Churchill Archive for Schools - Guide to Primary Sources_Letters

Interpreting Letters

Why are letters useful primary sources?

Not only can letters tell us about the writer’s opinions and personality, they can also tell us more about the world the author was living in.

How to interpret letters


Source: CHAR 2/259/67-69

Description: Letter from Pamela, Lady Lytton, Knebworth House, Herts to WSC, asking him to speak at luncheon in support of slum clearance in Shoreditch, London.

Date: 15 October 1936


My Dear Winston

This is a begging letter! – but not for money. I write to beg you to help me with a great effort I am making by coming to a luncheon & making a small speech – only 10 to 15 minutes in the form of a kind of appeal to help the slum clearing of Shoreditch – no one who knows Shoreditch can turn their backs on the terrible conditions there of overcrowding & poverty. That is why I have undertaken to work for the Shoreditch Building Association.

The luncheon will be in a big house in Bruton Street some time in March, before Easter.

It will be followed by an Exhibition etc in the same house. As we hope to have a Royal Lady to open it, I must leave the date in March to her – If you will consent to do this you will be like an angel -- & no need to tell you how delighted, & grateful I should be to you.

Ys affecy


It is lovely for us that you are both coming here Nov: 14th.


1. Think about what the source is

This letter from Pamela, Lady Lytton in 1936 invites Winston Churchill to speak at a luncheon in support of clearing the slums in Shoreditch, London.

2. Consider the background

Winston Churchill was a Member of Parliament for Epping in 1936. As they do today, members of the public frequently wrote to politicians and their elected representatives in the twentieth century to request their action on matters of concern in their communities. Lady Lytton is writing to Churchill both as a politician and as a member of her own social circle. They had known each other for a long time (in 1899 he had proposed to her).

Poverty in Shoreditch had been a matter of concern as far back as the seventeenth century, when it had already become a popular focus for benefactors to donate money toward poverty relief. (Source:

3. Consider what surface level information you can interpret from the letter

Ask yourself:

  • What does Pamela, Lady Lytton, hope that Churchill will do as a result of this letter?
  • How does she try to persuade him to participate? How close do you think she is to Churchill?
  • What can you tell about the living conditions in Shoreditch from this correspondence?

4. Consider the deeper level information you can interpret from the letter

Ask yourself:

  • What can letters written to political figures tell us about the issues of concern at the time?
  • What do they tell us about the letter writers?
  • What can they tell us about the letter recipients?
  • Where might a historian turn to learn more about the conditions in Shoreditch? What other kinds of questions might you want to investigate further after reading this letter?
  • What different historical topics might a researcher use this letter to explore?

Need more help?

Wealthy women were frequently involved in charitable efforts to improve the circumstances of the economically disadvantaged. Further information about approaches to and attitudes about poverty in the nineteenth century may provide interesting background to contextualizing this letter, written at the beginning of the twentieth century

How do I interpret other types of primary source?

Choose from the types of primary source below to explore detailed examples that show useful ways to interpret each category, with handy tips and questions to ask yourself: