Tag Archives: The Peoples Post

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.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one

Taking the bare elements of this incident, it sounds somewhat like a farce, or bad joke. The scene: a coaching inn, on a quiet Wiltshire road. The characters: a mail coach complete with guard and passengers, an escaped lioness and its owner, a former race horse, and a dog. But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction – this blog post relates to a real historic event: the attack of a Lioness on the Mail Coach in 1816.

'Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, At Winterston Hut near Salisbury, on the Night of Sunday the 20th of October, 1816' - colour engraved print by A Sauerweid, 1817 (2009-0024)

'Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, At Winterston Hut near Salisbury, on the Night of Sunday the 20th of October, 1816' - colour engraved print by A Sauerweid, 1817 (2009-0024)

Our regular readers may recall this blog from several years ago; given the airing of The Peoples Post episode on Mail Coaches this is the perfect occasion to revisit the event and examine each part in more detail.

The scene: Winterslow Hut (now the Pheasant Inn) was a famous coaching inn, situated on the post road from Salisbury to Andover. “Hut” was apparently the local name for a road suitable for coach travel.

The mail coach: On the night of 20th October 1816, the London to Exeter mailcoach was on its ‘up’ route, destined for London. Nicknamed ‘Quicksilver’ due to its speed, it was carrying mail, a mail coach guard, paying passengers, and a coach driver.

The lioness: had escaped from a travelling menagerie, stationed in nearby Salisbury Plain. She trotted alongside the mail coach, which whilst alarming the horses, did not perturb the driver, who mistook her for a calf. When the mail coach pulled into its scheduled stop at Winterslow Hut, the lioness pounced and attacked one of the horses.

The horse: ‘Pomegranate’ had been a race-horse, but as his temperament was difficult he was sold to become a coach horse, which was felt would break his fiery spirit. Pomegranate now found himself with the jaws of the raging lioness around his neck.

The passengers: fearing for their lives, stormed the inn and barricaded themselves inside, shutting out not only the mail coach guard, but also, according to one account, another passenger who subsequently became so traumatised by that night’s events he was committed to an asylum for life.

The Mail Coach Guard: One Joseph Pike, reached for his regulation blunderbuss. The role of the mail coach guard was to ensure the safety and security of the mail, and to this end were heavily armed. The guard carried a ‘brace’ of pistols, and a blunderbuss – and Pike was ready to use it.

Blunderbuss, c. 1788-1816 (OB1995.338)

Blunderbuss, c. 1788-1816 (OB1995.338)

The menagerie owner, his assistants and dog: Before Pike could fire, the owner of Ballard’s Menagerie appeared and begged the guard not to fire, stating how much the lioness had cost, and how his investment would be lost. Either his financial argument worked, or as some have stated the owner threatened Pike with a pistol – either way Pike did not shoot. The owner set his Newfoundland dog onto the lioness – who promptly turned her attentions from the horse to the dog, and then hid under a granary.

The lioness’ capture was reported in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal the following week:

Her owner and his assistants…followed her upon their hands and knees, with lighted candles, and having placed a sack on the ground near her, they made her lie down upon it; they then tied her four legs and passed a cord round her mouth, which they secured; in this state they drew her out from under the granary, upon the sack, and then she was lifted and carried by six men into her den in the caravan… the lioness lay as quietly as a lamb during her removal to the caravan.

The event captured the public’s imagination, being recounted in newspapers nationwide. Two artists were inspired to create a visual interpretation of the event, and their resulting prints have been described in this blog. The Pollard print (below) is often considered the more realistic account, the artist it is believed having spoken to the mail coach guard and the inn owner. However, if you take a closer look at the men in the top windows of the inn, it is believed Pollard depicted Charles James Fox, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt – none of whom were at the event, and one of whom had died 10 years previously!

'The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach' – print by James Pollard, 1817 (2009-0010)

'The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach' – print by James Pollard, 1817 (2009-0010)

The animal’s story did not finish with the capture of the lioness. The menagerie owner showed further financial prowess, purchasing the now injured coaching horse, Pomegranate, and displaying him with his wounds the very next day. Pomegranate, the lioness, and the dog all became part of the menagerie’s displays, receiving top billing in this fair.

Poster advertising Ballard’s Grand Collection of Wild Beasts (P8167)

Poster advertising Ballard’s Grand Collection of Wild Beasts (P8167)

Whether this is the actual dog is in question, as according to most accounts the dog died due to injuries received from the lioness. Pomegranate was eventually returned to his owner who received compensation for the injuries suffered. We know the lioness was exhibited at the 1825 Bartholomew Fair.

– Vyki Sparkes, Assistant Curator

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

A Culture of Letters

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post looked at the culture of letters that had arisen in Great Britain by the end of the 18th Century, with people from many different backgrounds writing letters for a variety of reasons. In this blog I hope to show how this culture continued to grow throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, illustrated by items from BPMA’s museum collection.

Quite a lot of letters in our collection are written by the Post Office rather than individuals; these deal with official matters such as examinations and appointments however even these still had a personal touch such as this letter informing Claude Kirby that:

it is practically certain you will be offered appointment as SC&T [Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist], as a result of the position which you took in the November 1935 examination.

