Tag Archives: postal reform

Free post

From the early part of the 17th century through until 1840 when Rowland Hill’s new reforms turned the postal world on its head with cheap Universal Penny Postage, the Post Office had been blighted by a constant battle against people that strove to find ways and means by which they could send their mail “free of charge”.

As we heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, the root of the problem lay in the fact that in 1652, Members of Parliament granted themselves the right to send and receive their letters free.

Cigarette card showing parcels on a mail coach with labels saying whether they are free or subject to payment

Cigarette card showing parcels on a mail coach with labels saying whether they are free or subject to payment, 1911-36 (2010-0383/19)

The abuse of this privilege grew at such an enormous pace it was soon totally out of control. By the early 1830’s it was estimated to cost the Post Office over £36,000 per annum but 30 years later the Surveyor’s report shows the annual cost of the frank to have risen to £140,000 per annum.

Many Acts of Parliament and proclamations were issued over the years to try and stem the abuse of the franking system but no sooner that one loophole was blocked, a way would be found around it. There were 4 main weaknesses:-

1) The need of an M.P.’s signature on the front of free letters, encouraged unscrupulous people to forge the signature if a genuine one was unobtainable.

This situation was allowed to continue until 1764 when the first Act of Parliament was issued to penalise those who carried out this offence. From now on, those found guilty were transported for a term of 7 years.

One such case is well documented in the BPMA Archives when in 1818, the Rev. Laurence Halloran D.D. was found guilty of forging the signature of William Garrow M.P. and was duly sentenced to 7 years transportation. William Garrow of course is the principal character in BBC 1’s current T.V. programme Garrow’s Law which features this brilliant Lawyer, Judge and M.P. of the 18th/19th century.

Whilst awaiting transportation in Newgate prison, Halloran wrote a book of poems claiming his innocence and in which he published memorials that he claimed were received from many illustrious persons who supported him in his distress.

Mr. Parkin, the Post Office Solicitor’s case papers are held in the Royal Mail Archive and make fascinating reading. They include copies taken from several dies that Halloran had forged of ordination certificates including his own. Halloran was obviously a clever and well-educated man but also a man that was capable of forging a signature to avoid the postage on a letter.

Propaganda envelope sent through the post by Robert Wallace MP explaining the need for postal reform, 1838. (Postal History Series)

Propaganda envelope sent through the post by Robert Wallace MP explaining the need for postal reform, 1838. (Postal History Series)

2) M.P.’s sold on their privilege to Companies that paid them handsomely for their postage rights.

They also handed out huge quantities of franked (signed) letter sheets to family and friends or to anyone from whom they needed a favour such as a vote. Instances are recorded where servant’s wages had been part-paid in franked letter-sheets, which when the recipient was unable to write, would be sold-on in the local tavern. It is known that some of these finished up in the hands of criminals and were converted into I.O.U.’s.

Letter sent free by Lord Byron (member of the House of Lords) with Free handstamp marking, 1835. (Postal History Series)

Letter sent free by Lord Byron (member of the House of Lords) with Free handstamp marking, 1835. (Postal History Series)

3) In 1712 Newspapers were taxed and later were allowed to travel free in the post, providing they bore the newspaper tax stamp.

This was a massive burden to the Post Office – newspapers were bulky and heavy and by the late 1830’s it was estimated that some 70% by weight of all mail was going “free”.

For many ordinary folk (maybe illiterate), just to receive a newspaper in a familiar hand was comforting and sufficient. It told them that loved ones were alive and thinking of them. Others (those that could read), would perhaps require a bit more news and might be disposed to conceal their letter within the newsprint. This was generally done by “ringing the letters” in pencil or “pricking out the letters” with a pin. The recipient, by writing down the letters as they appeared in sequence in the newsprint, could easily decipher the message. To write a letter within a newspaper was an unforgivable crime subject to the most severe penalty, but did a series of pin-pricks made in a newspaper, constitute writing a letter? A tricky job for the legal profession.

