Friends for Life: letters home from an 18th century St Andrews alumnus

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Ro Spankie, Principal Lecturer, School of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Westminster, shares with us her recent search to find out about her ancestor Thomas Spankie and his time as a student at St Andrews in the 1700s.

In 2015 my great aunt gave me a carrier bag of what she called ‘family papers’. The bag contained a random collection of photographs, letters, a couple of birth certificates from the 1800’s and newspaper cuttings. Amongst it all were fifteen letters from a John Warden to a Thomas Spankie dating from 1768-74, sent from  Northumberland County in the Virginia Colony to various addresses in Scotland: Coupar Angus, then Kingsmuir, and finally Falkland where in 1770 Thomas had been ordained a Minister. When I asked my great aunt how she came to have them she thought she had saved them from her grandmother’s flat (my great grandmother) as they cleared it, but she could not be sure. She told me firmly however, that ‘women are generally the keepers’ of the archives.

Letters from John Warden to Thomas Spankie, c.1768-74 (Private collection)

The letters are written in tiny very legible handwriting on large pieces of paper, folded in such a manner that they double up as the envelope. Written before postage stamps, they have the address, the date and instructions to the Captain of the ship carrying them. Long, detailed and personal, they describe life as an indentured tutor to a family in Virginia, the church and the people, as well as the growing discontent with British policy in the Americas. Warden also asks hungrily about life back in Scotland, speculating on the fortunes of their group of mutual friends with whom the two men studied at St Andrews between 1756-65.

Through the letters I have got to know Warden – thoughtful, well read and a fluent writer, he is also petulant, frustrated, lonely, often unwell, proud, ambitious and a rebel. He begins most letters by chastising Spankie for not writing back, wondering about the fate of his previous letters. Warden’s affection for Spankie and his friends is evident and also the importance of his formative years at St Andrews. In October 1772 he wrote “St Andrews was the scene of my action in my happiest days” but reflects

“my behaviour was always a counterpart to monkish rules and America contracting my notions with regard to this matter has rendered them more enlarged.”

Signatures of Thomas Spankie (1757) and John Warden (1758) in the matriculation register UYUY309

Spankie, the recipient, remains frustratingly silent. As his great, great, great, great, granddaughter I am in the curious position of knowing what happens next to Thomas and his descendants while having little sense of the man. At the same time I feel that I almost know Warden personally yet have very few facts about his life or what happened to him after he penned these letters.

An opportunity came up for a trip to Dundee and I extended my visit by a day to visit the University of St Andrews Library Special Collections. Ancient institutions can hold incredible records – in the University’s muniment collection I was able to find out the dates both young men studied, first at United College, then at St Mary’s College. I learned that both were Ternars – ‘the sons of artisans and tenant farmers’, who only paid one third of the top rate of library fees. This interested me because John Warden’s father was a schoolmaster while Thomas Spankie was the son of a Manse. The records tell of the bursaries they applied for and those that they won, while the College Minutes record various misdemeanours including being drunk and their involvement in the case of an unsigned letter questioning the views of the Principal, recorded as ‘an insolent attack’. In the Matriculation record I find both their signatures (images above). Thomas’s, written when he is aged 14, makes my heart miss a beat – I imagine him, quill in hand, carefully signing his name on the very page that I sit and stare at 260 years later. John aged 16 signs himself in the Latin, Joannes Warden.

Minutes of St Mary’s College with account of a visit to the local Tavern, 6 February 1762 (UYSM400/1)

Messers John Warden, Robert Foote, Lawrence Douglas & Henry Robertson, students in this College, had come to him this forenoon, and acknowledged, that on Wednesday night last, they were in a Tavern kept by Andrew Finlay in this Town, and having drank too much, went thro’ the town in a riotous manner, & broke the windows of several houses – belonging to the inhabitants…

Minutes of St Mary’s College, 7 April 1763, with account of an unsigned letter sent by students to the Principal asking for him to explain himself with respect to the opinion he gave on two of the student discourses at the Saturday morning practice disputes. Principal of St Mary’s James Murison, and the masters, saw this letter as ‘an insolent Attack upon the Authority of the Principal or the other Masters in the Discharge of their duty’. Both John Warden and Thomas Spankie were questioned about this matter (UYSM400/1)

The Reading Room closed at 4.30, so I took a walk around St Andrews. It was late August, the town was quiet and the low angle of the evening sun brought the relief on the facades of the buildings to life. The beautiful quadrangle of St Salvators looked stunning and when I reached St Mary’s I stopped to look at a thorn tree planted by Mary Queen of Scots. I had a strong sense of walking in the two young men’s footsteps. What would the tree have meant to Warden and Spankie?

The United College 1767 drawn by John Oliphant; plan showing the different buildings of United College over time by Ronald Cant; photograph of the quadrangle August 2017 (author’s own photograph).

I walked out onto the street and visited Bouquiniste’s Antiquarian and Second-hand Bookshop. By chance they had a copy of Reginald Cant’s The University of St Andrews, A Short History. It contains a set of maps showing the layout of the buildings over time, and to my surprise I realised United College looked very different in the 1750’s and some of the buildings that had just provided the backdrop to my imaginings, were not built until the 1830s.

St Mary’s College drawn by John Oliphant 1767; plan showing the different buildings of St Mary’s over time by Ronald Cant; photograph of St Mary’s quadrangle August 2017 (author’s own photograph).

I read Benjamin Franklin visited St Andrews in 1759, after receiving an honorary degree in recognition of his ‘writings on Electricity’. I wonder if Franklin’s visit had inspired Warden to set out for Virginia? Certainly three contemporaries from St Andrews, James Wilson (1742-1798) [1], Alexander Balmain (1740- 1821) [2] and Thomas Elder [3] (1742? -1813) also departed for America.

Cant describes the colleges at the time;

“the students lived together two in a room. The college supplied the barest minimum furniture – a box-bed, a table, and little else. Fires were provided, but as the chimneys smoked abominably the more general practice was to wrap oneself in plaid and gloves against the cold.” [4]

But despite the strict routine and the spartan conditions, the boys were young, they found their fun, and formed friendships that lasted for life, stretching over 3000 miles, and lessons learned in the old world were formative in the creation of new. I must find time to look further.

Ro Spankie
Principal Lecturer
School of Architecture and the Built Environment
University of Westminster


[1] James Wilson (dep.1765), became a Founding Father to United States.

[2] Alexander Balmain (possibly dep.1772), Balmain was tutor to the Lee family before joining the church.

[3] Warden writes on December 26 1770 that Thomas Elder was living in Virginia.

[4] R. G. Cant, The University of St Andrews, A Short History, (Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh, 1946) p. 96.

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2 thoughts on "Friends for Life: letters home from an 18th century St Andrews alumnus"

  • Tricia Schriefer
    Tricia Schriefer
    Thursday 18 January 2018, 2.29am

    What a delightful story. Thank you

  • David Paul Spankie
    David Paul Spankie
    Monday 26 April 2021, 10.44pm

    Thank you for sharing this piece of history. My daughter Catherine Elizabeth Spankie works for the National Gallery just round the corner from you. It is a very small world!


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