Victorian London - Communications - Post - Postal System

    The existing arrangements of the English post-office, and the penny-postage, which, in 1840, was introduced by Rowland Hill, have proved so excellent in their results, that the majority of continental states have been induced to approximate their institutions to Mr. Hill’s principle. Men of business and post-office clerks are not yet satisfied; they desire a system of cheap international postage, and it is devoutly to be hoped that those pious wishes will, in the end, be gratified. But the majority of the continental governments hesitate before they commit them­selves to an experiment, which, in the most favourable case, only promises a future increase of revenue, while in every case if is certain to entail losses on the present. In England, however, the experiment has been made, and the system works well and pays. And the arrangements of the post-office have been brought to a degree of perfection unknown even to the wildest dreams of the boldest political economist of the last century.
    With the general penny postage for England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Channel Islands—with a regular, rapid, and frequent transmission of the mails from and to the provinces, there is, moreover, an admirable system adopted for the distribution of letters throughout the metropolis. London is divided into two postal districts: one of them embraces the area within three miles from the Chief Office at St. Martin’s-le-Grand; the second district includes those parts of the town which lie beyond the three miles’ circle.
    The postage, of course, is the same for either district; but the difference lies in the number of deliveries. In the inner circle there are not less than ten deliveries a day.
    The construction of the houses contributes much to the efficiency of the system. The postman’s functions are here much easier than those of his continental colleagues. He is not required to go up and down stairs, he gives his double knock and as the majority of letters are inland letters, and as such prepaid, no time is lost with paying and giving change. The frequency of letter-boxes at the house doors tends still more to simplify the proceeding.
    At the time of the great Exhibition, these letter-boxes gave occasion to many a comical mistake. Many of our continental friends entrusted their correspondence to the keeping of private boxes, under the erroneous presumption that every door-slit with “Letters” over it, stood in some mysterious connexion with the General Post Office. But when once properly understood, the —practical advantages of these private letter-boxes were so apparent, that they moved all our stranger friends to the most joyful admiration. The system however is nothing without the pre­payment of letters, without the English style of buildings, and the English domestic arrangements, according to which each family inhabits its own house. The South-German system of crowding many families into one large house, and dividing even fiats into separate lodgings, places insuperable difficulties in the way of any such arrangement, even if the Germans, generally, could be induced to prepay their letters. And the Paris fashion of delivering all the letters at the porter’s lodge, is disagreeable, even for those who are not engaged in treasonable corre­spondence, and who have no reason or desire to elude the vigilance of the police.
    After all, Rowland Hill’s system of cheap postage is one of the best practical jokes that was ever perpetrated by an Englishman. This famous cheapness is nothing but a snare for the unwary, for the especial gratification of the Postmaster-General and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In no other country is there so much money expended on postage as in England. A letter is only one penny; and what is a penny? The infinitesimal fraction of that power which men call capital; that miraculous Nothing, out of which the world was made, and out of which some very odd fellows managed to make large fortunes, as it may be well and truly read in juvenile books of first-class morality. But what Londoner can condescend to establish his household arrangements on the decimal system, or on the theory of miracles? Consequently, he writes short letters to his cousins and nieces across the way, and to all his near and dear relations in Yorkshire and the Shetland Islands. It is an incontestable fact, that Englishmen spend more money in postage than the citizens of any other country.
    And how cleverly does the Post Office contrive to facilitate the means of correspondence! Besides the large branch offices, there are above five hundred receiving-houses in London, all of them established in small shops, to induce you to enter; and that you may have no trouble in finding them, a small board with a hand, and the words “Post Office,” is affixed to the nearest lamp-post, so that you need only look at the lamp-posts to find the place for the reception of your letters. How simple, and how practical!
    But there is more behind! Many a man thinks it too great a tax upon his time and patience to put the penny stamp on the envelope; the Postmaster-General steps in and saves him the trouble. He manufactures envelopes with the Queen’s head printed on them, and he sells them a penny a piece, so that you have the envelope gratis. They are gummed, too, and do not want sealing. You have nothing to do but to write your letter, put it into the envelope, and post it at the receiving-house over the way or round the corner. These are some of the sly tricks on which the Post Office thrives so that, with its ex­penditure exceeding one million sterling, it manages to hand over a large sum of surplus receipts to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. 
