For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradis by way of Kensal Green.
-- G K Chesterton, 1914
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It was not until Tudor time that we see the beginnings of a postal service in Enland. During the early years of that period the monarch had the power to demand that a message be carried to any part of the kingdom. The citizens along the route were compelled to provide horses for the carriers and were compensated by a payment, typically of one penny per mile. At first the systems were set up temporarily, at times of crisis but the foundations of a permanent postal system were laid by Henry VIII. Initially, the only letters being carried were from the Court but during the reign of Elizabeth I legislation was passed to allow the carrying of private mail - so long as the Royal Mail took precedence.
Sir Brian Tuke
The first postal service to appear in London was strictly for the King's Letters and was established by Henry VIII when he appointed Sir Brian Tuke as his Master of Posts in 1516. Tuke established the City Post in Old Jewry, off Cheapside in 1526 and from there he maintained a relay system of horses and messengers on the important routes out of London. He held the office until his death in 1545. The system was used exclusively by members of the court for official but a gradual relaxation saw an increasing number of private letters being carried across the country. This system was further developed in the reign of Elizabeth I when a comprehensive system of Post Roads and sea Routes were developed. The internal road system was organised in stages of ten miles which were covered by Post-Boys on horseback. At each stage there was a change of horse, normally at an inn or Hostelry. The sea routes carried posts to France and Ireland. Within London the Post-Boys went on foot but rarely carried private mail as those who did correspond by writing generally used their servants to deliver their letters.
During the reign of James I, in 1619, a Foreign Post was established near the Royal Exchange and Mathew de Quester and his son become "the first and permanent Postmasters of England for Forraine Parts." Charles I opened his posts to the public in 1635 when he founded the "Letter Office of England and Scotland" under Thomas Witherings who had earlier been the Kings's "Postmaster General for Foreign Parts". Charles also issued a Proclamation authorising Witherings to set up a "Running-Post" between London and Ireland. In a Broadsheet printed that same year the details of this service were laid before the public. The road system developed under Elizabeth I would be used and the notice specified:
- The towns to be served by the post.
- The precise route to be taken to each town.
- The days on which the mails would go and return.
- The cost of the service and
- where the money due to the service was to be paid. The notice espressly stated that "no other Messengers or Foot-Posts could be used" other than this service to be set up by Sir Thomas Witherington and it finished with the flourish:
"His Majesty straightly charged and commanded all his loving Subjects whatsoever duly to observe his Royall pleasure therein declared, as they will answer the contrary at their perils." The system was up and running smoothly within three months.
The regicide of Charles I and the subsequent Puritan Commonwealth halted all progress in the development of the public service until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. The only innovation in that period appeared in 1652 when the Parliamentarians exempted themselves, by a decree of the Council of State, from the necessity of paying postal charges. This was the origin of the Franking System. The written word FRANK or FREE, accompanied by the seal, and sometimes the name, of the person entitled to the privilege, was endorsed on the exempted letters. The Decree had piously stated that the privilege was restricted to correspondence to and from Members of Parliament and of certain State Officials but it was not long before the private letters of the MPs (and those of their friends and relations) were carrying the FFRANK. In response to complaints about the abuses, regulations were made at various times, about the number and weight of "FREE" letters, the time and place of posting and the method and form of addressing them. This privileged system lasted until January 10 1840, when the Uniform Penny Postage was introduced.
During the last chaotic years of the Commonwealth after the death of Oliver Cromwell and in anticipation of the Restoration, an Act for the Settling of the Postage of England, Scotland, and Ireland was passed and provided for the establishment of a single General Post Office for the distribution of domestic and foreign mails and is to be headed by one Postmaster General. As his Postmaster General, Charles II appointed Henry Bishop who operated from A General Post Office located in the Black Swan in Bishopsgate. In 1661 he invented the postmark in order to ensure that the posts were not unnecessarily delayed by lazy or inefficient carriers:
"A stamp is invented, that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the month that every letter comes to this office, so that no letter Carryer may dare to detayne a letter from post to post; which, before, was usual." These came to be known as Bishop Marks and they remained in general use until 1787. The original London Bishop Mark consisted of a small circle, bisected horizontally, with the month (in serif lettering) abbreviated to two letters, in the upper half and the day of the month in the lower half. The lettering became sans serif in 1673 and from 1713 the month was transferred to the lower semi-circle. The Foreign section of the General Post also used a Bishop Mark and this was in use from 1661 to 1797 with the month always above the day. The cost of sending letters was based on the mileage and the number of sheets of paper. Envelopes were not used, the paper being folded, addressed on the outside and sealed with wax. The increasing numbers of letters being carried soon meant that the offices in the Black Swan were working beyond their capacity and a new General Post Office was established in Lombard Street in 1678. However, the official postal service was restricted to correspondence between London and the rest of the kingdom. Within London itself there was no local delivery of letters except by private messenger. In 1680 the enterprising William Dockwra organised a private local postal service with a head office in Lime Street near the Leadenhall Market.
