From an article published in The Beau Monde’s Quizzing Glass newsletter…
Posting a letter in Regency England was not as simple as walking down to the local post office and dropping off a stamped letter. Prior to January 10, 1840, stamps did not exist. Inked hand stamps applied to the letter indicated such information as whether it had been sent POSTPAID, UNPAID, PAID AT (city), PENNY POST, TOOLATE, 1dDUE or FREE, or what post office had collected the letter and what mileage it would cover. The ‘letter box’ itself only came into use after 1794, and did not become compulsory until after 1811. (The box consisted of a slit in the wall of the receiving house, which opened into a locked box. Private boxes could be hired in some towns for as little as 1/2d per letter to 4d per letter.)
The letter itself differed from its modern form. The letter usually comprised a single sheet (sometimes folded once in the middle to make a booklet-like page). This was folded in thirds, then the ends were folded together, with one end tucked inside another. Hot wax dripped onto the joining ends sealed the letter. The address or direction would be written on the front and rarely went beyond Name, Town (or house name), County– occasionally, in London, a street might be indicated.
To save money, correspondents often wrote down the page, then turned it and wrote across their previous writing– thrifty souls would turn it yet again and write diagonally across everything else, producing a nearly illegible mess. This was called crossing and recrossing one’s lines. The postmaster receiving the letter would write on the envelope the postage due by whoever received the letter.
‘Posting a letter’ in the country meant sending it from one post town to another, where it could be collected. After 1784, country areas had three deliveries and two collections, with deliveries sent out from London by horse messenger to the receiving houses. The messenger then brought back any letters going to London.
Post offices operated as parcel depots, poste restante address (or post office boxes), and usually carried on some other business, such as serving as an inn. Enterprising postmasters could and did charge for local delivery to non-post towns, villages, and even manor houses.
From 1801- 1808, England had numerous private posts to carry letters between towns and manor houses. Rates could vary from 1/2d to 1d or more for delivery. From 1808 on, local delivery standardized at 1d per letter and post towns began to use the stamp P.P. for Penny Post. The private posts, however, tended to be notoriously slow and unreliable. Postmasters often went bankrupt, ending their service. Those to whom speed carried more importance than money kept to the old practice of sending letters via servants, by the Common Carriers or by private courier.
On Monday August 2, 1784, the Post began to change when John Palmer’s first Mail Coach left the Rummer Tavern in Bristol at four o’clock PM, carrying the mail and four passengers (which later became seven passenger, with four inside). Palmer had long advocated postal reform and expansion. Increases in commerce, industry and population demanded it. After his friend William Pitt became Prime Minister, Palmer got authority to try his reform ideas.
Palmer’s Mail Coach reached Bath at five-twenty PM, and arrived in London at the Swan with Two Necks well before eight o’clock the next morning to deliver mail to the Chief Post Office in Lombard Street. The coach had traveled 119 miles in under sixteen hours, an incredible feat. Palmer received public acclaim and bureaucratic stone-walling, including a record of criticism which ran to three volumes of copperplate. However, Palmer’s Mail Coaches began to take hold.
By 1811, approximately 220 mail coaches ran on regular schedules from London to various major cities. These coaches used the post roads and cross post (post roads that did not pass through London), which could support the light, fast coaches. The Post Office continued its custom of farming out the job of postmaster, and letters still had to make their own way between post towns. Coffee houses, inns along these routes, and even carriage makers, held contracts to provide both horses at each stage, coaches and coachmen.
Coach hire rates were based on mileage, and varied from 2d to 4d per double-mile of the journey. Mail coaches had the advantages of not having to pay tolls, which could be worth as much as six pounds to the contractor. (In 1813, Parliament repealed the toll exemption for mail coaches with more than two wheels in Scotland and imposed a 1/2d tax letters carried in Scotland to compensate the carriers.)
The Post Office did use its own, scarlet-liveried employees as guards. These men had to read and write to fill out their time sheets (Way-bills). Each carried a timepiece set each evening before leaving the Chief Post Office at eight PM. As compensation for sounding the horn at toll gates, seeing the mail safely to its destination and carrying out the unpleasant task of reporting the misbehavior of any sub-contracted coachmen, guards earned an excellent wage– half a guinea a week, plus sick pay and pension. Tips were allowed and could average as much as 2/- a passenger. As the Chief Superintendent of Mail from 1792 to 1817, Mr. Hasker also allowed his guards to carry personal goods and newspapers, provided this did not interfere with the mails.
