Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Technical Topic -- The Regency Post Office

This is a very small historical tidbit post here.

It's the sort of thing I'd normally put into Word Wenches,
except that I find myself without the patience to ask permission for all the images I want to use.  I do not like to add links to a Wench posting because links do not last forever or sometimes even into the next month.

Anyhow, it's 1802.  (This is the Pax manuscript.)  We're in a country village near Cambridge -- the fictional Brodemere.  My character Cami looks over some correspondence that's landed on her desk. 

She picks up a letter that's come all the way across England, from London.

NOT from 1802 for oh so many reasons
The first thing you -- as a visitor from the distant future perched comfortably in her head -- would notice, is that there's no envelope.

Let me show you what the letter would not look like.
It wouldn't look like this over here to the right:

Her letter wouldn't be an envelope, with a pretty colored stamp, cancelled across the stamp by the post office. 

Envelopes on postal service delivery are still a generation in the future.   In fact, they weren't mass produced till 1845.   The post office charged by the sheet and an envelope counted as an extra sheet.  This is yet another piece of history driven by government regulation.

No stamp.  The first gummed postage stamp -- I'm talking here about a bit of paper you apply to a letter rather than stamping ink on with a big ole inked stamp -- is the 'Penny Black'.
It dates to 1840.

That's Queen Victoria on the Penny Black, btw.

"Wait," you say, for you have been paying attention.
"No envelopes?" you say.  "That's so weird," you say.

Well, yes and no.
I think letters often did often come in envelopes.
Just not letters delivered by the post office. 

Folks sending the footman crosstown or the groom cross country to hand-deliver invitations and secret love notes and blackmail requests probably made envelopes from their fancy writing paper in an origami sorta way.  Spies sending secrets in the diplomatic pouch probably used envelopes, and rich folk who didn't count the cost, and, I suspect, noblemen and MPs who franked their mail and got it free.

Mail was not universally envelope-less, IMHO.  But if it came by post, it often was.

Anyhow, there you are sitting at Cami's desk and you've remarked there's no envelope and no pretty colored postage stamps.

Next, you will note that everything is handwritten, (with a quill).  This will not surprise you since nobody's got a printing press at home and  I need hardly point out that the typewriter is an 1860s invention.
Third class junk mail is not even a bumf on the horizon.

Crossed. No relation to cross-eyed.
You may see an indecipherable mess of writing like that to the side.  Thrifty folks 'crossed' their letter so they didn't need to pay for an extra sheet.    They wrote first one way and then the other.
I would probably strangle somebody who did this to me.

What next?

When Cami picks up her envelopeless letter from out of town, the paper -- quite possibly a single sheet -- is folded in three and sealed with red wax.
Because that's what you do when you don''t have an envelope.

Folded letter with red seal
The wax might -- probably did -- have a seal pressed into it.  This could be a complex family crest or a simple design, like an initial.

The theory was the unbroken seal proved the letter hadn't been opened.  Let us all stop to appreciate the delightful naiveté of those who bought into that particular fiction.

What you need to seal a letter
The set up for applying seals looked somewhat like this to the left here.   Camille would have most of this stuff sitting around on her desk or in one of the drawers.

Coming to the paper itself:

"Hand made papers were made in molds, hence one could readily observe the paper marks and ribbing from the parallel wires in the mold. Often these “laid” papers also bore distinctive watermarks."
 From 'Jane Austen's World'

'Laid paper' is made by catching linen pulp onto a flat, closely wired sieve and letting it dry.  The resulting paper retains a faint cross hatch pattern.

I have saved the best for last.

When a letter travelled through the postal service, it acquired postmarks.  A letter heading from London to Cambridge and then to the fictional Brodemere would collect several.

There'd be a colored circular postmark from London, giving the date it was mailed.  The letter, in 1802, would go by mail-coach to Cambridge (I'm fairly sure) and there's be another postmark from Cambridge as the destination post office.  There might be a square stamp showing fees or postage added during the trip.  Mileage might be stamped -- but more usually handwritten -- in pencil.  The final cost might be written in pencil likewise.  Toll fees might be noted, again in pencil. 

At the excellent Bath Postal Museum we find Here, here, and here Bath to London 'straight line' letters from 1801, 1807  and 1805.  A letter to Andover in 1808 is here.

