Tag Archives: Mulready stationery

Postal uniforms: the early years

by Claire McHugh, Cataloguer (Collections) 

The post office uniform is one of the most easily recognised uniforms worn in the UK as well as being one of the Post Office’s most familiar symbols. As part of my cataloguing of the uniform collection I will provide a brief series of blogs charting the evolution of the postal uniform into what we see today.

Etching: 'Postiglione Inglese', 1772 (2009-0021)

Etching: 'Postiglione Inglese', 1772 (2009-0021)

The earliest reference to a specific dress for postal workers dress dates from 1590, when it is recorded that the Council of Aberdeen ordered a livery of blue cloth with armorial bearing of the town worked in silver on his right sleeve for ‘the post’ carrier (Green Paper 27). But it wasn’t until 1728 when there is mention of a General Post Office item of uniform. In 1728, Joseph Godman (Secretary of the General Post Office) ordered ‘that every letter carrier…shall, as a badge of his employment, wear a brass ticket upon some (the most visible) part of his clothing, with the King’s Arms upon it’ while on duty (St Martin’s le Grand, The Post Office Magazine ,1909).

The first post office employees to be issued with actual uniform were the Mail Coach Guards who, from 1784 wore a scarlet coat with blue lapels and a black top hat with gold band. Also issued were a brace of pistols, a blunderbuss, a cutlass, a post horn and a time piece. Bar the obvious arming of the guard, it was thought that the association of scarlet with military red (which itself was fast becoming a national symbol), coupled with the military styling of the uniform and the hiring of ex-soldiers would deter robbers who had become a great problem on many of the main roads.

Detail of the colour engraving 'West Country Mails at the Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly', 1828 (2009-0080). Note the similarity of the coach men’s uniform with the military gentleman to the bottom left of the picture.

Detail of the colour engraving 'West Country Mails at the Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly', 1828 (2009-0080). Note the similarity of the coach men’s uniform with the military gentleman to the bottom left of the picture.

1792 marked the beginning of discussions on whether London letter carriers should be supplied with a uniform. The Secretary of the Post Office was sceptical, arguing that the expense of clothing the carriers would outweigh any benefits. But eventually it was decided that an introduction of a uniform would have the benefit of easily identify the wearer, therefore deterring them from entering taverns, pawn brokers and other such place when on Post Office duties. It would also deter the practise of letter carriers taking unofficial holidays by replacing themselves with strangers. As to be expected, the suggestion of introducing a uniform was not received with enthusiasm by letter carriers who felt it was a reflection on their character as being dishonest and feared they would become an easy walking target for robbery (POST 61/1).

London letter carrier’s uniform c.1818 (2004-0199).

London letter carrier’s uniform c.1818 (2004-0199).

In 1793 London letter carriers were issued with a uniform that comprised of a beaver hat with a gold band and cockade, a blue cloth waistcoat and a cut away scarlet coat lined with blue calico which had blue lapels and cuffs; the coat fastened with brass buttons on which were inscribed the wearer’s number. The cost of this initial issue of uniforms was roughly £600 (about £33,618.00 today). Unusually for the time and with respect to the amount of uniform being prepared, the uniform was not actually made by army uniform manufacturers but by civilian tailors.

Originally, the uniform was intended to be issued on Queen Charlotte’s birthday (19th May) but the uniforms weren’t ready in time and the issue was delayed until the autumn because the ton would have left London by the summer and the letter carriers would have dirtied their uniform by the time they had returned to town in autumn.

Though this watercolour dates from 1890 it provides a nostalgic image of the twopenny postage letter carrier (2004-0173).

Though this watercolour dates from 1890 it provides a nostalgic image of the twopenny postage letter carrier (2004-0173).

The trickle down of uniforms beyond London was a slow process. It wasn’t until 1834 that letter carriers in principal provincial cities were issued with uniforms. Three years later the uniform allowance was extended to incorporate London’s twopenny post letter carries. The twopenny post marked a slight variation in the uniform, in that its main colour scheme consisted of blue with scarlet trimmings rather than scarlet with blue trimmings. Consequently a twopenny post letter carrier’s uniform consisted of a blue cut-away coat with a scarlet collar, a blue waistcoat and the obligatory beaver hat, with gold band and cockade.

Detail of a satirical Mulready envelope showing the jibes towards the trouser-less letter carrier

Woman: Goodness! Mr Doubleknokk. Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that? Letter carrier: O no mum! It’s the government dress. Hat, coat & waistcoat & no trousers. - Detail of a satirical Mulready envelope showing the jibes towards the trouser-less letter carrier (POST 118/1039).