Until the mid 1800’s, when rail began to take over, mail continued to be carried by Mail Coach on the best roads between major cities. In rural areas, post went by cart, horseback and even by foot. Private Penny Posts often tried to undercut the General Postal rates. In 1805 when the minimum rate between post towns became 4d, the private post and some postmasters began an illegal Twopence Post, charging only 2d to carry a letter between two nearby post towns. This was not fully resolved in all counties until 1840 and the standardized 1d stamp.
1784 GENERAL POSTAL RATES
Rate are “Single Letter”, “Double Letter”, “Triple Letter” or “1 oz”
The d stands for “denarius” which means a shilling and you’d think they’d use s but no, they stuck with what the Romans left; pounds are written out with a slash as in 1/ (1 pound) or 1/2 (1 pound and 2 shillings).
Not exceeding 1 Post Stage 2d 4d 6d 8d
1 – 2 Post Stages 3d 6d 9d 1/-
Above 2 Post Stages up to 80 mi 4d 8d 1/- 1/4
80 – 150 miles 5d 10d 1/3 1/8
Above 150 miles 6d 1/- 1/6 2/-
From/to London, to/from Edinburgh & to/from Dumfries, Cockburnspeth & intermediate places between them and Edinburgh
7d 1/2 1/9 2/4
1801 GENERAL POSTAL RATES
Not exceeding 15 miles 3d 6d 9d 1/-
15 – 30 miles 4d 8d 1/- 1/4
30 – 50 miles 5d 10d 1/3 1/8
50 – 80 miles 6d 1/- 1/6 2/-
80 – 120 miles 7d 1/2 1/9 2/4
120 – 170 miles 8d 1/4 2/- 2/8
170 – 230 miles 9d 1/6 2/3 3/-
230 – 300 miles 10d 1/8 2/6 3/4
every 100 miles thereafter +1d +2d +3d +4d
1805 GENERAL POSTAL RATES
Not exceeding 15 miles 4d 8d 1/- 1/4
15 – 30 miles 5d 10d 1/3 1/8
30 – 50 miles 6d 1/- 1/6 2/-
50 – 80 miles 7d 1/2 1/9 2/4
80 – 120 miles 8d 1/4 2/- 2/8
120 – 170 miles 9d 1/6 2/3 3/-
170 – 230 miles 10d 1/8 2/6 3/4
230 – 300 miles 11d 1/10 2/9 3/8
every 100 miles thereafter +1d +2d +3d +4d
1812 GENERAL POSTAL RATES (new mileage divisions)
Not exceeding 15 miles 4d 8d 1/- 1/4
15 – 20 miles 5d 10d 1/3 1/8
20 – 30 miles 6d 1/- 1/6 2/-
30 – 50 miles 7d 1/2 1/9 2/4
50 – 80 miles 8d 1/4 2/- 2/8
80 – 120 miles 9d 1/6 2/3 3/-
120 – 170 miles 10d 1/8 2/6 3/4
170 – 230 miles 11d 1/10 2/9 3/8
230 – 300 miles 1/- 2/- 3/- 4/-
every 100 miles thereafter +1d +2d +3d +4d
THE LONDON POST
London had had its own General Post with local delivery since 1635 when Charles I opened the Royal Mail. In 1680, William Dockwra began his private Penny Post, named for the penny charge to mail any letter up to a pound. Two years later, the government took over and continued operation of the Penny Post. It comprised the cities of London and Westminster and the Borough of Southwark, covering letters received and delivered within ten miles, while the General Post serviced both London and the country side.
From 1680 to 1794, letters for London’s General Post had to be prepaid 1d. This relaxed after 1794, with the condition that letters put into the Penny Post for delivery by the General Post still had to be prepaid. Letters from the General Post for Penny Post delivery were charged 1d on delivery, plus the General Post charge. In 1794, Parliament also lowered the weight limit to four ounces for any 1d letter.
The General Post and Penny Post remained separate organizations with their own letter carriers and receiving houses (a large number of which happened to be stationers’ shops). The only point of exchange came at the Chief Post Office.
In 1792, Parliament gave letter carriers for the General Post uniforms of scarlet coats with blue lapels, a blue waistcoat and a tall hat with a golden band. Walking back from a delivery, the carrier rang a large hand bell to indicate he could collect letters for an extra charge of 1d postage. The letters went into the slit of a locked pouch for delivery to the Chief Post Office.
In 1794, London’s five post offices (Lime street, Westminster, St. Pauls, Temple and Bishopsgate) became two: the Chief Office in Abchurch Lane, Lombard Street, and the Westminster Office in Gerrand Street, Soho. All London mail now passed through the Chief Office. In addition, service expanded to cover the seven rides surrounding London: Mortlake, Woolwich, Woodford, Edmonton, Finchley, Brentford and Mitcham.
