Before the Penny Black by E and R Shanahan.
He claimed -
This was the first type of British Postmark, and is called a 'Bishop mark' after the inventor. It was first used in 1661 at the London Chief Office of the General Post Office in Bishopsgate Street, London. The Bishop marks showed the day and the month - the year could only be discerned from the letter. They were in use for about 80 years, and during this time they varied in size, shape and content. The first type of Bishop mark in use from 1661-1713 was a small circle bisected horizontally to show the month in the upper half and the day in the lower half.
Examples of early Bishop marks in use from 1667 to about 1787
For Mr Thomas Peacock at Ye Signe of Ye Peacock in Ye
Strand near Ye May-pole, LONDON showing a small early type of Bishop mark.
(see the row of bishop marks above) is an early example, of 1686,
dated November 29th, shown as NO 29.
'For Mr Thomas Peacock at ye Signe of ye Peacock in Ye Strand near Ye May-pole, London.'(Everybody knew the Inns and their signs !)
The second point to notice is the manuscript '3', which indicated the charge applied for posting a letter a distance of more than 80 miles (1660-1711), which would have been paid by Mr Peacock.
The Map has been taken from 'Great Britain Post Roads Post Towns and Postal Rates 1635 - 1839
by Alan W. Robertson
These two letters are examples of the use of the post office or post house. The first marked Post paid,
and dated October 1717 is addressed to :-
The second one, nearly 100 years later, dated Dec 21st 1821 says at the foot of the letter
'Sir, if you please to send a trifle, please to direct to be left at the Post Office till caled for'.
The Bishop mark was applied to all letters whether from London, to London or in transit through London. This letter dated 16 July 1781, addressed to Leith in Scotland has the larger size Bishop mark with the date (16) above the month (JY). The cost was 6d (sixpence) the rates had been increased in 1711.
Mails in and out of London
The growth of the mail service was so marked that there were soon four different sections within the Post Office dealing with mail in and out of London :
1 - The General Post - Inland Office - to deal with mail between London and the rest of the British Isles ;
2 - The Local Post of London (the Penny Post, later called the Twopenny Post) for mail posted and delivered within the city and country boundaries of London;
3 - The Foreign Section, to handle overseas mail ;
4 - The Ship Letter Office to handle mail which had arrived at the various ports and were then forwarded to London for delivery in other parts of Britain. Also mail to be despatched to the various ports for transport by Post Office Packet ships etc.
Both the Ship Letter Office and the Foreign section were part of the London Chief Office, but had their own staff and accounting. These two sections will be covered in a later chapter.
By 1680 the General Post Office was in Lombard Street, and received and despatched mail between London, and other parts of the United Kingdom. There were daily posts to Kent and Essex, alternate days to other parts of England and Scotland, and weekly to Wales and Ireland.
The GPO Inland Section controlled 32 letter carriers based there, (left)shows a Letter Carrier of the GPO in 1839. This is a reproduction of a stamp issued by the British Post Office to commemorate the death of Sir Rowland Hill. the GPO also set up Receiving Houses throughout London.Inland Section, Letter Carrier, 1839 (Notice the bell, used to alert the citizens of his appearance to deliver and accept letters.
>The example to the right of July 1775, from London to Somerset in the west of England, bears a small black name stamp
'Partington' which was the name of the owner of one of the London Receiving offices of the General Post.
The cost of posting the letter was marked on in manuscript 4 (fourpence). This letter also bears the later
type of Bishop mark with the day placed above the month. Click on the image to see a larger version. We have only shown the
outside of this letter, but in case you are interested about the historical import the letter was as follows.
Letter from London to Stowey, 13th July 1775.
In small parishes, where there were few wealthy people, the vicar may have been unable to exist on the small income. In this case, he was allowed to make a request for assistance to the Governors of Queen Anneís Bounty. There are many examples of such letters still in existence, proving such a fund was needed.
For many years coffee houses had been meeting places in London for merchants and traders, and the Post Office made use of these as Receiving Offices for letters. It was a very successful system which lasted for well over 100 years, as is shown by this example from Carmarthen in Wales to London dated 27th November 1780, addressed to Edmund Chalmer, Grecian Coffee House, Temple Bar. The '4' written on it is the rate for a single letter over 80 miles from London.
The London Penny Post
Under the system in operation in the middle of the seventeenth century, there was an 'adequate' service for mail between London and the rest of the country, but if a solicitor in London wish to send a letter to a client in another part of London, he had either to send one of his clerks, or pay for a porter to deliver it for him.
With the growth of trade, and the increase in the population of London - about half a million people - there was an increasing demand for a local London Post.
William Dockwra and his partner Robert Murray launched such a service on 27th March, 1680, with much publicity, and offered to carry letters, and parcels, within the London area for the sum of one penny.
They started with a Head office in Lime Street, and 7 Sorting Offices. In two years it had grown so much that they required between 400 and 500 Receiving Houses, with messengers who delivered between 5 and 15 times every day.
The mail was marked with date and time stamps to show when and where the letter was posted, and that the penny postage had been paid.
The earliest known Dockwra postmark is dated 13.12.1680. Most actual Dockwra marks are on letters in archives and only about four are known to be in private hands.
The system which was widely acclaimed and well used, and also profitable, has never been equalled. The Duke of York, - the King's brother - complained, claiming it infringed the monopoly of the Post Office, from which he received the profits, which had been granted to him by Parliament in 1663.
As a result, Dockwra lost his Penny Post and it was incorporated into the General Post Office, which had thereby gained an efficient organised postal system.
So the new Government Penny Post opened on December 11th 1682. They continued to use the Dockwra system of postmarking the mail with a datestamp. But as the system developed the postmarks changed. In 1685 an abbreviated form of the day was added to the office letters in the centre, e.g. MO for Monday.
These examples are enlarged from the letter on the next page The triangular stamp has MO and a W in the centre for the Westminster office. The second of the postmarks is a circular time stamp showing 2 O'CLOCK T (The Temple Sorting Office).
The letter which is dated 24th November 1790,is addressed to :-
The Dockwra system worked on the basis of paying the one penny when the letter was accepted, and so the triangular stamp also showed the words PENNY POST PAYD on the three sides.
When the Government took over the organisation, pre-payment was not compulsory. But if the postage was pre-paid, they used a similar postmark. However, (unlike the Dockwra postmark), the words on their 'Paid'triangular datestamp read inwards, so the word on the bottom is always upside down.
This letter was dated April 10th, 1767 and was addressed to :-
which was in London, it also has the two date/time stamps. The triangular Dockwra type Government Penny Post stamp is the Head office type, the central letters are G FR G for the main GPO and FR for Friday. The circular time stamp for 7 O'Clock has the letter W to show it was handed in at the Westminster office. To see a larger image of this picture you can click on it.
The London Post, from its inception as a government establishment in 1682, as the Penny Post, (and from 1801 as the Twopenny Post), was under the control of the Postmaster General, but was treated as a separate Department.
It had its own premises, officers and staff. The Letter Carriers wore a different uniform, so that they could be distinguished from the officers of the General Post.The picture is at the top of the page, Click here to return there.
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