It should be mentioned in all of these descriptions there are no mention of the supply of trousers to the letter carriers. This is because the employee was expected to supply these themselves. So often there was a juxtaposition between the smartness of the uniform coat with the frayed condition of the wearer’s trousers. Humorists were quick to seize upon this idea of the absence of trousers from the uniform issue by often depicting letter carriers dressed in a chemise, or wearing no trousers at all. The introduction of trousers would not appear in the issued uniform until the mid 19th century.

London 2010 International Stamp Exhibition

Philatelist Richard West explains why he’s looking forward to the London 2010 International Stamp Exhibition.

The London 2010 International Stamp Exhibition provides the almost unrivalled prospect of being able to see many of the finest stamp collections from around the world. Although international stamp exhibitions are held two or three times a year, it is only every ten years that the United Kingdom plays host, so it is just once a decade that the opportunity arises to see the best of the world of stamps, on one’s home territory.

Cape of Good Hope cover

Cape of Good Hope cover

And just as the event attracts the finest collections, so it also means that the cream of the world’s stamp dealers and auctioneers will be having a stand at London 2010, providing collectors with a good chance of filling at least one or two gaps in the collection.

Mulready envelope with two penny blacks and a more to pay stamp

Mulready envelope with two penny blacks and a more to pay stamp

The Business Design Centre in Islington will be a magnet for enthusiasts from 8th to 15th May, and most will need to visit twice, because the displays are being changed half way through: the collections on show on 12th to 15th May will be different from those to be seen on 8th to 11th May.

Penny black cover

Penny black cover

In addition there will be an area dedicated to enthusing the young into the wonders of stamp collecting. The Stamp Active Network will be providing activities for young people throughout the exhibition, and no youngster will leave without a few goodies to add to or start a fascinating stamp collection.

The United States on British stamps

Tomorrow citizens of the United States will celebrate Independence Day, marking the approval by Congress of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. As Britain was the country from which the United States became independent, you may think that this date has never been celebrated on a British stamp, but in fact it has.

The Bicentennial of American Independence stamp (1976)

The Bicentennial of American Independence stamp (1976)

A stamp released on 2nd June 1976 to celebrate the US Bicentenary shows Benjamin Franklin, one of the Committee of Five who drafted the Declaration of Independence, and the first Postmaster of the United States. Franklin was also the subject of the first US postage stamp, released on 1st July 1847.

Three further stamps with American themes were released by Royal Mail in the 1990s. In 1992, 42 member countries of CEPT (Conference of European Postal & Telecommunications), including the United Kingdom, released stamps on the theme of Voyages of Discovery in America. The first UK stamp shows Christopher Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, about to make landfall in the Americas. The second UK stamp shows the Kaisei, a Japanese brigantine which was involved in the Grand Regatta Columbus, an event celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ journey. Participating in the rally were members of Raleigh International, which has organised charitable expeditions since 1978.

The Landfall in the Americas and Grand Regatta Columbus stamps (1992)

The Landfall in the Americas and Grand Regatta Columbus stamps (1992)

The Settlers Tale: 17th Century Migration to the Americas (1999)

The Settlers' Tale: 17th Century Migration to the Americas (1999)

In 1999 Royal Mail celebrated the approaching Millenium by releasing a number of sets of stamps on various themes. The Settler’s Tale stamps, on the theme of migration to, from and within the UK, were released on 6 April 1999 and include a stamp on migration to the Americas in the 17th Century. The stamp shows a Pilgrim couple trading with a Native American.

But perhaps the most interesting depictions of the Americas on British postal stationery are the envelope and letter sheet designed by William Mulready. The Mulready stationery was released at the same time as the Penny Black, but proved unpopular, partly due to the elaborate design. The design shows Britannia between depictions of the continents of Asia and America, and, in the lower corners, small family groups anxiously reading letters. The Americas are represented by Pilgrims, Native Americans, and toiling slaves – remember, this was 1840! (For a closer view of the Mulready stationery see Volume II of the R M Phillips Collection, an award-winning collection of British stamps from the Victorian era in the care of the BPMA.)

A coloured version of The Mulready Envelope (1840)

A coloured version of The Mulready Envelope (1840)

So, Happy Independence Day to our readers in the United States, and if you’d like to tell us about US stamps with British themes please leave a comment.