, 1839. (Postal History Series)”]Letter sent free to the Commander in Chief of the forces [he was allowed to receive all letters free], 1839. (Postal History Series)4). As with a newspaper, receipt of a letter was welcomed whether it could be afforded or not.

Some families that were parted had simple pre-arranged codes that they would build into the address panels of their letters. Perhaps a “doubled-crossed” tee would mean that all the family were well; perhaps an “under-lined” word or an extra name slipped into the address would impart some meaningful piece of news to the person reading the address panel. Having gleaned those little scraps of news about their loved ones, the recipient would simply hand back the letter to the carrier saying “Sorry, but I can’t afford it” and the long process of another “dead-letter” would begin. Dead-letters were both cumbersome and expensive to the Post Office.

– Mike Bament, Postal Historian

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

The Peoples Post

Monday 5th December sees the launch of an exciting new series on BBC Radio 4. The Peoples Post is a 15 part series exploring the history of the postal service through the people that use and work for it. The series begins in the 16th century in the reign of Henry VIII and explores some of the key moments in the nearly 500 years since then. Each weekday there will be a new 15 minute episode touching on a different part of this fascinating and evolving story.

London Chief Office - Artwork for a poster by Grace Golden on the subject of postal facilities, 1948. (POST 109/198)

London Chief Office - Artwork for a poster by Grace Golden on the subject of postal facilities, 1948. (POST 109/198)

The first five episodes, during the first week, will look at the early history of the postal service. It will cover the days of the postal service as an instrument of state and consider the expansion of the system, first under Charles I and then later in the 18th century with the post being used increasingly to assist trade. The final episode in week one will look at a postal system that was becoming ripe for improvement and this episode will link to week two where we see the postal service undergoing its most important change, postal reform.

'The Country Letter Carrier' - Oil Painting by J P Hall, 1859 (OB1997.8)

'The Country Letter Carrier' - Oil Painting by J P Hall, 1859 (OB1997.8)

Week two opens with the story of the Penny Black and how postal reform changed the world. Throughout the week the massive expansion of the Royal Mail will be explored and the effect it had on the lives of people. From the expansion into the parcels posts in the 1880s through the development of social post and the part the post office played in the community, to the industrial unrest in the 1890s with the first postal workers’ strike.

The first 'First Day Cover' in the world, showing a Penny Black used on 6 May 1840, the first day of validity. (Phillips Collection Vol IV/3, POST 141/04)

The first 'First Day Cover' in the world, showing a Penny Black used on 6 May 1840, the first day of validity. (Phillips Collection Vol IV/3, POST 141/04)

The final week looks at some of the innovations and changes that were to impact on the industry. The rise of new technologies such as the telegraphs and later developments such as the introduction by Royal Mail of the postcode, and the way that system evolved to form a part of everyone’s life. This week will also consider the post office in the First World War, the impact of the loss of male workers and the employment of women, and also the massive new role of delivering mail to a world at war and managing censorship.

Norwich addresses need postal codes, GPO poster from 1961 (POST 110/4323)

Norwich addresses need postal codes, GPO poster from 1961 (POST 110/4323)

The series is supported throughout by the BPMA. With each episode there will be new content loaded onto the website, Flickr and this blog, exploring some of the issues in more detail. Links to these will be provided via Facebook, Twitter and Google+ – and you can live tweet the show on the hashtag #PeoplesPost. Much of the research for the series has also been drawn from the Royal Mail Archive, which is managed by the BPMA. Images and details from the BPMA’s rich collections will illustrate each episode.

The BPMA were involved with the series from the very beginning and a number of members of BPMA staff were involved in developing the links with the series producers and the BBC. Most particularly the BPMA would like to thank Peter Sutton for his role of researcher, helping to find the links within the collection, and Jenny Karlsson and Alison Bean for helping to build the links and develop the online content.

