'itt began like the rattleing of Coaches...': A letter from Sister Kitty
The letter of Sister Kitty Witham regarding the Great Lisbon Earthquake is dated 27 January 1756 – almost two months after the initial earthquake on 1 November 1755 – Sister Kitty writes to her ‘dear[e]st Mama’ from ‘Poor Sion Houes‘, with a paragraph at the end of the letter addressed to her ‘Dear[e]st Aunt Ashmall’. In the letter, Sister Kitty describes the earthquake which ‘began like the rattleing of Coaches' and resulted in the walls ‘A Shakeing, & a falling down‘. She also gives an account of the destruction of the city of Lisbon – ‘them that has seen Lisbon befor this dreadfull Calammety & to see itt Now would be greatly Shockt the Citty is Nothing but a heep of Stones‘ – and the fates of various of its inhabitants, including the President of the English College.
But what do we learn about the nuns of Syon Abbey? Firstly, we gain insight into their morning routine. Sister Kitty sets the scene: ‘that Morning we had all been att Communion, I had done the quire [choir] & then went to gett Our Breakfasts, which is tea & bread & butter when tis not fasting time, we was all in diferent places in the Convent, some in the Refectory, some in there Cells, Others hear & there; my Lady Abbyss her two Ni[e]ces Sis[te]r Clark & my Self was att Breakfast in a little Rome [room] by the Common which when they had done they went to prepair for Hye Mass, which was to be gin att ten a Clock. I was washing up the tea things, when the Dreadfull Afaire hapend‘. We also learn that all the nuns of Syon Abbey survived the earthquake, which killed thousands of others in Lisbon, as Sister Kitty writes, ‘so Blessed be his holy Name we all mett together, & run no further neither had we Any thoughts of runing Aney futher, we was all as glad to See One another Alive & well as Can be Expresst‘. Describing the aftermath of the earthquake and the many aftershocks, Sister Kitty explains that the community first slept under a pear tree (‘for Eeight days, I & some Others being so vere frighted Every time the wind blode the tree, I thought we was A going‘), then later built a ‘little place with Sticks & Coverd with Matts‘, before moving into a ‘Woden houes Made in the garden‘. In the letter, Sister Kitty also recounts several stories concerning the fates of inhabitants of Lisbon, indiciating that though the sisters were enclosed, they still had a wide social network.
And what do we find out about Sister Kitty? One of the most powerful features of the letter is Sister Kitty’s honesty about her feelings of anxiety following the earthquake. Aftershocks from the earthquake appear to have continued for several months, leaving the nuns ‘with agreat deell of fear, & Aprehension‘ and uncertain of their fates. Sister Kitty is clearly aware of her own mortality (‘if the Earthquake had hapend in the Night as itt did not thank God, we should all or Most of us been Killd in Our Beds‘) and seems convinced that the world is ending, writing ‘Only God knows how long we have [to?] live for I beli[e]ve this World will not last long‘. We also discover that Sister Kitty had a very close relationship with her family and friends in England, and that she appears to have remained in regular contact with them. Throughout the letter she frequently refers to and enquires after friends and family, and towards the end of the letter she sends her regards to her father, promising ‘not to be so troublesom as I have been‘.
At the end of the letter, Sister Kitty also expresses a wish that someone in 'England that has itt & Can afoard itt would Send us A Brace of hundred Pounds to help to Buylld [buiild] up the Convent'. As so many people in Lisbon had lost their homes to the destructive force of the earthquake, the Portuguese authorities were not able to help the Syon community. Instead, the nuns sent a petition to England to plead assistance in rebuilding the convent. This was granted and soon religious life was able to continue as normal at Syon Abbey.
A transcript of the letter can be read here.