In his first broadsheet he announced the new service for
"conveying of Letters or Pacquets under a pound weight, to and from all parts within the Cities of London and Westminster, and the Outer Parishes within the Weekly Bills of Mortality, for One Penny." [Note 1] Inevitably it became known as the Penny Post and operated from seven sorting offices, each with its own postmark. These were triangular in shape and included the words "penny post paid" together with a letter identifying the originating office.
Delivery was as and when required. In summer, letters would be delivered from six am until 9 pm
"and at reasonable hours agreeable to the Winter season. To places of quick Negotiation within the City' delivery would be at least 15 times a day, but no letters that come after Nine at Night , to be delivered till next morning." In addition to the sorting offices, Dockwra opened between four and five hundred receiving offices where letters were received and taken to the nearest sorting office. The penny charge was paid at the receiving office by the sender and the details of all letters received were recorded at these offices so that compensation could be paid in the event of loss. Dockwra was a victim of his own success. In 1682 the Post Office successfully argued that his operation was an infringement of the Post Office monopoly established by Charles II in 1635 and took over the system themselves. In 1689 Dockwra was granted a pension "in consideration of his good service in inventing and setting up the Penny Post Office." He was later appointed as Controller of the Post Office but, accused of mismanagement and incompetence eventually lost both position and pension. He died in 1716.
The General Post Office
The Postal Office service continued along the lines established by Dockwra and was widely used. The cost of a letter remained at one penny within the ten mile zone around the General Post Office in Lombard street. Outside this zone and up to eighty miles an extra penny was added. A major re-organisation was undertaken in 1711 when Parliament passed An Act for Establishing a General Post Office for All Her Majesty's Dominions allowed for the unification of the Post Offices of England and Scotland and for the establishment of a General Post Office in Ireland and in the colonies of North America and the West Indies. The new General Post Offices were to have a monopoly on mail handling. Fixed rates for delivery within England, Scotland and Ireland were introduced, and, for the first time, postage rates were established between London and the British Dominions in North America.
We have two eye-witness accounts of the early eighteenth postal system, one from John Strype who edited and enlarged upon John Stow's Survey of London the other from one the pseudonymous Don Manoel Gonzales, identified by some as Daniel Defoe who died in 1731, the last date in the Gonzales document. This is how Strype described the service in 1720:
"For the Advancement of Trade and Commerce as well as the Conveniency of all other Business, Letters are convey'd to all Parts of Great Britain, and other Places in Europe, besides his Majesty's Plantations in America; and the Conveyance of all Domestick Letters is so expeditious, that every 24 Hours the Post goes 120 Miles; and in 5 or 6 days an Answer may be had from a place 300 Miles distant from the Writer.
Besides this very great and convenient Expedition, the Charge thereof is easie; for a Letter containing a whole Sheet, is conveyed 80 Miles for 2d. if a double Letter for 6d. one Ounce of letters for 10d; but if above 80 Miles, a single Letter 4d. if doubled 6d. and an Ounce 14d.
The Post Days to send Letters from London to any part of England and Scotland, are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays : And the Returns certain on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
But to Wales and Ireland, the Post goes only twice a Week; viz on Tuesdays and Saturdays; and comes from Wales every Monday and Friday: but from Ireland the Return is uncertain, because it (as all other foreign Letters do) depends upon Winds.
When the Court is in the Country, the Post goes every Day to the Place where it resides. The same is with Kent, and the usual Stations of the Royal Fleet, as the Downs, Spithead, and other Places: to which we may send every Day but Sunday; and from whence we may also hear every Day but Sunday.
For foreign Intelligence in Times of Peace, Mondays and Thursdays are the Posts for France, Spain, and Italy; and Tuesdays and Fridays for Holland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.
On Mondays and Fridays, the Post goes also for Flanders, and from thence to Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.