– Chris Taft, Curator

Cruchley’s Postal District Map, 1859

Each month we present an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

This month, Bruce Robertson, a retired town planner from East London, who has been a volunteer working on the postal history collections at Bruce Castle Museum, chooses his favourite object:

Cruchley's Postal District Map, 1859

Cruchley's Postal District Map, 1859

“As a town planner interested in postal history, one of the postal maps was always going to be my favourite object.

Cruchley’s Postal District Map of 1859 was produced when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Rowland Hill’s postal reform, postage stamps, the Penny Black and universal Penny Postage – and District Post Offices – were all part of everyday life. The use of ‘the post’ had grown so much, and there used to be three or four deliveries a day. To aid the sorting of the mail, London had been divided into postal districts – the start of the post-code system we use today”.

Morten Collection Object of the Month: April 2010

Each month, for ten months, we’ll be presenting an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

If you have any comments on the objects or the Collection we’d be grateful to hear them. At the end of the ten months we hope we’ll have given you an overview of the Collection, highlighting individual items but also emphasising the diverse nature of the material. For further information on the Morten Collection, please see our blog of 16th December 2009.

by Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer, Bruce Castle Museum

Red letter boxes have been a familiar sight around Britain and are popular with tourists; tins and pencil sharpeners are only some of the many letter box shaped souvenirs available. However, very few people are aware of variations in their design or indeed know anything about their history.

Letter boxes are in fact a relatively recent phenomenon in the British Isles and their introduction has to be seen very much in conjunction with Rowland Hill’s postal reforms, together with the increase in literacy due to the demands of the industrial revolution. With an increase in literacy and therefore an increase in letter writing the old system of a post boy walking around the streets ringing a bell for people to come out and hand deliver him the letters to be posted was no longer efficient. The need for letter boxes, as used in Paris from as early as 1653, became apparent.

It was thanks to Anthony Trollope (who worked for the Post Office before finding fame as a novelist) that letter boxes were introduced to the UK. Trollope installed four pillar boxes in St Helier, Jersey, as an experiment on 23rd November 1852. The trial was successful, and in 1853 pillar boxes were erected in mainland Britain.

A wooden post box which is part of the Bruce Castle postal history collection

A wooden post box which is part of the Bruce Castle postal history collection

In the collection at Bruce Castle we hold a poster that shows the development and variation of pillar boxes prior to the red design familiar to us. Very early pillar boxes differ in two respects. Firstly, they do not bear the monarch’s cipher, and secondly they were green in colour, making them less visible to passers by, resulting in a number of people walking into them!

For this Object of the Month I have chosen a model of an 1857 pillar box, of which we hold two slightly different copies. The model is made of wood, is about 50cm high, has a slot for letters, and a plate with times and prices on it.

More on Letter Boxes can be found on the BPMA website.

The Rowland Hill Fund

The following blog was written for us by Mary Jeffery, Manager of the Rowland Hill Fund.

The Rowland Hill Fund is a registered charity founded in 1882 as a memorial to the great postal reformer and founder of the modern postal service Sir Rowland Hill, who retired as Secretary to the Post Office in 1864.

Portrait of Sir Rowland Hill

Sir Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill adapted the postal system of the 1830s from one which was slow and inadequate to the introduction of using an adhesive stamp on the letter sheets, and the Penny Black was born. This system meant letters were cheaper to send and Rowland Hill succeeded in making the postal system more efficient and profitable.

Rowland Hill died in Hampstead, London in 1879 and in 1882 the Post Office created the Rowland Hill Fund in his memory for postal workers, pensioners and their dependants in times of need.

In its early days before the existence of the Welfare State organisations such as ours were often the only place that individuals could turn to when in financial distress. Although welfare provision is now an accepted part of society there is nonetheless a need to provide financial support, and the Rowland Hill Fund is still a vibrant concern.

Over the years the Fund has helped thousands of individuals and made grants totalling many hundreds of thousands of pounds. Last year the Fund dealt with 369 new cases distributing close to £250,000 in grant aid to current and retired colleagues, and made more than 50 grants of £1,000 or over.

