The papers take their name from Edward Theobald, the steward of the Duke of Bedford's Streatham estates from 1711 to his death in 1738. His papers form the bulk of this collection but also included are a few items from his predecessor, Nathaniel Saltonstall, and of subsequent stewards at Streatham and elsewhere. The deeds, in particular, are often of a later date, but must have been part of the working papers of his successors.
The papers are important for students of eighteenth century social history, of Streatham local history, and of the Russell family and their estates. The bills are of particular interest not least because they show how carefully each item of expenditure was examined. Almost every bill bears the initials E.H. to signify the approval of Mrs Howland (usually known as Madam Howland or the Hon. Madam Howland, although she had no title) or her instructions to pay less than the amount demanded. Occasionally there were such caustic comments as 'you may ask if the person was not lightheaded that writ out this bill' (IV/35/6). Sometimes Theobald indicates that the tradesman is not prepared to accept less but usually they seem to have agreed to a reduction in their charges. At any rate, those consistently deprived of the odd penny or even shilling continue to supply the household over long periods. The Duchess sometimes initialled bills, but less frequently than her mother. Nevertheless, she still kept a close watch on household affairs as her letters to Theobald about re-tinning the kitchen pans and killing hogs show. It is tempting to speculate that the 3rd Duke's extravagance was a reaction to this careful scrutiny of every item of expenditure.
The bills are mainly for household supplies and such services as painting and plumbing. One of the men made regular shopping trips to London and his expenses often include a few pence to the poor, given on Mrs Howland's orders. She also paid for 'church bread' to be distributed to the poor of the parish at the church. (There used to be pigeon holes in St Leonard's in which this bread was placed). The bundles also include many receipts for the payment of teachers for the school founded by Mrs Howland, although judging by their writing the teachers cannot have been of very high quality. (An interesting study of literacy and standards of education could be made using these bills and receipts. A high proportion of the inhabitants could at least sign their names). The revenues of Tooting Bec Manor also contributed to an exhibition at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. Prisoners received a regular bounty.
The receipts include many for land tax, made out in the tenant's name but among these papers because the landlord refunded the tax. These refer to Wandsworth and Rotherhithe and Covent Garden properties as well as Streatham, as do the bills for repairs and improvements, e.g. filling up the great ditch across Thames Street (IV/35/8) and work on the Three Doves, Southampton Street (IV/35/17).
A later set of accounts, those of Henry Goldsmith, who was steward at Streatham c.1760, show that by that date Streatham was more a supplier of produce than a main residence.
The letters concern personal as well as business matters. There are numerous correspondents, including the Duchess of Bedford, Thomas Holt who was the chief steward responsible for overseeing the work of all the others, from the tenant of the Rotherhithe Dock, and from friends and relations. Some of the most interesting are from the Reverend William Simmonds, Dean of Battle, and from Thomas Croft, Theobald's cousin. Theobald was born in Battle and still had property there. He must have kept an affection for the area for his gift to the parish church (probably of a barrel organ) is mentioned. Some of these letters are about his friends' attempts to sell his property for him, but the Dean's letters also unfold the story of his worthless son and his progress from a debtors' prison in Scotland back to Battle, while Croft describes the trouble caused by the village drunkard. We can see from these letters that Theobald's responsibilities extended beyond Streatham to Kent and London.
The letters to Robert Butcher (IV/35/28) cover the period 1744-1763. He was the steward at Bedford House and seems to have replaced Thomas Holt as chief steward to the family. A particularly interesting group of letters to him comes from John Becuda, who describes in some detail building work carried out at Streatham in 1752.
The deeds, while mainly concerned with Streatham, reflect the Russell holdings elsewhere. Some seem very remotely connected, e.g. the counterpart lease of a shop in Clerkenwell (IV/35/34) but others provide a useful picture of the gradual development of the estate. The ownership and development of a piece of ground on the north side of Streatham Common, for example, is traced from 1765-1927 (IV/35/32).
These papers are important not only for those interested in some of Streatham's more illustrious inhabitants and for their influence on the history of the area, but also for their more general picture of life in the early eighteenth century. The combination of letters and bills gives the material a human interest that deeds alone cannot rival.