For the Transport of Letters and Paquets over Sea, there are in Time of peace, Between England and
The Paquet Boats for France, go over from Dover in Kent for Calais, 7 Leagues over, on Tuesdays and Fridays in the Evening, if the Wind serves: For Spain, one goes every Fortnight from Falmouth in Cornwal, to Corunna, or the Groyn: For Flanders, from Dover to Newport, 20 Leagues over, on Tuesdays and Saturdays in the Evening: For Holland, from Harwich in Essex to the Brill, about 30 Leagues over, on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the Evening. And for Ireland, from Holyhead in Anglesea, (a Welsh County) to Dublin, about 20 Leagues over, on Mondays and Thursdays.
- France 3 Pacquet Boats.
- Spain 2 Pacquet Boats.
- Flanders 2 Pacquet Boats.
- Holland 3 Pacquet Boats.
- Ireland 3 Pacquet Boats.
Also, for the farther Encouragement of Trade and Commerce, the late Queen Anne appointed Boats, to carry Letters and Pacquets from England as far as the West Indies; which never was done before. One of these Boats sets out from the Thames on the last Thursday of the Month, particularly for the Isles of Barbadoes, Montserrat, St. Christopher, Antegoa, and Jamaica. The Rate for every Letter is 9d. a Sheet, a double Letter 18d. a Pacquet weighing an Ounce 2s 6d and so in proportion.
And for the Conveniency of those who live far from the Post Office, there are particular Posthouses appointed to take in the Letters till 9 of the Clock at Night, to be sent from thence in due Time to the General Post Office; which is done Gratis for Inland Letters; but if it is past 9 of the Clock, Notice is given thereof by a Bellman every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday Night, who then has a Penny for every Letter he carries thither: But at all times the Office takes for each foreign Letter or Pacquet one Penny."
The Gonzales document written eleven years later gives us a brief description of the General Post Office and a similar description of the various services available. We can note from this that there had been a relatively large increase in prices since Strype's day:
"The Post Office is situated on the south side of Lombard Street, near Stocks Market. It was the dwelling-house of Sir Robert Vyner, in the reign of King Charles II. The principal entrance is out of Lombard Street, through a great gate and passage that leads into a handsome paved court, about which are the several offices for receiving and distributing letters, extremely well contrived.The postman's uniform consisted a beaver hat, with golden band and cockade, scarlet coat (cut away style) with blue lapels and cuffs, brass buttons and blue cloth waistcoat and beige kneebreeches. He carried a leather bag to hold letters and pennies. Two bonds or sureties of 40 pounds were required to begin the job and the pay was 14 shillings a week. Receiving houses were usually located in shops and were open until 5 pm. After this time, a letter could still be mailed by dropping it through a slot cut in the shutter. In addition, after the receiving houses closed the carriers became "bellmen" and each rang a bell along a set route collecting letters with the penny payment from houses along the way. They also called at counting houses, coffee houses, and clubs to pick up letters until about half past six. The bellmen then returned to the Post Office so that letters could be sorted in time for the general departure of the mail coaches at eight. This entire system remained largely intact until the end of the eighteenth century when further reforms initiated the development of the modern system.
Letters and packets are despatched from hence every Monday to France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Flanders, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Kent, and the Downs.
Every Tuesday to the United Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and to all parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Every Wednesday to Kent only, and the Downs.
Every Thursday to France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and all parts of England and Scotland.
Every Friday to the Austrian and United Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and to Kent and the Downs.
Every Saturday to all parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
The post goes also every day to those places where the Court resides, as also to the usual stations and rendezvous of His Majesty's fleet, as the Downs, Spithead, and to Tunbridge during the season for drinking waters, etc.
Letters and packets are received from all parts of England and Scotland, except Wales, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; from Wales every Monday and Friday; and from Kent and the Downs every day.
His Majesty keeps constantly, for the transport of the said letters and packets, in times of peace, Between England and
And at Deal, two packet-boats for the Downs. Not to mention the extraordinary packet-boats, in time of war with France and Spain, to the Leeward Islands, etc.
- France, three packet-boats;
- Spain, one in a fortnight;
- Portugal, one ditto;
- Flanders, two packet-boats;
- Holland, three packet-boats; Ireland, three packet-boats.
A letter containing a whole sheet of paper is conveyed eighty miles for 3d., and two sheets 6d. and an ounce of letters but 1s. And above eighty miles a single letter is 4d., a double letter 8d., and an ounce 1s. 4d."
Find the site of the General Post Office
Note: 1. Bills of Mortality were the weekly returns of deaths which were compiled by the Company of Parish Clerks which represented the 110 parishes in and around London. Dating from the 16th century, they were notoriously inaccurate and were eventually superseded by the Registrar General's returns in 1836.
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