The support we offer is varied; help with budgeting, respite breaks, home modifications for the disabled, mobility vehicles or an unexpected crisis. The diverse nature of the help provided indicates that there is an ongoing need for the financial support and practical advice we are able to offer. There is a free confidential Helpline available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, HELP 0800 688 8777. Here are examples where the Fund has helped.

“A serving colleague’s ground floor belongings were destroyed in the recent floods. She had to move upstairs until the substantial repairs on the ground floor had been completed and needed a temporary electricity supply and a washing machine. We contributed £500 as an emergency payment.”

“For several years a retired colleague had difficulty of movement, and with the help of his wife had managed to continue leading a fairly full life. As she was getting older, she was no longer able to lift him. The Fund helped towards the installation of a stair lift and bath hoist.”

“A couple are travelling daily to visit their son in hospital. Their son was born with a number of heath problems and has been in hospital since birth and will remain there for several more months. They had paid out £720 in travelling expenses and the Fund reimbursed them and will continue to pay their travel costs until their son leaves hospital.”

“A family house had hardly any heating and there was no hot water available except from kettles. Their two young children were particularly affected during the cold weather and had to be shipped off to their grandmothers to stay until the weather improved. The Fund contributed towards the cost of a replacement gas boiler.”

Often people are suffering hardship through no fault of their own and we are here to provide assistance when it is most needed, and in these changing times we want people to know that there is somewhere they can turn to for support. If you know of a Royal Mail Group colleague or pensioner who may be in need of financial or practical support, do let them know about the Fund.

Please support your charity and give what you can to help those who need it the most. For more information, ways to contribute and eligibility criteria, visit our website www.rowlandhillfund.org

Rowland Hill’s Postal Reforms

If there is one man who can be said to have changed the face of the postal service forever it is Rowland Hill. Hill was a noted reformer in the Victorian era, pioneering pupil-focused mass education and working for the South Australian Colonisation Commission, but he also had an interest in the postal service. In 1837 he published and circulated the pamphlet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. During the 1830’s there were growing calls for postal reform and Hill’s pamphlet proved influential, ultimately leading to the introduction of the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, in 1840.

A cross-written letter

A cross-written letter

Prior to 1840 the postal system was expensive, confusing and seen as corrupt. Letters were paid for by the recipient rather than the sender, and were charged according to the distance the letter had travelled and the number of sheets of paper it contained. As a result cross-writing, the practice of writing in different directions, was a common method of saving paper and money, and envelopes were rarely used.

For ordinary people the cost of receiving a letter was a significant part of the weekly wage. If you lived in London and your relatives had written to you from Edinburgh you would have to pay one shilling and one pence per page – more than the average worker earned in a day. Many letters were never delivered because their recipients could not afford them, losing the Post Office a great deal of money.

But while ordinary people scrimped and saved to use the postal system, many items, such as newspapers, were not subject to charge, and Members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords had the right to frank and receive letters for free. Well-connected individuals could thus ask their MP to frank their mail for them, further reducing Post Office revenue.

After the Napoleonic Wars postage rates were high – a sly method of taxation – and there were many other anomalies and a number of local services with different charges. The system was ripe for reform.

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill’s solution was prepayment, and a uniform rate of one pence for all letters weighing up to one ounce. Hill made no mention of the method of prepayment but later proposed the use of stamped covers (an idea previously suggested by Charles Knight). At an official inquiry into the Post Office, Hill outlined his ideas further and suggested that “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash” be used. When the inquiry reported it recommended Hill’s plan to reduce postal charges and appended samples of stamped covers to the report.

The establishment of a parliamentary Select Committee chaired by fellow postal reform campaigner Robert Wallace followed, and at the same time a Mercantile Committee on postage was set up by merchants to campaign for lower postal rates. Rowland Hill was a member of the Mercantile Committee.

