. Alexander Brown, from "Heir of Adventure."
16. The Brown's old family home in Ballymena, from "A Hundred Years of Merchant Banking."
17. Alexander Brown and his Four Sons, from "Heir of Adventure."

Goto Top  



Some years before the idea of publishing these letters occurred to me, Mrs. Margaret Garner of Helen's Bay, completed an exhaustive research based on their typescript copies in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. She also visited Petersburg, Virginia, and discovered there much local detail which at once confirmed and enlarged upon her previous work. Without hesitation she kindly gave me the use of all her material, from which much of the information contained in my Notes is directly taken. I sincerely thank her for her generosity.

I thank Mr. Brian Trainor for initiating the restoration of the Letters and Mr. Harry Baillie for so skilfully executing their repair that it is now possible to handle and inspect them without fear of doing damage.

And I wish to thank Mr. J. R. Bone who, on behalf of Brown, Shipley and Co. Ltd., gave permission to reproduce two illustrations from Aytoun Ellis's book "Heir of Adventure." Also Arno Press Inc. for permission to reproduce two illustrations from their reprint (1978) of "A Hundred Years of Merchant Banking" by John Crosby Brown.

Also Lisburn Museum and the curator Mr. Brian Mackey for assistance with photographic work.

Finally I thank Mrs. Nora Hanna of Holywood and various members of my family for their many helpful suggestions regarding the presentation of this fascinating collection of letters.

Goto Top   


  The collection consists of some thirty letters written home from America between 1811 and 1815 by the newly married Mary Cumming, most of them to her sister Margaret Craig. Their father, the Rev. Andrew Craig, was Presbyterian minister in Lisburn, Co. Antrim, from 1782 till 1824. At first he lodged with John Wightman in Lisburn, but in 1785 he took up a bachelor's residence at Strawberry Hill, a property just outside the town. Two years later he married Mary, daughter of James and Margaret McCully, of Ballyhaft near Newtownards. They had six children, of whom Margaret, Mary, James and Rachel reached maturity. After their mother's untimely death in 1807, the children grew up at Strawberry Hill as a devoted and closely-knit family, with Margaret filling in the vacant gap as best she could.

Not yet twenty-one, Mary was the first to leave the family fold. On 8th August, 1811, she married William Cumming, formerly of Armagh, but then of Petersburg, Virginia. The service was conducted at Strawberry Hill by William's elder brother, the Rev. Thomas Cumming. William and his younger brother, James, had already emigrated to Petersburg where they acted as agents for their cousin Alex Brown of Baltimore. Earlier in the year, William had come home to visit his parents in Armagh, and it was immediately prior to his return to Petersburg that the wedding took place.

By the end of August the newly married couple were in Liverpool awaiting passage to New York. They eventually sailed on 28th September aboard the "Lydia," with William Brown and his wife and baby daughter as their unexpected travel companions. William Brown was the eldest son of the above Alex Brown and he later founded the famous banking house of Brown, Shipley and Co. of Liverpool. The voyage took forty-one days and is vividly depicted in Mary's letter of 8 November, 1811. 

Subsequent letters describe her new home, her black people - Mary could not bear to call them slaves, and her social life in Petersburg. Many of her friends there were of Co. Antrim origin, and there were frequent enquiries for relatives and friends left behind in the home country. The happy arrival of a baby daughter in May 1812, and her sad death four months later make first joyous and then poignant reading. There are references to the war with America in 1812 which disrupted letters to and from home and eventually delayed Mary's longed-for return to Ireland until it was too late.

  Petersburg lay in the fever infested North American east coastal plain, and Mary's health began to suffer. It became clear to her that she was going to die. Her farewell letters to her sisters and to her absent husband are moving in the extreme. She died in April 1815, not yet four years wed. William immediately sailed back alone to Ireland and visited Mary's father and sisters at Strawberry Hill. Within months of his return to Petersburg he too died, probably struck down by the same fatal fever that had claimed his wife.

  Mary's letters reveal a deep love for her native Ireland, for her childhood home and for her whole family. She counselled her younger brother James against too hastily entering into matrimony and on no account against their father's wishes. She inquired tenderly after the welfare of her younger sister Rachel, and for her childhood friends. The few letters to her father display a rare warmth of fifial affection. With her dear William she had been intensely happy, and to him she was always devoted and loyal. "If I ever offended you," she wrote, "forgive me for it; but alas, why need I say so? We were almost too happy with one another." Finally, as far as she was able, Mary gratefully acknowledged all the joys and riches of her short life to be the undeserved gifts of her Maker.

  After Mary Cumming's death, the letters she had sent home to Lisburn were gathered together and loosely folded into a soft paper cover. Only the two written on her death-bed to her sisters and her husband were held back by their recipients, and even then copies of these were inserted.

  On their father's death    in 1833, Mary's younger sister Rachel came into possession of the furniture and contents of Strawberry Hill, including the Letters. Two years later Rachel married the Rev. C. J. McAlester of Holywood, Co. Down, and took with her to their newly-built manse in Croft Road much of the old family furniture. There it remained till her husband's death in 1891. Her younger unmarried daughter, Miss Katherine Cumming McAlester, then took up residence in a neighbouring house, to which such pieces as there was room for were transferred. It was Miss McAlester who had the letters transcribed and the typescript sheets bound into book form. On her death in 1924 she left all to her niece, Miss Anne McKisack of Mount Pleasant, Belfast. She in turn made the typescript available to the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland where they are currently catalogued under Reference No. T 2757.

Miss McKisack died in 1962, leaving her residence and its contents to her nephew, the editor of the present publication. However, it was not till six years later that he first set eyes on the originals. To read their crumpled pages and discover an actual lock of Mary's hair wrapped in a scrap of faded linen and secured to the back of the cover by a rusty old pin was a moving experience.

The Letters' deteriorating condition was self evident. To handle their trounced and wrinkled pages was painful, in that doing so unavoidably caused them further damage. When Mr. Brian Trainor of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, saw their condition he very kindly offered to have them repaired and restored. This was done by first making good any torn or defective pages. Each was then soaked and covered, back and front, by a layer of very fine silk mesh, so fine that, though the paper within was completely enveloped, what was written on it could still easily be read. The restored sheets were then dried and pressed, and finally bound between hard boards. And so it has been possible to study the Letters at leisure and now make them more widely available.

  Goto Top