A letter written to Claude Kirby regarding his application for the appointment of Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, 1936. (2008-0008)

A letter written to Claude Kirby regarding his application for the appointment of Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, 1936. (2008-0008)

It is often this type of letter that fulfils an official purpose which survive; however, the BPMA also has examples of the more personal, individual letters through which show how people began to share their observations with each other, and which marked the beginning of the instant communication revolution that has emerged in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Many of these more personal letters are love letters: this example is written by a Robert Abbott to his sweetheart Mary.

Page 1 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 1 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 2 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

Page 2 of love letter from Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, c.1845. (OB1995.441/4)

The hand drawn flower in the top left corner sets the scene as he goes on to talk tenderly about a number of things, including the approaching birthday of his sister who

had she been in this world, she would have been thirty-three. But she is more blessed in that state where ‘there is Time no longer’

The culture of letter writing allowed people to express their feelings in a more personal way than ever before; another letter from our collection is from a sailor serving on the HMS Grampus in 1846 to his father, in it he describes the funeral of a colleague.

Letter from a son serving on the HMS Grampus to his father, 1846. (E11879/7)

Letter from a son serving on the HMS Grampus to his father, 1846. (E11879/7)

For many, letter writing became more than just a method of communicating information, events or feelings; it was also a way of displaying their creativity as shown by the emergence of what is known as ‘curious addresses’.

Group of Curious Addresses, 19th and 20th Centuries.

Group of Curious Addresses, 19th and 20th Centuries.

These are envelopes decorated by the sender with pictures, or short verses, often incorporating the address within the picture rather than writing it out in full and testing the knowledge of the postal staff in the process!

BPMA has quite a few curious addresses in the collection, including this particular example which was sent to a Vera Tolhurst on 11/11/1918 in honour of Armistice Day.

Curious Address sent to Vera Tolhurst on 11th November 1918 in celebration of the signing of the Armistice at the end of World War One. (E11846/75)

Curious Address sent to Vera Tolhurst on 11th November 1918 in celebration of the signing of the Armistice at the end of World War One. (E11846/75)

Prior to the introduction of uniform penny postage in 1840 hardly any letters were sent in envelopes as they counted as an additional sheet and were charged as such. By 1855 however, it was estimated that 93% of domestic letters were sent in envelopes, allowing the development of curious addresses along with it. This is just one of many ways in which people across the country began to engage and react to changes in the postal service creating a real culture of letters.

There are many more items in the BPMA collection that show this culture of letters; see our Flickr set for larger versions of the items in this article, and look out for more blogs on this subject in the future.

– Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage A Culture of Letters. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

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.

Thurloe and the Secret Room

As today’s episode of The Peoples Post highlighted censorship and the interception of mails remains a sensitive subject. As recent public outrage against phone hacking has shown, people expect their communications to be private and letters from one private individual to another were once seen as being as sacred as the voicemail messages of a celebrity or crime victim. However, at certain times in the past the government has covertly or overtly intercepted mail as part of its efforts to maintain national security. Through the records held here at the BPMA a special insight into this can be gained.

Very little material survives from the period of the Civil War but the oldest item in the Royal Mail Archive suggests a focus on centralisation and ensuring the correct monopoly for the postal service rather than on interception and spying on the contents of the mail.

Letter from Thomas Witherings to the Mayor of Hull relating to the establishment of the public postal service, by the setting up of new or improved posts on the five principal roads of the kingdom, those to Dover, Edinburgh, Holyhead, Plymouth and Bristol. (POST 23/1)

Letter from Thomas Witherings to the Mayor of Hull relating to the establishment of the public postal service, by the setting up of new or improved posts on the five principal roads of the kingdom, those to Dover, Edinburgh, Holyhead, Plymouth and Bristol. (POST 23/1)

However, as the Civil War progressed and in particular under the regime of Oliver Cromwell it became more widespread – particularly under the leadership of the first Postmaster General, John Thurloe, depicted in a print held in the BPMA museum collection.

The Right Honourable John Thurloe Esqr. Secretary of State to the Protectors Oliver and Richard Cromwell (2010-0398)

The Right Honourable John Thurloe Esqr. Secretary of State to the Protectors Oliver and Richard Cromwell (2010-0398)

Thurloe’s state papers, some of which can be viewed online, include letters from private individuals to others (so, not to Thurloe!) which he has clearly intercepted and kept because of the detail they contain.

Thurloe became a great survivor and his operation was so valued by his opponents that after the Restoration he was rescued from capital charges of treason on condition he worked for the new royalist regime of Charles II, which he did. His character anchors the Thomas Chaloner series of murder mysteries by Susanna Gregory, which bring to life the world in which Thurloe’s operations supported the British state. A real-life depiction is given in a biographical work held in BPMA’s search room library: the Dutchman Mr Dorislaus, employed by Thurloe,

had a private roome allotted him adjoyning to the forreigne Office, and every post night about 11 a clock he went into that roome privately, and had all the letter[s] brought and layd before him, to open any as he should see good, and close them up again, and there he remained in that room, usually till about 3 or 4 in the morning, which was the usuall time of shutting up the male, and in the processe of time the said Dorislaus had got such a knowledge of all hands and seals, that scarcely could a letter be brought him but he knew the hand that wrote it; and when there was any extraordinary occasion, as when any rising was neare or the like, then S. Morland [a secretary of Thurloe’s] went from Whitehall between 11 and 12, and was privately conveighed into that roome, and there assisted Mr Dorislaus, and such letters as they found dangerous he brought back with him to Whitehall in the morning.

– Adrian Steel, Director

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Secret Room. 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