Atholl letters


Here I present summaries of correspondence between Patrick Matthew and John Murray, the 4th Duke of Atholl, in 1824. The letters are part of the Atholl estate collection, and I am grateful to the Atholl estate for giving me permission to summarise these letters here. The first two are copies of letters between Matthew and the Secretary of the Naval Board, in which Matthew advocates the use of Larch timber for the construction of Naval ships. The Naval Board agree to a trial shipment of Larch, to be delivered to the Naval Yards at Deptford. The final letter is to the 4th Duke of Atholl from his agent in Perth, George Condie, relaying an offer from Matthew to buy a quantity of Larch wood from the Duke.

It is unclear how the first two letters came to be in the Duke’s possession. It is possible that Matthew provided these as copies to George Condie, as an indication of the seriousness of his intent. However, it would be odd for Matthew to be in possession of copies that also had the brief notes that are appended at the end of each letter by someone at the Naval Board, and which appear to be for internal use only. An alternative scenario is that these copies were forwarded by the Naval Board directly to the Duke, on account of his own long-time advocacy of Larch for Naval shipbuilding.

In his letters, Matthew appears unaware of the Duke’s advocacy of Larch, or at least makes no mention of it. Matthew appears to believe that the Naval Board were just about to embark on a trial of Larch for shipbuilding, but this was far from being the case. The Duke, along with the 2nd and 3rd Dukes before him, were long-standing advocates of Larch. In 1807 the Duke wrote Observations on Larch, which was a “transmission to the Commissioners of Naval Revision” advocating the use of Larch for Naval shipbuilding. In 1809, he started sending shipments of Larch to the Naval Board. And in 1816, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Melville, was “so well satisfied” with the quality of the Larch timber that he gave orders for the construction of a sloop, HMS Atholl, made entirely from Larch.

Please note that I have not been given permission to reproduce these letters in full, so I have instead paraphrased them below, with occasional excerpts.


Matthew to the Secretary of the Naval Board, Oct 28th 1824

Matthew understands “that Government have a wish to make a trial of Larch Timber for Boatbuilding”. He has a quantity of Larch from the River Tay that he can sell in good condition and at a moderate price. He proposes to send a sample to one of the Naval Yards for evaluation. He extols the virtues of Larch and refers to his experience in shipbuilding (for more on Matthew’s involvement in shipbuilding, see also the Mutual Discharge between Patrick Matthew Esq and Thomas Wilkie):

Larch has been in general use on the Tay for boatbuilding for 20 years past at present no other timber is employed there; in lightness, durability & strength it excels every other for that purpose. I have introduced it for boatbuilding in Leith Aberdeen and some[?] other places where it is used[?] in considerable request for that purpose. I have built and am building several vessels entirely of Larch one of them 185 Tons Register – it is the opinion of those most experienced in its qualities that it is admirably adapted for these purposes and the supply that Scotland will be able to afford may be considered as unlimited.

In a postscript, Matthew suggests that even though he is a middle-man, he can save the Board money compared to any individual grower as he can “draw my supplies from the Estates of different proprietors”. He ends by providing character references: “Charles Hurbard[?] Esq. Sheriff Substitute for Perthshire or Messrs Matthew & Vaughton Stuart [?] Magistrates of Perth”.

A brief note from someone at the Naval Board appears afterwards: “[?] Surveyors 12 Nov. Desire he will inform us at what price he will supply 20 pieces of Larch from 8 to 12 inches square as fir timber free from defects and to be delivered at Deptford. Signed JP”


Matthew to the Naval Board, Nov 15th 1824

Matthew replies, confirming he will supply 20 squared pieces of Larch to Deptford, for 29 pence per solid foot. With the aid of a figure, he asks whether the Board would accept tapered rather than completely straight planks. Finally, he argues that rounded planks might be more suitable for the Board’s purposes:

Larch whenever so little dried gets of a spongy consistency so that no plane will give it a smooth surface; it also when in the squared Log begins to crack in drought greatly to disadvantage for boats … Larch plank from being of a spongy and not of a reedy nature comparatively contracts considerably in length and inconsiderably in breadth by drying – the vessels seem to run in a reticulated or spiral manner not in straight reedy lines like the evergreen pines. This quality must give it a preference for warlike purposes, it takes shot in a cleaner manner without splintering consequently with less injury and less expense of men and is also speedier repaired.

In a postscript, Matthew adds that a speedy response from the Board would be advantageous, especially if the Board would desire a second batch of wood to be delivered before winter made transportation difficult.

A brief note from someone at the Naval Board again appears afterwards: “Acquaint him we have no objection to take the number of pieces of Larch mentioned in our former letter, but they must be sided parallel from top to but[?] at least 8 ins, the surface at the top not to be less than the siding and we have no objection to the curve and increase at the but[?] end as shown by his drawing, the other side is of course to be square & we will allow him the price he asks for viz 29 per foot.”


George Condie to the Duke of Atholl, Dec 8th 1824

Condie informs the Duke that an attempted auction of a quantity of his Larch wood at Irinvaid[?] had been unsuccessful. He then notes: “This evening Mr Pat. Matthew has handed me an offer for the Larch Wood, of which I beg to enclose a copy, for your Grace’s consideration; I shall be glad to be honored with your Grace’s directions as to the answer to be returned to Mr Matthew’s proposal – I believe he is in very good circumstances.”

Page created: 6 September 2018
Last modified: 27 January 2019

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