|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
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
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
||Mary Cumming, by unknown American artist; IS" x 15", pastel
||The Rev. Andrew Craig, by Thomas
Robinson, 37" x 29", portrait in oil, approx. 1800.
Strawberry Hill. by W. J. Carey, 14" x 8", water colour, 1934.
||Lisburn from Strawberry Hill, by W. J.
Carey, 14" x 8", water colour, 1934.
and White Plates
||Facsimile extract from Mary Cumming's letter dated Petersburg, June 24,
||Map of the Cumming's Journey from New
York to Petersburg.
||Andrew Craig's grandfather clock. dial face, inscribed "John Heron,
Lisburn, No. 64."
||Sketch of Glasgow College, by Andrew
Craig. circa 1790 from the Ulster Journal of Archaeology. second series, Vol. XIV.
||The Musical Glasses,
purchased by Andrew Craigin 1812.
||Sampler, by Rachel Craig. I I" x 8". worked when she was eight
||Rachel Craig, silhouette 3�� x 2�� 1833 shortly before her marriage
to the Rev. C. .I. McAlester.
||The Rev. Charles James McAlester, by Frank
McKelvey, 27" x 22"
portrait in oil from a photograph.
||Mrs. Elizabeth McKisack, by R. S.
Praeger, 9" x 7", pastel
||Alexander Brown, from "A Hundred Years of Merchant Banking."
||Mrs. Alexander Brown, from "Heir of
||The Brown's old family home in Ballymena,
from "A Hundred Years of Merchant Banking."
||Alexander Brown and his Four Sons, from "Heir of Adventure."
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
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.
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
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