The Select Committee recommended Hill’s ideas in early 1839, but favoured a uniform rate of 2d. After public pressure was put on the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, the uniform rate was reduced to 1d, and on 15th August 1839 a bill was passed in favour of a universal penny post. The same bill abolished free franking and introduced prepayment in the form of stamped paper, stamped envelopes and labels.

Penny Black and Twopence Blue

Penny Black and Twopence Blue

Rowland Hill was appointed to the Treasury to oversee the implementation of the bill and the uniform penny post was introduced on 10th January 1840. Covers, envelopes and the world’s first adhesive stamps, the Penny Black and Twopence Blue, were introduced in May 1840. The stamps quickly proved themselves to be most popular method of prepayment.

Rowland Hill’s idea for a universal penny post was quickly vindicated. The number of chargeable letters in 1839 had been only about 76 million. By 1850 this had increased to almost 350 million and continued to grow dramatically. The Post Office’s revenue was initially cut but with the increase in the number of letters it soon recovered.

Adhesive postage stamps were gradually introduced throughout the world and with the change to charging by weight, envelopes became normal for the first time. Hill’s brother Edwin invented a prototype envelope folding machine, enabling increased production to fulfil the growing demand.

The rapid increase in the use of the postal service is also partly credited with the development of the transport system, particularly the railways, and improved opportunities for businesses in the Victorian era and beyond. The lower charges also had wide social benefits and the increasingly literate working classes took full advantage of the now affordable postal system.

Death Centenary of Rowland Hill stamp, 1979

Death Centenary of Rowland Hill stamp, 1979

Rowland Hill continued to influence the Post Office, becoming Secretary to the Postmaster General in 1846 and Secretary to the Post Office in 1854. During this period Hill established the Post Office Savings Bank, which encouraged more people to save, and introduced postcodes to London – essential in a city made up of lots of little villages all growing into each other, where streets in different parts of the city often had the same name.

Fittingly, Rowland Hill and his reforms have been celebrated on several postage stamps, including four stamps released to mark his death centenary in 1979, and the 1995 Communications stamps which commemorate the campaign for a universal penny post and the introduction of the Penny Black. Rowland Hill has also been honoured by three public statues and is buried in Westminster Abbey, a mark of how important his work was. There is also an awards scheme named after Hill for innovation, initiative and enterprise in the field of philately, and the Rowland Hill Fund, established in 1882, offers financial aid to past and present Royal Mail workers in times of need.

Pioneers of Communication: Rowland Hill stamps, 1995

Pioneers of Communication: Rowland Hill stamps, 1995

For more on postal history during the Victorian era please see our online exhibition Victorian Innovation.

Walking back through 400 years of postal history

by Jennifer Flippance, London 2010 Project Officer

K2 and K6 phone kiosks at Smithfield Market

K2 and K6 phone kiosks at Smithfield Market

For the last three years BPMA has been running popular walking tours, which take you into the heart of old GPO London, exploring 400 years of postal history and developments in the iconic street furniture of telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The full tour lasts around 3 hours but next year, as part of our programme of activities to celebrate the London 2010: Festival of Stamps, we’re developing a ‘highlights’ version that will last around 1.5 hours and finish up at Guildhall Art Gallery. This will give you the opportunity to visit the fascinating exhibition, Empire Mail: George V and the GPO which will contain many significant objects and items of postal history from the reign of George V, when the GPO (General Post Office) was at its height.

Last week, Chris Taft, one of the curators at the BPMA who helped to develop and run the tours, took me out on the route of the new walking tour.

The Central Telegraph Office c. 1920s

The Central Telegraph Office c. 1935

It takes in the old GPO heartland around St Martin’s Le Grand, once the bustling hub of communication throughout the empire. This incorporates the majestic former GPO headquarters of King Edward Building – opened in 1910, the front of which is still standing today – and the sites of GPO North, the Central Telegraph Office and GPO East, from where crowds gathered each night to witness the spectacle of racing mail coaches leaving London.