    Nor ought it to be supposed, that, having attained so high a degree of perfection, the English postal administration reclines on its laurels. No! it strains every nerve to effect further im­provements; and it has to deal with a public fully competent to understand its merits, and disposed to value them. The greatest praise of a public institution is to be found, not in the eulogies of the press, but in the readiness of the public to avail them­selves of the advantages that institution offers, and the improvements and facilities it effects. And the English do this readily and joyfully, whenever their practical common sense becomes alive to the usefulness of an innovation.
    In this respect, and in many others, the English Government is in a more favourable position than the continental governments. Its dealings are with a great and generous nation: great ideas find a great public in England. That is the reason why the continental estimates of men and affairs appear so small, com­pared to the one which the English are in the habit of applying. Particularly with respect to creating facilities to traffic, the Government may venture on almost any experiment. The public support every scheme of the kind, and the public support makes it pay. Take, for instance, the system of money-orders, which was introduced a few years back. Small sums under £5 are to be sent; and in spite of the enormous difficulties and expenses which the scheme had to encounter in its commence­ment, it is more firmly establishing from day to day; its popu­larity is on the increase, and above £8,000,000 was, in the year 1851, transmitted in this manner.
    Let us now see how the Post Office deals with books, pamph­lets, and newspapers. Political papers which publish “news,” says the act for that purpose made and provided— “political journals,” according to the continental mode of expression—pass from province to province free of postage, with only a small sum for transmission to the Colonies, that is to say, to the Cape and the Antipodes. The penny stamp, which each copy of a political journal is required to have, franks it throughout the whole of Great Britain and Ireland—not once, but several times. A letter stamp is blackened over at the Post Office, to prevent its being used again; but the newspaper stamp has nothing to fear from the postmaster’s blacking apparatus. I read my copy of the Times in the morning, and am at liberty to send it to a friend, say to Greenwich. That friend sends the same copy to another friend, say at Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Dublin; and the same copy, after various peregrinations through country post offices, and out-of-the-way villages, finds its way back to London to the shop of a dealer in waste paper. No charge is made by the Post Office for these manifold transmissions; and thus it happens that friends conspire together to defraud the Post Office, and that information finds its way from one end of the kingdom to another without any advantage to the public purse.
    I will quote an example of a trick which is still popular with many English families. Suppose a husband and father has reason to expect an addition to his family circle. His friends and relations are desirous to be informed of the event as soon as it shall have come off, but letters, however short, take time to write ; and, after all, its a pity to pay so many pence for postage, and chil­dren, too, are very expensive creatures. The matter has been arranged beforehand. An old copy of the Times is sent, if the little stranger turns out a boy; if a girl, the father sends a copy of the Herald. The child is born, and the papers are posted. Letters of congratulation follow in due time. Her Majesty has gained another subject, but the Exchequer has lost a few pence. This method has not much political morality to recommend it ; but it weighs very lightly on an Englishman’s conscience, since the proceeding, after all, is not downright illegal.
    …. Though the newspaper-stamp franks the journals throughout England, still it has not been thought advisable to extend the privilege to the postal district within three miles from St. Martin’s-le-Grand. All journals posted within that circle must have an additional penny stamp. My copy of the Times goes free to Dublin ; but if I address it to a friend in the next street, it pays the postage. But for this salutary regulation, all the news-vendors would post their papers, and the Post-office would want the means of conveyance and delivery for the loads of printed matter which, in such a case, would find their way into the chief office.
    The advantages of the newspaper stamp are, however, large enough to induce its being solicited by papers, that are not by law compelled to take it. Punch, for instance, is not considered a political paper. To find out the reason why, is a task I leave to the principal Secretaries of State of her Britannic Majesty. The whole of England is agreed on the point that there is much more sound policy in the old fellow’s humped back than can be found in the heads of the Privy Council; and many an agitator in search of an ally would prefer Toby to the Iron Duke  (The first part of this work left the press early in 1852, when the Duke of Wellington was still alive. It has not been thought convenient to alter this passage, and some others to meet the change of circumstances.—[ED.]). Punch, then, consults his own convenience and takes or refuses the stamp according to circumstances. And as Punch does, so do many other papers, whom the law considers as unpolitical.
