Tag Archives: trade

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.

Walking Tours of GPO London

Anyone walking through the City of London will note weird and wonderful street names such as Cheapside, Poultry and Undershaft, or the more mundane Milk Street, Bread Street and Oat Lane, and get a sense of the Square Mile’s past history as part over-crowded slum, part burgeoning centre of trade. But the history of postal communication can also be seen in the City, with Postman’s Park and Post Office Court being merely the most obvious examples. These and other sites will be explored as part of the BPMA’s programme of GPO London walking tours.

In 1643 the first General Post Office was established in the City, with the site most likely to have been in Cloak Lane, near Dowgate Hill. This came just eight years after Charles I made the Royal Mail available to his subjects, although it was Oliver Cromwell who formally established the Post Office in 1657.

At this time Coffee Houses were considered more reliable mail providers than the newly formalised Post Office. Many Coffee House owners collected letters and made arrangements with ship masters for their delivery overseas. This practice was illegal for it infringed the Post Office monopoly, but the service continued to be popular. It is not coincidental that so many early Post Offices were also established in the City of London.

The site of the Garraways Coffee House (rebuilt 1874) and Lloyds Coffee House (1691-1785) will be visited on the tour, along with the sites of the former GPO Headquarters at Lombard Street and St Martin’s-le-Grand.

Other notable sites visited on the tour are King Edward Building (the former Chief Post Office now occupied by Merrill Lynch), and GPO North. Also in the vicinity was the Central Telegraph Office where Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated wireless telegraphy to William Preece, Engineer to the GPO.

There will also be an opportunity to explore a range of operational GPO street furniture from many eras, including manhole covers, telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The tours last around 3 hours and are conducted by BPMA Curators. For more information and booking details please see our website.

BPMA Walking Tours, 2009
GPO London – Tuesday 30th June 2009, 1.00-4.00pm
GPO London – Saturday 19th July 2009, 2.00-5.00pm
GPO London – Tuesday 26th September 2009, 1.00-4.00pm