The Peter Family and the ‘hedgehog letter’

 

Harlyn House, north Cornwall, ancestral home of the Peter Family.
Harlyn House, north Cornwall, ancestral home of the Peter Family.
My great grandfather, Oliver Nugent, MBE, married Eliza Mary Monica Peter, known as Mary, the daughter of a well-known Cornwall family which had Antigua connections through Mary’s mother, who was born a Ledeatt (see The Ledeatts of Antigua). Her parents lived at Harlyn House, which I remember visiting as a child.  The family name is sometimes written ‘Petre’.

William Peter of Harlyn and Chiverton, Cornwall, father of Robert, grandfather of Eliza Mary Monica, wife of Oliver Nugent MBE
William Peter of Harlyn and Chiverton, Cornwall, father of Robert, grandfather of Eliza Mary Monica, wife of Oliver Nugent MBE
We remember our Peter ancestry through pictures, and from a famous story that deserves to be retold. It concerns a neighbour of the Peters, Mrs Mary Jenny Prideaux Brune, who had reason to write to William Peter Esq (pictured, right) at Harlyn House after suffering what she regarded as a great insult at the hands of young Master Robert Peter. Let her letter – written in 1832 – tell the story:

The famous 'hedgehog letter', October 1832
The famous 'hedgehog letter', October 1832
“Mrs Mary Jenny Prideaux Brune begs to present her Compliments to Mr Peter and is sorry to trouble him on a disagreeable subject and would gladly spare his feelings as a Father had not the outrage she has been subjected to, by one of his Family, been too great to be overlooked. Much as she is sorry to afflict Mr Peter, she cannot but think some blame is due to her respected neighbour for the very lax rein he holds over his young folks, so different to the discipline in her younger days. She fears the Radical babble now so much the fashion,
and she must add so much encouraged and shined abroad, by Mr Peter, has tended much, to the corruption in the Morals and Manners of youth now so frightfully prevalent, and from an instance of which Mr Peter’s Family Mrs Mary has just so severely suffered. Mrs Mary will endeavour as much as her present state of agitation will permit (for she still shudders at the very thought of the liberties to which she has been subjected) to describe to Mr Peter this very disgraceful transaction.”
 

The Nature of the Crime

So what was this ‘outrage’, you must be wondering. Let the lady continue:

The 'unseemly Beast' who assaulted Mrs Brune 'with the puncture of ten thousand pins' - or another of that ilk!
The 'unseemly Beast' who assaulted Mrs Brune 'with the puncture of ten thousand pins' - or another of that ilk!
“On returning home (after taking a quiet cup of Hysop with Mrs Bayley, and holding with that excellent Lady an edifying, conversation on the corruptions of the age, seasoned with a few pertinent anecdotes) Mrs Mary was informed by her serving man Habbakkuk that a basket containing some goodly proof of Mrs Peter’s remembrance awaited her inspection. Her respect for that excellent Lady made her immediatelycommence an eager investigation of the contents of that basket when lo! her hands were assaulted by what appeared to her the puncture of ten thousand pins.What was her horror! On discovering that the brutal injury she had thus wantonly received arose from the bristles of that unseemly beast a Hedgehog, which has been treacherously concealed in a bundle of rather unclean hay. Mrs Mary Jenny was born with an antipathy to this Hideous Brute and she immediately fell into a fit, from which she did not recover till every variety of restorative had been tried.” 

 

The Criminal Unmasked

“Mrs Mary felt assured that neither of her respected Neighbours and Friends Mr or Mrs Peter were privy to, or in any way aware of, the insult, for which the latter’s highly respected name had been used or rather abused, so she commenced an inquiry and found that Master Robert Peter (that youthful reprobate) had committed the unwarrantable outrage of sending her the unseemly Beast. She much fears this Youth will come to no good if he is not speedily checked in his evil course.”  
 
Eliza Mary Monica Nugent née Peter in July 1909
Eliza Mary Monica Nugent née Peter in July 1909
Mrs Mary then ‘begs to suggest’ the administation of ‘corporal discipline’ followed by a ‘diet of bread and water till he has learnt through the whole of that excellent book Thomas a Kempis’. There is no record of what punishment was meted out on Master Robert Godolphin Peter, who would have been around 14 at the time.

What we do know is that he grew to become a highly respected member of the Church of England, as rector of Cavendish, Sudbury, Suffolk. In 1876 he gave his consent to the marriage of his niece, Mary (Eliza Mary Monica) born 1858, to my great grandfather, Oliver Nugent, since she was underage, her father was deceased and her mother had remarried. The marriage of Oliver and Mary was to last 63 years, until Oliver died in 1939. Mary lived on in Antigua, latterly at Erdiston, St John’s, the last Nugent on the island. She died in 1956 aged 98 and they are buried together in the St John’s municipal cemetery.

As for Robert Godolphin Peter (pictured left in 1905), he went on to become Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. He died in 1910 at the age of 92. My grandparents George and Gladys Nugent lived briefly in his home in the cathedral precincts while wrapping up his affairs. I wonder whether he ever told the archbishop about his reprobate youth!

(All papers and photographs are from the Nugent family archive, except for Reggie the hedgehog courtesy Emily Hampden-Smith.)