    We turn again to the General Post-office. It is a grand and majestic structure, with colossal columns in the pure Greek style; and with an air of classic antiquity, derived from the London atmosphere of fog and smoke. It is easy to raise antique structures in London, for the rain and the coals assist the architect. Hence those imposing tints! How happy would the Berliners be, if Messrs. Fox and Henderson, instead of constructing water-works, could undertake to blacken the town, and give it an antique old-established, instead of its parvenu and stuck-up appearance. They are sadly in want of London smoke and of some other English institutions which I cannot, for the sake of my own safety, venture to specify.
    Those who are not a wed by the architectural beauties of the London Post-office, should enter and take a stroll down those roomy high walls, where on either side there are numbers of office windows and little tablets. How small are, in the presence of those tablets, all the ideas which Continentals form of a large central Post-office. They are so many sign-posts, and direct you to all the quarters of the world; to the East and West Indies, to Australia, China, the Canary Islands, the Cape, Canada, etc. Every part of the globe has its own letter box; and the stranger who, about six o’clock p.m. enters these halls, or takes up his post of observation near the great City Branch Office, in Lombard-street, would almost deem that all the nations of the world were rushing in through the gates, and as if this were the last day for the reception and transmission of letters.
    Breathless come the bankers’ clerks, rushing in just before the closing hour; they open their parcels, and drop their letters into the various compartments. There are messengers groaning under the weight of heavy sacks, which they empty into a vast gulf in the flooring; they come from the offices of the great journals, and the papers themselves are sorted by the Post-office clerks. Here and there, among this crowd of business people, you are struck with the half comfortable, half nervous bearing of a citizen. Just now an old gentleman, with steel spectacles, hurries by, casting an anxious look at the clock, lest he be too late. Probably he wishes to post a paternal epistle to his son, who is on a fishing excursion in Switzerland, and the letter is important, for in it the son is adjured not by any means to discon­tinue wearing a flannel under-jacket. Or an old lady has to post a letter to her grand-daughter at school in the country, about the apple-pudding, for which the grand-daughter sent her the receipt; and what a capital pudding it was, and that the school must be a first-rate school—to be sure I And lo! just as the clock strikes, a fair-haired and chaste English woman, with a thick blue veil, makes her way to one of the compartments and drops a letter. Thank goodness, she is in time! Heaven knows how sorry the poor lad would have been if that letter had not reached him in due course. For an English lover, they say, is often in a hanging mood, especially in November, when the fogs are densest.
    Now the wooden doors are closed; the hall is empty as if by magic, and the tail columns throw their lengthened shadows on the stone flooring.
    This is the most arduous period of the day for the clerks within. All that heap of letters and newspapers which has accumulated in the course of the day is to be sorted, stamped, and packed in time for the various mall-trains. Clerks, servants, sorters, and messengers, hurry to and fro in the subterraneous passage between the two wings of the building. Clerks suspended by ropes, mount up to the ceiling and take down the parcels which, in the course of the day, were deposited on high shelves. And the large red carts come rattling in receive their load of bags, and rattle off to the various stations ; the rooms are getting empty; the clerks have got through their work; the gas is put out, and silence and darkness reign supreme. Here and there only in some little room a clerk may be seen busy with accounts and long lists of places and figures. When he retires to rest, the work of the day has already commenced in the other offices. In this building, business is going on at all hours of the day and the night. The loss of a minute would be felt by thousands, at a distance of thousands of miles.
    Hence does it happen that at no time is there a want of com­plaints about the Post-office clerks and post-masters, while the officials, in their turn, complain of the carelessness and negli­gence of the public. The public’s grievances find their way into the Journals, in a “Letter to the Editor.” The sorrows of the Post-office clerks obtain a less amount of publicity; but they may be observed on the walls of the great hall, where, daily, there is a list of misdirected letters, which have cost the post­men a deal of trouble. Directions such as— 

To Mr. Robinson,


“To Mrs Henrietta Hobson,
“Just by the Church,
in London.”

