William Dockwra, The Penny Post and Coffee Houses

In today’s episode of the BBC Radio 4 series The Peoples Post the role of the Penny Post and the part played in its establishment by William Dockwra was rightly highlighted. This very early penny post system is sometimes neglected but this new cheaper and faster postal system, that was affordable by almost all, predated the much better recorded universal penny post by 160 years. The Penny Post, which was set up independently of the state run Royal Mail began in the City of London, then as today the centre of business and finance in the country. It was business and enterprise that helped it grow and develop, and very quickly it became a commercial success, so much so that it threatened the monopoly of the Royal Mail. William Dockwra opened the penny post in 1680, with its first office in the heart of what is still today the financial district of London. Within a year the number of receiving houses being used by the system had risen to between 4 and 500.

Dockwra Penny Post triangular marking, this letter was discussed on the BBC Radio 4 series (PH (L) 3/07)

Dockwra Penny Post triangular marking, this letter was discussed on the BBC Radio 4 series (PH (L) 3/07)

At the heart of this network of receiving houses was the London coffee house, then as today instrumental in business. The coffee houses of London were a place of business, a place where business meetings would take place and where many businessmen would establish themselves as regulars, making particular coffee houses the place where people could expect to find them. For this reason many of the London coffee houses were an ideal place for the letters of the penny post to be sent to and collected from.

Within the collections of the BPMA there are a number of examples of letters addressed to businessmen via their regular coffee house. A prolific user of this system was James Gordon, a wine merchant and here we see an examples of two letter addressed to Gordon, sent to two separate London coffee house, one is the Lloyds Coffee House which was situated in Lombard Street, close to where the General Post Office itself was situated at the time.

Letter addressed to James Gordon Esq. at the New Lloyds Coffee House London (Postal History Series)

Letter addressed to James Gordon Esq. at the New Lloyds Coffee House London (Postal History Series)

Letter also addressed to James Gordon but this one is stated, ‘to be left at the Jamaica Coffee House London’ (Postal History Series)

Letter also addressed to James Gordon but this one is stated, ‘to be left at the Jamaica Coffee House London’ (Postal History Series)

Both these items were sent by the GPO’s Penny Post, after the government took over Dockwra’s service. It was also within this same coffee house that the Lloyd’s Insurance market was first established that is today one of the world’s largest insurance markets and still based just down the road from this coffee house.

Today, just yards from the blue plaque marking the site of the Lloyds coffee house is one of London’s many modern coffee houses, still a place of business meetings to this day.

– Chris Taft, Curator

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The London Penny Post. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

3 responses to “William Dockwra, The Penny Post and Coffee Houses

  1. Re; Authenticity of the 2nd cover (letter) above.
    1. The Dockwra “penny post” was taken over by government in 1682 as I understand it.
    2. The “New Lloyd’s Coffee Shop” in Lombard Street wasn’t established until late 1691 according to the “Blue Plaque”. Previously it existed in Tower Street – having been established there around 1688.

    Hence, how can the second cover be a Dockwra cover directed to Lombard Street before Lloyd’s was located there? There’s at least a 9 year gap in the dates. Is it authentic or a forgery?

    • Thank you for your comment – you are correct. This article made an error, which we have now amended. The bottom two images show London Coffee house addresses, which bear government Dockwras, not markings from Dockwra’s original system.

      • Thank you for resolving that. I appreciate it.

        Could I also add that the triangular mark for Dockwra has the “PAID” element always facing outwards (as per your first cover) whereas the subsequent mark of similar design used by the PO has the PAID element inverted (upside down) as I understand it.

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