Published: 02/06/2008
ISBN: 9781906221782
Format: Paperback

"What started as a humble family tree has finished with a revealing book of letters."
Wanstead and Woodford Guardian

"McBrayne provides an unobtrusive and sensitive narrative giving us useful linkage between the different stages in the lives of John Orrok and his family."
The Scottish Genealogist

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About the Author

Alison McBrayne is an NHS administrator, local magistrate and supporter of Leyton Orient football club. She lives in north-east London with her husband, the great-great-great-grandson of John Orrok.... read more

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The Letters of Captain John Orrok
Introduction and notes by Alison McBrayne
by Alison McBrayne

Captain John Orrok’s frank and engaging letters give a graphic account of the life of a young Scottish army officer serving with Wellington's army in India in the early nineteenth century. They tell of the ups and downs of his developing career in the 33rd Regiment, his deep love for his wife Betsy and their growing family, and his yearning for the fireside back home in Banff.

The Letters of Captain John Orrok follows John to Hydrabad and Seringapatam, as the army keeps a watchful eye on the Maratha insurgents, as well as introducing John’s many notable connections -– his father William, a senior officer in the East India Company army, who played a brave but inglorious part in Wellington’s great victory at Assaye; his cousin-in-law Arthur Gore, whose distinguished military career is celebrated by a memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral; and another cousin, Isabella Freese, romantically linked with Wellington himself.

Betsy dies in childbirth and John returns desolate to London to build a new life and bring up his young children. After a spell as a recruiting officer, he settles in Baker Street, becomes a bookseller and enters Regency society, before his final letters which show him looking for a less expensive life in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo.

Discovered in an attic long after his death, the letters open a window on the world in which John lived, revealing his innermost thoughts on everything from great historical events to the price of acorns. Alison McBrayne’s illuminating introduction sets John and his letters in their social and military context, and follows his later life through a long affair to remarriage, and his eventual death in Jamaica.

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Alison first read the letters of John Orrok when she was researching her husband’s family tree and realised that they had a wider relevance. John’s army life, his experiences in India and his love for his family provide a fascinating story encompassing romance, comedy and tragedy but the historic context provides an additional interest. Many popular books of social and military history draw frequently on accounts written at the time by the man in the street (or in the garrison) and it seemed to Alison that John Orrok’s experiences and views could provide a valuable addition to the literature of the period.

“The Letters of Captain John Orrok” contains an introduction and notes to the letters to ensure that the reader has a background to the subjects discussed and can also follow the complications of John’s family and the places he visits. As the subject matter of the letters varies from a mutiny in the East India Company army to the renting of a house in regency London - the research for the notes had to be carried out through many channels - in academic institutions such as the British Library, Aberdeen University’s Archives Collections and the National Archives, through family history resources and via the internet.

Along the way, Alison uncovered many details about the Orrok family which do not fit neatly into this book. The differing fortunes of John’s ten children make for an extraordinary story – one daughter lived in a mansion in the lowlands of Scotland with a household of staff, while another gave birth to an illegitimate daughter in the Wapping workhouse in the docklands of London. There is also a great deal more to be told about John’s uncle Wemyss Orrok, a merchant navy captain who was shot and captured by American forces off Martha’s Vineyard in 1776 and had to petition George Washington himself to be allowed to go free. Much later Wemyss was taken to court for cruelty to a sailor on board one of his ships. (He was very kind to his nephew John however.)

Alison has yet to decide what to do with these stories – and she will no doubt discover others from further family history research. If anyone has any connections with, or knowledge of, the Orrok family they are urged to get in touch!

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