    However rich (some may think), these are not by any means rare; and such small mistakes, I dare say, will happen in other countries besides England, wherever there are simple-minded people who put their trust in Providence and the royal Post-office. In Germany, where every man, woman, and child is registered by the police, the postman may, as a last resource, apply to that omniscient institution; but in England, where the chief commissioner of the police is so abandoned as to be actually ignorant of the whereabouts of honest and decent citizens, the Post-office is deprived even of this last resource. The case would be pitiable in the extreme, but for the comfort­able reflection that in England the police do not interfere with the post. The convenience, on the one hand, is by far greater than the inconvenience on the other.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

see also Andrew Wynter in Our Social Bees - click here

    Who has not heard with pleasure the sharp, loud, firm ' rat-tat' of the postman? What a stir it causes in the house! Charlie flies up the stairs two at a time, hoping to get the letters. Ah! but somebody's before you this time, Charlie. Miss PolIy heard that knock, and has run downstairs from her room, and, being a bit of a romp, does not mind jumping the last half-dozen stairs, so that she may get to the door first and receive the letters. But, hark! I can hear other footsteps and other sounds. Yes, here is little Tommy Toddles, who has managed to scramble up three stairs, crying, ' Me hab em.' Well, PoIly does not mind, and so little Tommy marches into the room quite delighted to be the bearer of, perhaps, good news.
    But I wonder whether my readers ever think of the care and trouble taken to deliver their letters as quickly as possible. We can write to our cousins in the country one afternoon, and the next morning the letters will be waiting for them to read at the breakfast-table. How different it was when our grandfathers and their grandfathers were young! Before railways were started, when the roads were wretchedly bad, the post was very slow. What would my young friends in Glasgow say, if their letters from Edinburgh were more than a week on the journey; or our boys and girls in Cornwall, if they had to wait nine or ten days before they could possibly get an answer from London?
The Post is a very ancient institution. We read in the Bible, in several places, of letters being sent by ' posts.' Men were kept specially trained as runners, and sometimes camels and dromedaries were used.
    Posting in England, about the time of the Tudors, and for some long time afterwards, was carried on by riders on horseback. These persons, who were generally young lads, were termed Post-boys. Their only livery was a scarlet jacket and waistcoat, given to them on the birthday of the reigning sovereign. They might often be seen loitering on the way, and rarely travelled quicker than three miles an hour; or, if sent on express business, managed to accomplish four miles in that time. Campbell writes:
    Near Inverary we regained a spot of comparative civilization, and came up with the postboy, whose horse was quietly grazing at some distance, whilst redjacket himself was immersed in play with other lads.
    "You rascal! I said to him, "are you the post-boy, and thus spending your time?"
    "Na, na, Sir, he answered, "I m no the post, I m only an express!"
    But these postboys became the special prey of the highway robbers, who often stopped them and ransacked their bags. In February, 1779, an advertisement appeared, stating that the boy carrying the mail for Liverpool, Manchester, Chester, aiid thirty other towns, besides the Irish niail, had been robbed of the whole.
    Our forefathers at length began to get tired of having their letters and money turned into other people's hands; so the Mail Coach was started.
    This was an improvement, though the pace of the coach was slow, and frequently the passengers had to get out and walk. It was a still further advance when, in 1825, they managed to get the coach along at the rate of eight miles the hour. A well-armed guard went with each coach, and passengers were charged a little more than sixpence per mile.
    We smile when we read that there were gentlemen who, when further improvements in the coaches were suggested, said that the postal service was almost as perfect as it could be made, and that new methods would fling the whole correspondence of the country into confusion. I wonder if those very positive gentlemen have lived to see our postal service.
    When George Stephenson began his railway scheme, the people were so frightened that they kept away from his strange-looking, puffing engine, and crowded into the coaches. But when travelling by rail was found to be quicker and easier than by coach, they began to take their seats as railway passengers.
    Soon the Post Office authorities sent their letters by rail: and then they found it necessary to build special carriages for the conveyance of the let uers and the Post Office servants in charge, so that sorting might be carried on during the journeys. Thus the travelling post office' was introduced on our railways.
