Before the Penny Black
Before the Penny Black by E and R Shanahan.
The Penny Black, is without doubt the best-known stamp in the world, but it was only the end result of a campaign for cheap postage that had been gaining momentum for more than 100 years. Many people think that before the postage stamp was invented, letters could not be written or posted. This is not true, postage of letters and parcels has a long history in England.
The first 'MASTER OF THE POSTS' was Sir Brian Tuke,
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First (1558-1603) there was a system of Post Roads. The messengers , or Post-boys, either went by foot, or on horse-back. A huge number of horses was involved in this operation as each stage was only about 10 miles, after which a fresh horse was used. In most cases the horses were kept at Inns or Hostelries
Originally most mail was sent by or on behalf of the Government - frequently on military matters. There would have been less private mail, as the ordinary people were more or less illiterate, and the educated nobility used their own servants to deliver local messages.
However, during the Elizabethan and subsequent periods there was much plotting and intrigue between rival rulers and their supporters. Elizabeth the First realised that if she could see the private correspondence, she could see who was plotting what ! So, if mail was handled officially, under the instructions of some Court official, it could be opened and read, unknown to the writer of the letter.
Espionage is not a new idea !
In 1635 King Charles the First (1625-1649) issued a Proclamation to say that Thomas Witherings Esquire should set up a "Running-Post" between London and Ireland. Sir Thomas had a notice printed to inform the public, and a copy of this broadsheet is held in the British Museum in London. It is dated 1635 and it lays out the route to be taken, the days on which the mails would go and return, the cost of the service and where the money was to be paid for the service.
The Proclamation stated that no other Messengers or Foot-Posts could be used other than this service to be set up by Sir Thomas.
The bottom line of the Proclamation stated that
It is interesting that the route actually specified the towns that would be served by the post,
and these were on the map of the Elizabethan Post-roads - (see previous map)
Sir Thomas Witherings, at the time was 'His Majesties Post-Master for Forraigne parts', and it is obvious that he understood how to organise this inland post, as it took him only 3 months from the date of the Proclamation, to announce the date of the first mail to Ireland.
However, letters were exchanged privately, In particular within the City of London, which was the business and financial centre.
For instance, this letter written by John Heath from his office in the Inner Temple, (one of the Inns of Court in London) is dated 'Last of 10th 1660' and is addressed to 'Mr. Robert Clayton, a Scrivener Neere the old Exchange'.
I have been hitherto irresolute at least, if not improvident by negligent in disposing of my moneys, in yr hands to some better advantage, but within a day or two, when my brother & I are somewhat better (having both at present very troublesome colds) I will advise with you, resolve noth. myselfe about it. In the meanetime I pray deliver to bearer fifty pounds sterling, of wch I have present use, for which this shal bee yr discharge from
Yr assured friend & servant
John Heath then added the following note :-
Robert Clayton then added this note as a receipt in his own handwriting.
Note :- Robert Clayton was a Scrivener, and that was a writer, drafter of documents, a notary, broker, money-lender or any or all of these. In fact he became Lord Mayor of London, and was also knighted and elected as one of the Directors of the Bank of England.
Free Franks- (Free Postage for Members of Parliament etc.)
Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England as Lord Protector from 1653-1658, was a great organiser, and
his Parliament passed an Act in 1657 which declared :-
This meant that no one else could carry the mails as a business. It also meant that it was
easier to arrange a proper postal service.
There is a written record held in England of the names of everyone who has held the office of Master of the Posts or Postmaster General, since Sir Brian Tuke in 1516. This shows how important a job it was.
The first Postmaster General was Colonel Henry Bishop, who held the position from 1660-1663.
This was the result of a decree of the Council of State in 1652, to allow correspondence to
and from Members of Parliament and certain State Officials to pass free through the post.
(The sender could not be bothered to write the complete title, or address, knowing that it would still be delivered - possibly to the House of Lords.)
The second example,
10.Almost as soon as the system began, so did the cheating !
There are many examples of such fraudulent use.For instance, letters that were obviously on private business, not government affairs.
Other examples show that a person entitled to the privilege has claimed the Free Franking by signing the letter on the front, but has not in fact written the letter.
To counteract the misuse, stricter rules were laid down, but they did not help much. A Post Office official was not allowed to open a letter to check.
The letter (see pic marked Frank on Right>
"I have taken the liberty of inclosing a frank to save the expence of postage when you will be pleas'd to write to, Sir, your most humble Servant."
Carmarthen March ye 10th, 1760
"I have taken the liberty of inclosing a frank to save the expence of postage.... However this one to James Crowdy dated 15th February, 1820
By this time, the laws had been changed, and to claim the free postage, the sender had to write the date in full, the post town where the letter was posted, and his full name. This was to prevent forgery. The Postmaster was supposed to know all the people in his area who were entitled to the free postage, and their handwriting. It was not easy to detect forgery if the only word written on the envelope was 'FREE'.
13. In fact, laws and administrative orders were added over the next 150 years or so, until in 1837, 100 out-of-date laws were replaced by five new Statutes.
Despite the amendments to the various laws relating to the cost of postage, this privilege of free postage was not cancelled until 1840, when the cheap 'Penny Postage' was introduced for everybody.
If you have a question about this letter, contact Eunice
Other letter linksThe following are an introduction to postal history which has been written by postal historians Ron and Eunice Shanahan.
These articles first appeared in 'Stamp News' and are kindly given to us for web publication by Eunice whose email is above. You can also find more of their letters on
Postal systems developed in a patchwork fashion
1650 - 1850