Tag Archives: uniform penny post

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

Looking for a volunteer opportunity or student placement at The British Postal Museum & Archive? Find out more on our website.

Postal Uniforms: 1855

by Claire McHugh, Cataloguer (Collections)

To continue from my last blog on early postal uniforms, the adoption in 1840 of a Uniform Penny Post and other related reforms initiated by Rowland Hill encouraged the development of the Post Office; this growth was reflected in the increasing workforce and the amount of uniform needing to be issued. In 1851 it was estimated the amount of individuals being supplied with post office uniforms had risen to about 1,700.

Parisian postman circa 1850

Parisian postman circa 1850

1855 marked the replacement of the previous cut-away tail coat by a skirted scarlet frock coat. The wearer’s identification number was no longer on the buttons but had now transferred to being worn on the collar, while the beaver hat was replaced by a glazed hat modelled on one used by the Parisian postmen.

Though scepticism over its practicality was present from the start, even from those involved with its production; a contemporary English contractor suggested that the hat would probably not be very comfortable to wear owing to ‘its lack of resiliency’, even being quite impractical due to ‘its attraction [sic] the rays of the sun; in cold weather the japann becomes so brittle that the least pressure or fall would cause it to crack’.

Nevertheless, the counter plea won with the response that what was satisfactory in France should prove satisfactory in Britain. The vogue for this hat soon waned as the predicted problems became apparent; in 1859 the glazed hat was superseded by a hard felt hat, which later was replaced by the single-peaked shako.

A letter carrier in the new uniform, The Illustrated Glasgow News, 30 June 1855

A letter carrier in the new uniform, The Illustrated Glasgow News, 30 June 1855

Other additions to the uniform included the issuing of a waterproof tippet (cape) to protect the easily soiled coat. But most importantly the outfit included grey trousers – the letter carriers no longer had to wear their own much maligned, tattered and unmatching trousers. This resulted in a much neater appearance which saved the letter carriers blushes – and if a letter from the wives of postmen addressing the Queen with the request that their husbands be given trousers is to be believed, their wives too (POST 92/1144).

Reaction to the new uniform was mixed; on the one hand it was admired for its smarter more coherent look, contemporary newspapers even going as far to say that ‘The unmarried portion of the corps will now have so many admirers that doors will open spontaneously, knockers will rust on their hinges, and bells will only be rung to celebrate the merry peal and the utter extinction of bachelors in red habiliments. We have heard that all the domestic servants are now in a flutter of excitement when the double knock is heard.’ (The Illustrated Glasgow News, 30 June 1855).

'The Postman's Knock' - Colour lithographic song sheet. c.1860

'The Postman's Knock' - Colour lithographic song sheet. c.1860

But on the other hand there was criticism of the new outfit. Punch (1855) found the uniform to ‘glaring’ and ‘more fitted for the Fire Brigade’ and couldn’t ‘comprehend the taste which has pinned a large pair of scarlet skirts to the coat of the postman, and caused us to mistake him for a sentinel off his post, by his resemblance to a Foot Guardsman’. This criticism of the military aspect of the frock coat design can be seen in others derisive comments, for example one paper questions whether ‘the coats or the [scarlet] cloth at least, must have been cabbaged from the Crimea.’

Regardless of the criticism, 1855 can be regarded as the first collective post office uniform that created a smart and more coherent look for the Post Office, as it successfully brought the London District and the General Post letter carriers (who up until then had worn separate uniforms) into line, as both classes now appeared in the same scarlet uniform. Over the next few years this issue gradually spread to the provinces until the next significant uniform change in 1861.

The BPMA Handstamp Collection

by Freya Folåsen, Cataloguer (Collections)

The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) museum collection has just about any object type one can think of when it comes to the British postal service: postal stationary, pens and stamps; letterboxes and sorting machines; vehicles and uniforms. A very large part of the collection consists of handstamps: these are implements used to apply a postmark by hand. The BPMA has several thousand handstamps which are in the process of being catalogued and made available online, and 952 handstamps were added to our online catalogue yesterday.

The impression of a rare Dumb Canceller Obliterating Handstamp, which has a wooden die

The impression of a rare Dumb Canceller Obliterating Handstamp, which has a wooden die

The handstamp collection shows the history of the Post Office from the 18th Century to the present day. It also covers most parts of the UK, from Penzance to Canterbury, London to Haroldswick and Llandeilo to Belfast. The majority have a metal or rubber die with a wooden handle, but there are also some with plastic handles and even some rare handstamps with wooden dies. Handstamps often have a permanent inscription with the name of the town or post office around the edges with space in the centre for the date, either made up of loose slugs or a revolving dateband. Many handstamps have an office numeral in the inscription to identify the office it was stamped at and some have numbers to identify the individual postal worker who used it.

An impression of a parcel handstamp from Hadley, Wellington, Shropshire

An impression of a parcel handstamp from Hadley, Wellington, Shropshire

When thinking of handstamps it is often the ones used by Post Office Counters that spring to mind, such as date, registered and parcel handstamps (2009-0336/1). These make up a large proportion of the collection but there is an amazing array of different handstamp types.

Provincial penny post handstamp impression from Hounslow, Middlesex, circa 1838

Provincial penny post handstamp impression from Hounslow, Middlesex, circa 1838

Older handstamps include some used prior to the introduction of the uniform penny postage reform in 1840, such as a provincial penny post handstamp from Hounslow, Middlesex dated around 1838, as well as uniform penny post handstamps with a numeral and the abbreviation ‘d’. The latter type was used to denote cash prepayment as an alternative to adhesive stamps during the 1840s and early 50s (2009-0429/12).

A To Pay handstamp for the postcard rate

A To Pay handstamp for the postcard rate

Surcharge, or ‘To Pay’, handstamps range from the simple, unframed version with the value to be paid in a prominent numeral and the post office numeral below; framed handstamps with ‘TO PAY’ at the top with the explanation for the surcharge, such as ‘POSTED UNPAID’ or ‘LIABLE TO POSTCARD RATE’; to the later all-purpose handstamps without office numerals and with five reasons for the surcharge.

An impression of a special handstamp celebrating the Penny Postage Jubilee in 1890

An impression of a special handstamp celebrating the Penny Postage Jubilee in 1890

Special handstamps are used on mail posted on special occasions and they come in many different styles, covering all types of events such as the Penny Postage Jubilee in 1890; the first aerial post in 1911 (OB1995.341); the opening of a Volkswagen headquarters in 1978 (2009-0336/2); and a host of anniversaries, naming ceremonies; birthdays; and special events.

The impression of an address handstamp for GPO Headquarters, St Martins Le Grand

The impression of an address handstamp for GPO Headquarters, St Martins Le Grand

Apart from all the handstamps used on the covers of letters, there are also ones used in less official capacities. For example, there are address handstamps to stamp outgoing business letters, promotional material or notices from post offices, sorting offices and district offices. There are also similar handstamps used by individuals within the postal service, with their job title and contact details, as well as title handstamps used to sign documents (2009-0313/05).

Impression of a handstamp celebrating the opening of the National Postal Museum (now BPMA) on 19th February 1969

Impression of a handstamp celebrating the opening of the National Postal Museum (now BPMA) on 19th February 1969

In addition to the many handstamps from Royal Mail there are also some handstamps made especially for the National Postal Museum, now the BPMA. There are special event and address handstamps, but the most exciting example is the handstamp used by HM the Queen at the opening of the National Postal Museum on the 19th of February, 1969.

These are just a few of the many handstamps now available on the online catalogue. The cataloguing of the collection is ongoing and there will be even more treasures uncovered as the work continues.

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.