    Let us take a peep at one as it is to-day. Inside, we see, it is well lighted. Along one side are tiers of boxes, or pigeon-holes, for the letters, &c.; while on the other side bags are hanging, with the names of different post towns on them. While the train is rushing along at forty miles an hour, the sorters are very busy here, arranging the letters and putting them in the bags. As the train approaches any place, its letter-bag is tied up and sealed, and is then put on an iron arm close to the door, ready to be caught away by a net spread near the ground for that purpose. And the net fixed to the side of the carriage is let down to catch the bag that is hung from an iron post fixed in the ground. In an instant, as the train shot by, the bags have been exchanged. And now the sorters are busy again, sorting, tying up, and sealing; getting ready for the next post town. The bag in the ground-net will soon be fetched away by the country postman or mail cart.
    Formerly letter writing was a luxury almost confined to the rich. The cost of postage varied according to distance and the number of written pages; the charge was collected from the receiver. A short letter from London to Edinburgh cost one shilling amid three halfpence; if two sheets, two shillings and threepence. Rowland Hill set to work to obtain a cheaper rate of postage, and after much opposition amid with very little encouragenient, except from private friends, he succeeded, on January 10th, 1840, in introducing an uniform ' Penny Post.'
    In 1840 only 4,028 places in the United Kingdom were open for receiving letters; but in March, 1880, 26,753 pillar-boxes and offices could be counted. In 1840, 168,000,000 letters were posted, and in 1880 the number amounted to 1,127,997,500!
    In 1829 the General Post Office, St. Martin's-he-Grand, was completed and occupied. But the work increased so much, that when the telegraph service was taken in hand, it was found necessary to build the new General Post Office opposite. This handsome building, containing nearly 200 rooms, was opened in 1874.
    If we were to look into the General Post Office while the mail-bags were being made up, what should we see? A very busy scene. After the letters are all taken out of the many boxes, they are emptied on to a large table, where they have to be faced,' that is, arranged tidily with the stamped face of the envelope uppermost. Then the ' taxers' take them, whose business it is to see that the letters are not over weight. Then comes the stamping, which is a very curious process, done by a machine that looks like the upper part of a sewing-machine; only at the end of the arm, where the needle should be, is the stamp which is pressed down with a handle on each letter, and makes the post-mark on the Queen's head which prevents the stamp on the letter from being used again as a new one.
    Now they are ready for sorting, and are carried into another room, down which run long rows of tables with shelves and little compartments or ' pigeon- holes.' These rows are called ' roads.' All the letters for the places on the Great Western line are put into one road, for the Great Northern into another, and so on. When the letters are sorted, they are ready for the mail vans or ' accelerators,' which you see in the picture, waiting to receive them. They are quickly driven to the station and put into the mail train; and, after travelling to their destination, are again sorted, and each postman takes those for the houses in his district. But the postmen's work is not over when they have delivered the morning letters; they have, at regular hours, to empty the pillar-boxes. Perhaps you have sometimes seen the postman unlock the little door in the middle of the pillar, take the letters out, put them in his bag, and carry them off to the post office. Then, in most places, there are two or three deliveries in a day. In London there are so many that the postman seems to be on his feet all day. But in London and a few other towns the postmen have one great advantage- there is no Sunday deñvery, so that the postman has that day for rest, and can go with his family to the house of God. This ought to be the case all over England. The poor men who work so hard all the week should have their Sundays free. Some good people are doing their best to increase the number of places which give the postman a weekly rest. A little boy like you cannot do much to help them, for you neither write nor receive many letters; but you need never write one that would have to be delivered on Sunday; and if your papa has his letters brought to him on that day, you might perhaps persuade him to give up this arrangement, for ' every little helps.'
    Of course all persons are not good writers, and it often happens that letters come with very strange addresses. One came with this, ' Obern Yenen;' another, ' Ann M-, Olheywhite.' These are taken to the ' Blind' man, who is so named, not because he cannot see, but because he is sharp enough to find out things that baffle or blind other people; his clear sight and sharp wits soon solve the puzzle. ' Obern Yenen' he made out to be Holborn Union. and ' Ohleywhite,' Isle of Wight.
    During the year 1880, 21,621 letters were posted without any address, among which were 1,141 containing cash and bank-notes to the amount of £433, and cheques, &c., for £4,251. What a lot of careless people there must be living amongst us, to be sure! But fancy the feelings of the postmen who found frogs, lizards, and spiders hopping and crawling about! 4,500 letters and packets were stopped for containing such objectionable things.

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)