125-year-old 'remember me' letter by orphan choir boy discovered in church pew sparks writing campaign

Church of Holy Trinity Sunderland, England, July 28, 2015.
Church of Holy Trinity Sunderland, England, July 28, 2015. | Wikimedia Commons/Jim Field/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

A 125-year-old letter written by a choir boy who was orphaned after his father died was discovered stuffed down the side of one of the pews at Sunderland Parish Church. 

Workers discovered the note as they were renovating the church, also known as Holy Trinity, which had ceased being used as a house of worship in 1988 due to declining attendance. The church was subsequently used as a community events space and was being renovated when the letter was found. 

The note was written by 13-year-old William Elliott on Aug. 11, 1897, on the back of an order of service, according to the Sunderland Echo.  

In the note, Elliott requested not to be forgotten.  

Dear friend, whoever finds this paper, think of William Elliott who had two months and two weeks and four days on the 11 of August 1897. Whoever you are that finds this paper don't tear it up or throw it away... keep it in remembrance of me, W. Elliott...I was the leading boy of this choir... I love you if you love me.

The letter was found during the extended COVID-19 lockdowns as the Grade I listed Georgian building was being renovated into a catering space called Seventeen Nineteen, RTE News reports. 

Conservationists removed layers of wax and dust to make the text, written in pencil, visible.

The Seventeen Nineteen project, which is working with the Churches Conservation Trust and other sponsors and volunteers to restore and repurpose the building as a venue space, researched more about Elliott's life and how he came to stay at the church as an orphan. 

Research by Seventeen Nineteen volunteers revealed William’s father was chief officer Thomas Duncan Elliott who was sailing on the vessel Skyros when he was washed overboard in 1887.

William's mother Sarah Ann Elliott was left a widow with four children and, although the family appears to have been fairly comfortable until Thomas’ death, by 1891 Sarah was working as a dressmaker to keep the family afloat.

As a consequence of losing his father, William was eligible for admittance to the orphanage and was ultimately accepted in 1892. He was discharged on 29 October 1897, his 14th birthday – just weeks after he wrote his letter.

Seventeen Nineteen has now launched The Dear Friend project in honor of Elliott, which aims to encourage anyone who would like to participate to write a letter in reply.

“His letter has touched us all,” said Tracey Mienie, Seventeen Nineteen’s center manager. “He was clearly very aware that his time at the orphanage — and in the choir — was ending and I think apprehension at what his future may hold comes across in his words.”

Seventeen Nineteen added that based on their findings, Elliott’s high marks in reading and mathematics, he became an errand boy for a lawyer. The historical record of Elliott's life ends in 1901, however. 

His letter is now framed in the church’s Lady Chapel near the seating area where it was believed to have been written. His name has also been added to the list of men and boys with ties to the parish who died in generations past.   

To participate in the Dear Friend project and write to Seventeen Nineteen, contact Lily Daniels with a postal address at or call 0191 560 0288.

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