Today King Edward Street is overlooked by a statue of Rowland Hill, the social reformer who revolutionised the postal service in 1840, making mail communication within reach of ordinary people for the first time.

Curator Chris Taft, takes a break beside the statue of Rowland Hill, outside King Edward Building

Curator Chris Taft, takes a break beside the statue of Rowland Hill, outside King Edward Building

Then travel further back in time to the site where the ‘bishop mark’ the world’s first postmark was struck in 1661. Continue to the area of the City where many coffee houses clustered in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Coffee houses were significant in the development of communication because many had the facility for visitors to post letters. Due to the coffee shop owners’ close relationships with ship owners, this was considered a more efficient way of carrying letters overseas than using the Post Office.

A little further on is the site of the office of the Postmaster General. In 1680 this was the only place you could post letters in the country. By 1808 the office was called “the most important spot on the surface of the globe.”

Dates for the new walking tour will be announced later in the year.

The last full-length walking of 2009 takes place on Saturday 26 September (1.00 – 4.00 pm). Click here to find out how to book tickets

Postal History Collection online

by Gavin McGuffie, Catalogue Manager

In March the BPMA started adding comprehensive listings of its Postal History Collection to its website for the first time and we’ve recently added some more. This Collection consists of more than 200 albums of postal markings dating from before and after the introduction of the first adhesive postage stamp in 1840.

Dec.1830. Entire letter sent from Sydney to London showing two strikes in black of a framed ‘DOVER / INDIA LETTER’ handstamp – Robertson type IN3. One of the India Letter stamps has been overstruck with a stepped ‘SHIP LETTER / DOVER’ stamp – Robertson type S11 also in black.

Dec.1830. Entire letter sent from Sydney to London showing two strikes in black of a framed ‘DOVER / INDIA LETTER’ handstamp – Robertson type IN3. One of the India Letter stamps has been overstruck with a stepped ‘SHIP LETTER / DOVER’ stamp – Robertson type S11 also in black.

Postal markings include datestamps, rate markings and indications of the origin, route and arrival of mail. With more modern mail they also show evidence of automatic cancelling and sorting.

The collection has prompted significant amounts of research and this has been compiled into detailed lists which have been made into downloadable pdfs. The lists are being loaded onto the website in batches; currently we have listings for provincial penny post/5th clause, mileage marks and missent and misdirected mail marks, ship letters, India letters and ‘Paid at’ stamps. All of the listings have introductions illustrated with specific types. These can be found by either following the hyperlinks on the catalogue record for the Postal History Collection or on the postal markings webpage.

From the very beginning of the postal service in 1635, letters were charged according to the distance they were carried. To assist the Post Office in determining the correct postal rate, mileage marks were used from 1784. This principle continued until December 1839 when Rowland Hill’s reforms introduced a uniform rate of postage throughout the kingdom based upon weight.

S35 missent mark

S35 missent mark

The earliest known ‘missent’ handstamp is dated 1787 on a letter addressed to Newark in Nottinghamshire. From then on, a variety of ‘missent’ and ‘misdirected’ handstamps were used. They are known in several designs, both framed and unframed, and in various colours.

Before the advent of airmail all British mail going abroad, and coming from abroad, had to travel by sea. The earliest known handstamps were not recorded until early in the eighteenth century when the first handstruck stamps were issued by the General Post Office indicating that mail had arrived by sea.

For the great majority of Inland letters in the early days of the postal system the postage was usually paid on delivery by the recipient. Accordingly, “pre-paid” or “paid” handstamps were few and far between and did not exist, except for the Chief Offices in London, Edinburgh and Dublin and a few major cities like Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow.

The listings have been compiled by volunteers over a period of 15 years. For these sections, most listings and descriptions have been compiled by Mike Bament, the well-known postal historian and BPMA volunteer.

Over time more material will be made available online. Subsequent listings will include London markings and railway letters. Look out for updates on our website.