For further perusal, if you are just fascinated by postal stampage:

Here is a franked 1822 letter from Kilmarnock Scotland to Isleworth Middlesex that shows several interesting features.
A complex seal for some letter
This one has a crowned 'Free' handstamp of December 2, indicating the recipient in Middlesex was entitled to receive mail without paying postage.  That's the 'franked letter' we read about.  Seems to work for both sender and recipient, which I didn't know.
On this, we see a 'Kilmarnock - 427' stamp, showing the mileage.  That would have been struck upon sending.  And there's a Glasgow transit stamp with the date November 29, 1822.  

Another very relevant set of postmarks is about halfway down the page here.   Scroll down till you reach the post titled, 'Entire written 22 September 1803 from Fakenham Norfolk to Andover'.  This has a date stamp, and mileage and price written in pencil.

(I've seen some indication that mileage marks record the distances to London.  The recipient post office didn't try to calculate the byways and pathways from all points in the kingdom.  Charges were simply based on (a) how far from sender to London and then (b) how far from London to the recipient.
This doesn't sound very fair, frankly)

n.b The next letter in that discussion is sealed with black wax, because it's a condolence letter.

Moving on ...

about halfway down the page here, in the post beginning "Heck I'll pay you $3 Brummie", is an 1829 letter with two colored handstamps and two penciled notes.  A post or two further down is the same letter laid flat to show the sender's address.
I can't tell for sure, but it looks like the sender's name might be folded inside when the letter is sent ...? 

That whole six-page thread is interesting if you're dealing with Regency-era or Victorian correspondence. 

London postman 1830
Here is an 1839 cross-London letter.

Finally ...  How much did delivery of Cami's London letter cost?

Letter Rates for 1801 for a single sheet, within Great Britain

  Not exceeding 15 miles3d.

This is from The Development of Rates of Postage, by A. D. Smith

Anyhow, that's about 8d for the London letters.  Less for the ones from Cambridge.


  1. Fascinating! I knew some of that but much of it was new. Thanks.

  2. You never need this information till you need it.

    I've wondered sometimes what the actual delivered letters looked like. Now I know.

  3. This is a great post! Thanks for sharing. Very useful.

  4. Hope it answers a lot of questions. I didn't realize how much I didn't know till I went looking.

  5. Can I say how impressed I am with the beautifully straight lines on the crossed letter? It looks as if it might actually be possible to read it.

  6. ... and the 's' still looked like an 'f' sometimes.
    So confusing.

    They were READERS in those far off days. None of this sissy 'all the lines run the same way on the page' stuff.

  7. Anonymous7:34 PM

    I'm with you, if someone sent me a crossed letter I'd kill them. Though, I suppose people of the time were used to it. Those were interesting images, Jo. Thanks for posting this.

    1. They were tough in those days. And I think the folks who wrote and sent letters most often had a fair amount of leisure time.

      My grandfather -- umm, no. I guess it's my great grandfather -- lived in a farming community in Wisconsin. He'd go down to the post office and folks would give him letters to read for them.

      It hasn't been all that long ago, as times are reckoned.

  8. I miss letter writing.
    Whenever I read your research posts, I wish I was writing during the Regency [g]
    Meanwhile, what about that titbit you let slip up there, about your fictional town's name - where did you find the name? Why did you decide to go with a fictional town instead of a real one? If you don't mind my asking...

    1. I used to do a fair amount of letter writing, actually.
      Can't say I miss it too much. E-mail is a lot easier *g*

      The fictional town.

      I went fictional, because I wanted it small and I didn't want somebody to e-mail me they'd just visited the place and it had the county hoosegow in the middle or a glue factory or something.

      I wanted my fictional village near Oxbridge. I leaned toward Cambridge because that's where I would have put my professor/cryptographers in 1800, rather than at Oxford. Cambridge was more maths oriented.

      So I thought about the countryside between Cambridge and London. It runs to flat mostly. And damp. I looked at names and found some with 'mere' in them. I liked that.

      So I googled various thistownmeres and thattownmeres and discovered that, while they have a Broadmere, they do not have an extant Brodemere, only a defunct medieval one.
      (I could be wrong. I'll double check at some point.)

      So I have a real name with all the weight and precision of a real name, but I'm not stuck with a real place. Yeah!

    2. That's lovely! I'm editing my first ever story set in England (finally!) and opted for a fictional town for similar reasons.

      While I have been to Cornwall, that was years and years ago, and there's only so much of a sense of place that you can get from Google Maps. Also much easier to decide for oneself whether a character needs to turn left or right on exiting the train station, if they'd like to walk down to the harbour [g]

  9. Owa this are the very entertainment literature for this

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