Catching the Post – ca. 1550s-1900


Currently the Royal Mail is under competition from e-mail and faces the possibility of part privatisation (which subsequently came about in 2014 – editor).  As a result the UK-wide fixed price delivery service has to be at risk in the medium term.  It is therefore timely to remember that the national penny post, regardless of distance, was only introduced in 1840 and free delivery to individual houses was still not available throughout the country until after 1860.

What prompts these thoughts?  It is Chris Rowley’s discovery of some documents relating to the Post Office in the 18th and 19th centuries.  It appears that the copies have been made from internal memos from the office of the Post Master General.  We are not certain who made the copies, which have been written on pieces of card cut from packets that once contained (we think) Morleys’ crepe nylon stockings.    Quite possibly it was Frank Hawkins who did a good deal of research into Leigh history in the 1950s and who worked at Morleys in London.

Let me set the scene.  As far back as Roman rule, a network of messengers had transported post around the country.  Under the Normans, messengers carried state and private correspondence.  In the 1550s postmasters were stationed every twenty miles on major routes, but in those days public and private systems existed alongside each other.  This came to an end primarily because of concern about state security.  In 1609 private carriers were banned to ensure all foreign mail was dealt with by the state.

In 1635 Charles I established a general postal service and required it to cover its costs through charges.  In 1653 Oliver Cromwell established the General Post Office and in 1660 Henry Bishop was made the first Postmaster General.

But the system was not a truly national system.  Penny posts were established in London and some provincial towns for mail within those towns.  Postmasters had in effect a licence to operate.  They received, or in many cases did not receive, payments.  Mail had to be collected from the Post Office or might be delivered at an extra charge made to the postmaster.

Coming back to the documents relating to the Post Office in the 18th and 19th centuries – as referred to above: the first of our documents is dated 18 Aug 1792 and was sent from Francis Freeling (Secretary to the General Post Office) to Lord Walsingham, Postmaster General.  It supported an increase from £4/13/4d to £6-00 per mile (a payment for a whole year), backdated to 1790, for the carriage of the mail from Sevenoaks to Tunbridge Wells and on to Lamberhurst.  Mr Sprange was the Post Master in the Tonbridge area.  He had evidently upset the apple cart by making representations on this subject himself and the GPO had sought to replace Mr Sprange.  However, the GPO had not been able to find anyone else prepared to do the job at this at the rates of pay he had received.

From a further note dated 31 January 1793 from Francis Freeling, it seems that Mr Sprange’s pay was increased but not by the full amount suggested. Mr Sprange retaliated by  withholding revenue due to the GPO but in view of arrears of over £50 in Sprange’s pay, Freeling warned of the consequences (presumably the disruption of the service) if the money owed by Sprange was not regularised.  It may be surmised that Sprange was not short of a bob or two if he could carry a debt of £50.

How all this was resolved we do not know but another Freeling note of 1 July 1793 enclosed a letter from the Postmaster of Tonbridge, Mr Sprange, saying that he needed another clerk to deal with the mail coming from an expected army camp.  Freeling drew an analogy with a similar occurrence in Bagshot and suggested that a starting point in deciding what should be done would be an extension of the arrangements approved when there was a similar camp in Tonbridge in 1780.

Then a note marked Brighton, 8 July 1793, says that the camp had not been formed.  But goes on to say – which seems to contradict the first part of the note – that the Duke of Richmond’s letters may be delivered as usual but if necessary can be sent up to the camp if  ‘a proper place can be found for them’.

Another note dated 9 July brought the matter to a close.  It set out the allowances to be made: ‘same as Bagshot’ 3/6d for Tunbridge Wells and 1/6d  for Tunbridge town’ and confirmed Sprange’s allowance of “£6 per mile per year as per PMG’s minutes of 1792 for the rides he performs.”

Lord Walsingham was apparently a hands-on Post Master General and in October 1793 he could not understand the information in a ‘way bill’ – effectively a log book.  Francis Freeling (Secretary to the General Post Office) investigated and established that ‘the rider did not leave Sevenoaks until half past 9 and he had to travel 20 miles before he could get to Croydon.  The problem was that the Postmaster (the spelling clearly suggests ‘postmistress’ but can this be right?) in Croydon had written the date imperfectly implying arrival at 20 past 10 whereas it should have read 20 past 1 o’clock.

The last 18th century document is intriguing.  It is not clear who the author might be but it was probably Mr Freeling.  One of the jobs of postmasters was the arrangement of coaches for royalty outside London.  The note dated 19 Oct 1793 asked the PMG for information as early as possible when ‘the princess intends to leave Tunbridge Wells (so) that I may order the conveyance to cease when the purposes for which it was established shall have been fully answered’.   We are not sure which princess this was – presumably one of the British Royal Family and, therefore, probably one of George III’s six daughters.

There is then a gap in the notes until 14 August 1834 when Francis Freeling writes to another Postmaster General, Lord Coyngham.  It appears that a private individual had set up an office in Calverly Road, Tunbridge Wells, where letters could be deposited for transport, presumably for a fee, to the post office three quarters of a mile distant.  This was not allowed by law and Lord Conyngham approved the setting up of a receiving house in the area at a cost of £4 per annum to the receiver and 3d a day or £4/11/3d for a messenger to convey the bag to the Office.

On 23 December 1835, Mr Freeling wrote to another Post Master General, Lord Lichfield, saying that Tunbridge Wells is the only post town in England where there is not an established free delivery of letters within prescribed limits.  A few houses in the vicinity of the Office have free delivery but most are served by three letter carriers for a charge of 1/2d a letter. Apparently the practice had been complained of by visitors, presumably visitors from London where their post would have been delivered free of charge.

The PMG replied that the present system could not be continued.  He thought that the thing “should be done handsomely”, providing free delivery to all the addresses that had previously been charged.  The cost of this included compensation for the Postmaster, who would have made a profit under the existing arrangements and was only paid £50 per annum, was increased to £104/12/0d.

On 24 March 1836 (four months before he retired) Freeling sent a memo to Lord Lichfield referring to a report sent through Sir Wm Geary, MP for Rochester setting out the problems involved in delivering post more quickly between Rochester and Tunbridge Wells.  The post would normally have travelled circuitously possibly via Maidstone or London, with associated delays for sorting.  Freeling argued that a direct horse post, £50/60 pa, for about 32 letters a week would be difficult.  Lichfield agreed and asked for a letter to be prepared explaining the ‘reasons which render it impossible for me to comply with his request’.

Soon after came the first penny-reds (and penny blacks) and the start of the postal service we know today – for the moment anyway.  And thank you Leigh Post Office – long may you flourish.

Parish Magazine Articles: Dec 2010/Jan-Feb 2011: by John Stevens