London post offered six collections (at 8, 10 and 12 AM; 2, 5 and 8 PM) and daily deliveries. The clerk stamped letters received after seven o’clock PM with that time or a TOO LATE stamp, for the window closed at seven forty-five so that mail could be shorted and bagged by eight for the last collection. The Chief Office charged an extra sixpence for such letters, with other receiving offices setting their own fee. Letters received at the Chief Office on Lombard Street on Sunday were sorted and posted on Monday as there were no Sunday deliveries.
From the Post Office on Lombard Street, the blue and orange Mail Coaches departed every evening at eight. Passengers assembled at various inns throughout London for departure at half past seven. The coaches then stopped in Lombard Street to collect the mail and the guard, and departed London at eight PM. Lombard Street became so congested that by 1795 the six Western Road coaches began to leave from the Gloucester Coffee House in Piccadilly at eight-thirty, with the guard and mail traveling to this point from the Post Office.
In 1812, Cary’s Itinerary listed 37 inns with stage and mail coach departures. By 1815, this grew to 44, with inns having as few as 3 or as many as 35 coaches departing. In 1815 alone, of the 20 coaches leaving the Angel Inn, St. Clement’s, Strand in London, five are daily post coaches and four are daily Royal Mail coaches.
The Bull and Mouth, Bull and Mouth Street, boasted the record of having thirty-five coaches departing, including the Royal Mail to Edinburgh, while the Swan with Two Necks, Lad Lane, listed the original Bath and Bristol coach, the Royal Mail to Bath, the Brighton Post Coach, and the Prince Regent coach to Dover and Paris.
POSTAL RATES – LONDON 1794 1801 1805 – 1831
Within Town Area 1d 1d 2d
Town to Country, or within Country 2d 2d 3d
Country to Town 1d 2d 3d
Town to General Post 1d 1d 2d
Country area to General Post 1d 1d 2d
General Post delivered by P.P. in town free free free
General Post delivered in Country free 1d 2d
THE FRANKING SYSTEM
Since the post office’s beginning, its revenues went to the crown, which held the right to grant the privilege of signing a letter and having it posted for free. This practice, known as franking, extended to both Houses of Parliament and certain officials.
In 1764, postal revenues were given to Parliament in return for the crown being able to submit a Civil List to award honors. Thereafter, Parliament authorized Free Franking. Letters were stamped FREE when franked. Nearly everyone abused the privilege. Most considered a stack of signed blank sheets from a Member of Parliament’s to be a common present after a short visit. Franks could also be issued, by law, by certain public offices both in London and abroad.
To curb abuse, Parliament made forgery of franks a felony, punishable by transportation for seven years. As of 1784, reforms required all franked letters to have the signature, as well as the place and date of posting written at the top by the person franking it. Limits on the numbers of letters that could be franked were imposed, but how could a lowly postmaster tell an undersecretary not to frank more than ten letters a year?
During these years, 1780’s to early 1800’s, it became a hobby among some well-bred ladies to collect franking signatures from letters. Rather the Regency equivalent of collecting autographs. Some ladies strove for a broad collection, while others specialized in particular friends, MPs or relatives.
Prior to 1836, newspapers– and some other printed material such as charity letters and educational materials– could be also franked for free postage to postmasters by the six Clerks of the Road. A tax of 4d had been imposed to cover the cost to handle newspapers. However, publishers were not shy about franking their own newspapers. Booksellers, after Parliament imposed higher postage rates in 1711, also wrote the names of Members of Parliament for free postage, with the approval of the postal Surveyors appointed in 1715, who administered function and facilities of the postal roads.
In addition to franking, from 1795, Parliament granted privileged rates to those serving in the Army, Navy and Militia, with no letter charged a rate higher than 1d. Over the year, this extended to every branch of military service, including, in 1815, the soldiers and seamen employed by the East India Company.
While privileged rates continued for the armed services, all free franking was abolished with the introduction of the penny postage stamp in 1840, which marked the beginning of the modern post office as we know it.
The Postal History of Great Britain and Ireland (1980), R.M Willcocks & B. Jay ISBN: 0-9502797
English Provincial Posts (1633-1840) (1978), Brian Austen ISBN: 0-85033-266-4
England’s Postal History to 1840 (1975), R.M. Willcocks ISBN: 0-9502797-1-4
British Postal Rates, 1635 to 1839, O.R. Sanford and Denis Salt ISBN: 0-85377-021-2, The Postal History Society
United Kingdom Letter Rates 1657-1900 Inland & Overseas, C. Tabeart ISBN:0-905222-58-X
Cary’s New Itinerary Great Roads (1815), John Cary
A More Expeditious Conveyance: A History of the Royal Mails (1984), Bevan Rider ISBN: 0-85131-394-9