Suggested words

The story behind the picture: Deciphering a hand-written letter from 1936

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

This is a page from a letter written by Mrs Diana Magniac (nèe Macdonald) in 1936 to Mr Henry Roberts, curator of the Thomas-Stanford Museum, as Preston Manor was then called. When undertaking research using hand-written letters I am frequently faced with a deciphering challenge before I can get to the information I am seeking.

What does the letter say?

Reading historical letters takes some practice. You get better at it as you become familiar with the hand-writing of a particular individual. At first glance a letter like this appears as a mass of swirls and is tiring to the eye.

I have a scan of this letter as part of my research into Preston Manor’s haunted history. It is pertinent to ghosts because it is a reply to a letter written by Mr Roberts although we don’t have a copy of that one. He must have asked Diana’s permission to quote her regarding her experience seeing ghosts at Preston Manor.

The letter covers other matters as well and reads

Letter by Diana Magniac 1936


“Dear Mr Roberts, I am glad Margaret is recovering but I am so sorry she has had so much pain. Yes of course you may quote me in your article about the Preston ghost, and my sister also, but may I first have a short draft of text for…”

I think that last word is ‘text’. It may not be but the word fits Diana’s request.

Margaret was the wife of Mr Henry Roberts. She suffered frequent bouts of ill-health and would eventually die suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in the family apartments at Preston Manor eleven years on in 1947.

Letter-writing tools

The original letter exists in an archive at Preston Manor. The pale cream-coloured paper measures about 6 x 8 inches, in imperial not metric measurements, as we are thinking about the pre-metric days of the 1930s.

Born in 1866 Diana Macdonald grew up at Preston Manor with her twin, Lily. They were home-schooled by a governess, learning to write first with pencil then graduating to a dip-into-ink pen with a metal nib. By 1936, now aged 70, Diana was more likely using a fountain or reservoir pen. This device still retained the metal nib element of the older style pen but contained an additional small tubular rubber sac that could be filled with ink and so avoid dipping the nib into an ink-pot every few words. Enlarging and studying this letter shows it is without the tell-tale drips that even the most carefully correspondent rarely avoided when using the ink-dip type pen.

When my eye looks confusedly over the swirling looping words on hand-written letters I wonder if people at the time had the same response.  When opening this letter over the breakfast table when the first post arrived did Henry Roberts set it aside to tackle later? Perhaps when he was sitting in better light wearing his reading glasses? Or did he glance through the words interpreting Diana’s writing as rapidly as we would scan a modern-day message displayed on our screens?

The glamorous Diana

Diana Magniac whose glamorous 1895 portrait hangs today in pride of place in the entrance hall at Preston Manor knew Henry Roberts very well. Although he was a museum employee and she was a member of the grand family who’d donated Preston Manor to Brighton in 1932, they were good friends. The pair had known each other socially for many years. However letter writing etiquette of the day required them to address each other in a formal manner. Dear Mr Roberts not Dear Henry and Dear Mrs Magniac not Dear Diana. In fact, they would have addressed each other so when meeting in person, such were the conventions of the time.

Diana was a widow in 1936 and living at 10 Cumberland Mansions W1, a grand apartment block near Hyde Park. Her life was one of leisure and luxury. When Henry’s daughter Margery wrote her memoirs in 1998, she recalled the Macdonald twins, “they were beautiful women, but always rather aloof from everyday life.” I suspect Henry Roberts was a little in awe of his attractive correspondent and was always thrilled to see an envelope addressed to him in her distinct hand-writing.

The etiquette of letter-writing

Nuances around social class dictated every part of your life in the 1930s.

Upper-class Diana would have referred to the paper on which she wrote as “writing paper” and not “notepaper” which was a word used by persons lower down the social scale.

I have a book, Modern Etiquette, The Key to Social Success, dated 1950 but which concerns matters of polite and correct behaviour that existed in 1936, as etiquette changed very little during the period in-between.

The book states regarding hand-writing,

“If your writing is very difficult to read, either set to work to make it more legible or try to type your letters. The signature, of course, must always be handwritten on all  letters.”

Regarding type-written letters Modern Etiquette states, “quite a number of people type even their personal letters, which was once considered bad form, but is now quite legitimate.”

Modern Etiquette also gives advice regarding writing paper,

“This should be as good as you can afford and quiet – usually cream in tint. Blue-grey stationery is quite allowable, but avoid pink, green or other definite shades which, except for children, are not considered the best of taste.”

Writing to Preston Manor

The archive of letters at Preston Manor are mostly business letters connected to the day-to-day function of Preston Manor as a museum in the mid-years of the 20th century and are a mix of handwritten and typewritten documents. Special interest groups wishing to book a guided tour of the museum would make contact by letter. These letters survive from groups as diverse the Women’s Gas Federation Homecraft Circle (1957), the Institute of Operating Theatre Technicians (1969) and the Circle of Glass Collectors (1962) and of course, there are many letters from schools wishing to book an educational visit.

Personal handwritten letters, such as this one by Diana Magniac, form a small part of the collection and are a fascinating glimpse into the days when reading a message from a friend required an element of concentration to interpret.


Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer Preston Manor