Towards Penny Postage Chapter six
How letters were sent before adhesive postage stamps were invented.by E and R Shanahan.
Before the introduction by Ralph Allen of the 'Cross Posts', mail from Liverpool to Ireland had to go first to London. From London the route followed the Chester road ; then westward towards Bangor; by ferry to Anglesea and then by road to Holyhead.(see picture to left of Holyhead) is an example of such a letter.
At Holyhead the Post Office kept five or six sailing 'Packets' in readiness to meet the mail coaches, In theory they were to sail daily in both directions. But, because of weather conditions, all or most of the 'Packets' were often on one side or the other.
The increase in mail on the London to Ireland route resulting from the success of the mail coaches, was a prime factor in the construction of the Menai Bridge to span the Menai Straits (which separates the Isle of Anglesey from the mainland.) This bridge was opened in 1826 and replaced the unpredictable ferry service.
Uniform 4d Post -The lead-up
The cost of posting a letter had risen steadily over the years. When Dockwra introduced his system the cost was One Penny for any letter or parcel anywhere within the stated delivery area. But when the Government took over the system and absorbed it into the Post Office, the charges gradually increased.
Successive Governments had used the profits from the postal service as revenue. In particular, the money was being used to finance the almost continuous wars with France. Each time more money was needed, the cost of postage was increased.
This led to increasing public dissatisfaction and criticism of the high postage rates. To send a letter from Edinburgh to London, could cost as much as a day's wages 3/4ád
As a result of the public complaints, a Committee of Enquiry was set up in 1835.
Two years later, Rowland Hill published a pamphlet entitled 'POST OFFICE REFORM' . In this, he proposed a uniform postage rate of 1d, - One Penny - which would lead to an increase in correspondence and the virtual abolition of attempts to evade the postage.
At this time, an indoor servant would be earning twentyfive pounds a year, that is about ten shillings a week. A letter from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, 1828 - The letter cost four times the actual rate as it included Bills of Exchange - it was not a 'single' letter.
Rowland Hill argued that distance had little bearing on the cost of conveying a letter. He pointed out that a very important factor in the cost was that the letters which were not pre-paid had to be personally delivered to collect the postage. The letter carriers may sometimes have had to make five or six calls until they could deliver the letter and collect the money - which was a waste of time.
Sometimes the addressee would refuse to accept the letter. Because of the high cost, many frauds were common. One was that the writer would put a code marking on the outside of the letter, so that when it was delivered, the addressee would see the code mark, understand the message from the sender, and so refuse delivery.
Rowland Hill suggested that by using a specially designed adhesive label to pre-pay the postage, huge labour costs would be saved.
Later in 1837 the Select Committee of Postage was set up and by one vote only, they recommended that Parliament adopt Hill's scheme. However, postage was not reduced to One Penny at once, but from December 5th 1839, a General Fourpenny Rate was set up for letters up to half an ounce in weight. Letters up to one ounce were charged 8d and each additional ounce up to 16 ounces cost 8d.
The Fourpenny Post lasted only from December 5th 1839, to January 9th, 1840 and markings were applied mostly by handwriting. This example
was sent from York to Kirby Moorside dated December 16th, 1839, with the 4d (Four penny) charge written on by the postal official. Compare this example of a letter posted 23 August 1839 from London to Stroud in Gloucester - the cost was 9d (ninepence) for a distance between 80 and 120 miles. Five months later (in January 1840) , the letter would only cost one penny.
The Uniform Penny Post came into force on 10th January, 1840, and Rowland Hill was proved right ! On the first day of the Penny Post 112,000 letters were posted, more than three times the number posted on that day the previous year. However, the stamps and the printed envelopes and covers were not available until the 6th May, 1840.
In 1839 there were 76 million letters posted in the United Kingdom. In 1840 after the introduction of the Penny Post there were 168 million and ten years later this had doubled to an incredible 347 million letters.
The production of the huge numbers of the adhesive labels required was possible only because of the developments in the British printing and machinery industry. At this time Britain was leading the world in industry, and was soon to be known as the Workshop of the World.
The idea of the gummed label was so simple, and the design so attractive, (see picture at the top) that it was copied by postal administrations all around the world. In Britain the whole concept was generally accepted so that in 1856 it became compulsory to pre-pay postage.
The inventor of the Penny Black, Rowland Hill, was knighted by Queen Victoria for 'services to the Nation'.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * As a footnote, the introduction of the adhesive postage stamp triggered the hobby of stamp collecting, which is a mania that has swept much of the world as a leisure-time activity.
It is interesting, educational, and very wide-ranging. In fact we started as stamp collectors, but soon became drawn to the story of the mail before the stamp, and so to postal history in general.
We read and referred to many books covering the different aspects in this story, and found it fascinating. We have had many sessions deciding which to leave out and which to include.
We hope that reading these articles will encourage you to follow up other sections - or to open up the possibilities of postal history, or stamp collecting and the pleasure to be gained from the world's greatest hobby.
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