The GPO Solicitor’s Department: cheating MPs, rabid dogs and pirates

Wrangles over MP’s expenses are nothing new. The records of the General Post Office (GPO) Solicitor’s Department reveal members of both Houses of Parliament looking for ways to circumvent postage charges throughout the early 19th century. Mr Hume, MP (1812-55), seems to have been particularly bold. Not satisfied with limitations on his parliamentary privilege (to send 10 and receive 15 letters per day free of charge – this was in the days when it cost money to receive a letter), he asked for his allowance to be doubled on a Monday, to compensate for the lack of delivery on a Sunday. When this was denied he tried a different tact, opening and reading his letters before sending them back to the GPO as refused, with a request that ‘unjust’ postage charges be refunded. Sadly this too was refused, but his creativity is certainly to be admired.

This was just one of the fascinating stories I uncovered in the case and opinion files of the Solicitor’s Department, while on a two-week student cataloguing placement at the British Postal Museum and Archive. At first I thought the records would be full of technical jargon and might prove a challenge. Fortunately, the formulaic nature of legal records makes it easy for anyone to understand them. Within a day or two it became clear that ‘delivering the mails’ could prove dangerous; from rabid dogs attacking mail coaches all over England to pirates commandeering package ships , the life of a letter carrier was unpredictable on land and on sea.

Typical example of cases and opinions files from the GPO Solicitor’s Department – On establishing posts in the Australian Colonies (POST 74)

Typical example of cases and opinions files from the GPO Solicitor’s Department – On establishing posts in the Australian Colonies (POST 74)

Beneath the legal language lies a wealth of human interest stories which resonate today. In 1843 independent publishers wrote to the GPO complaining that foreign publishers were breaking copyright legislation and mislabelling cargo to flood the British market with cheap literature. Their concerns closely echo high street booksellers discussing internet commerce in recent years. Several cases involved letters being delayed as a result of the multitude of road and bridge tolls in the UK and Ireland. In recent weeks, the news has involved public speculation about the potential re-emergence of road tolls in debate about increased road privatisation.

Many of the files included letters from members of the public who felt they had been charged the wrong postage rates. Often these calculations could be incredibly complex with different rates for newspapers and letters, confusion about whether deliveries by circuitous route should be charged by actual distance travelled and the existence of postal towns meaning that the cost of delivery to a street just outside its borders incurred a separate ‘suburban rate’. It seems likely this public discontent acted as a rallying call, encouraging the introduction of uniform minimum penny postage, regardless of distance travelled in 1840.

Most of the records I worked with during my placement were from the 1820s to 1840s. In my last few days at the BPMA, I did some research into the administrative history of the Solicitor’s Department to provide context for these records. I came across an internal brochure produced by the department in the 1981 for business units across Royal Mail Group plc. Although the legal team had expanded in size, it was interesting to note that the functions of the department in the 1830 remained largely unchanged 150 years later: conveyance; civil litigation; prosecution; commercial affairs; and employment, postal and planning matters.

Solicitor’s Department team photo, 1981 (POST 74)

Solicitor’s Department team photo, 1981 (POST 74)

Natalya Kusel – UCL archive cataloguing placement student

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