Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 1 - The Post-Office

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OUR SOCIAL BEES;

OR,

PICTURES OF TOWN & COUNTRY LIFE,

AND OTHER PAPERS.

BY 

ANDREW WYNTER, M.D.

AUTHOR OF "CURIOSITIES OF CIVILIZATION, ETC

"Not in vain the distance beckons.
    Forward, forward, let us range;
Let the great world spin for ever
Down the ringing groove of change."
                                           TENNYSON

LONDON:
ROBERT HARDWICKE, 192, PICCADILLY.
1865

[-1-]

THE POST·OFFICE.

READER, if you be not entirely "used up,"  and can still relish a minor excitement, take a stroll through the General Post-office some Saturday evening, just as the clock is upon the strike of six.
    The scene is much more exciting than half the émeutes which take place on the continent; considerably cheaper, and much more safe. Stand aside amid the treble bank of spectators on the right hand, and watch the general attack upon the letter-takers. A stream of four or five hundred people, who run as Doyle's pencil only can make them run, dash desperately towards the open windows of the receivers. Against this torrent a couple of hundred who have posted, dodge and finally disappear. Wave after wave of people advances and retreats, gorging with billets the capacious swallow of the post. Meanwhile, a still more active and vigorous attack is going on in the direction where newspapers are received. A sashless window-frame, with tremendous gape, is assaulted with showers of papers, which fly faster and thicker than the driven snow. Now and then large sackfuls, direct from the different newsvenders and publishing offices; are bundled in and bolted whole. As the moments pass, the flight of papers [-2-] grows thicker; those who cannot struggle  "to the fore" whiz their missiles of intelligence over the heads of the others, now and then sweeping hats with the force of round shot. Letters struggle with more desperate energy, which is increased to frantic desperation as the clock slowly strikes, one-two-three-four-five-six; when, with a nigh miss of guillotining a score of hands, with one loud snap all the windows simultaneously descend. The post, like a huge monster, has received its full supply for the night, and, gorged, begins, imperceptibly to the spectators, in quiet to digest.
    If we enter behind the scenes, and traverse what might be considered the vast stomach of the office, we shall perceive an organization almost as perfect as that which exists in the animal economy, and not very dissimilar to it. The huge piles of letters, and the huger mountains of newspapers, lie in heaps — the newly-swallowed food. To separate their different atoms, arrange and circulate them, requires a multiplicity of organs, and a variety of agents, almost as numerous as those engaged in the animal economy — no one interfering with the others, no one but is absolutely necessary to the well-being of the whole.
    So perfect is the drill, so clearly defined the duty of each member of the army of seven or eight hundred men the stranger looks down upon from one of the galleries, that he can only compare its noiseless and unerring movements to the action of some chemical agency.
    Towards the vast table upon which the correspondence of two millions of people for two days is heaped and tossed, a certain number, performing the functions of the gastric juices, proceed to arrange, eliminate, and prepare is [-3-] for future and more elaborate operations; certain others take away these eliminated atoms, and, by means of a subterranean railway, transport them to their proper office on the opposite side of the building; others, again, like busy ants, carry the letters for the general delivery to the tables of the sorters, when in a moment the important operation of classing into roads and towns, sets all hands to work as busily, as silently, and as purposefully as the restless things we peep at through the hive-glass, building up their winter sweets.
    In an hour the process is complete; and the thoughts of lawyers, lovers, merchants, bankers, swindlers, masters, and servants, the private wishes of the whole town, lie side by side, enjoying inviolable secrecy; and, bagged, stringed, and sealed, are ready, after their brief meeting, for their final dispersion over the length and breadth of the land.
     All the broad features of this well-contrived organization, its economy and power, the spectator sees before him; but much as he is struck thereby, it is only when he begins to examine details, and to study the statistics of the Post-office, that he sees the true vastness of its operations, and estimates properly the magnitude and variety of its functions, as the great metropolitan heart of communication with the whole world.
    As we pass the noble Post-office at St. Martin's-le-Grand, with its ranges of Ionic columns, its triple porticos, and its spacious and elegant quadrangle  — a worthy outward manifestation of the order, ingenuity, and intelligence that reign within  — we cannot help contrasting its present condition with the postal operations of two or three centuries [-4-]  ago,— the noble oak of the present, with the little acorn of the past.
    No truer estimate of the national advance can be obtained than by running down the stream of history in relation to any of our great institutions which deal with the needs and wishes of the masses of the people; and in no one of them is our advance more clearly and correctly shown than in the annals of the Post-office. They form, in fact, a most delicate thermometer, marking the gradual increase of our national vitality, and indicating, with microscopic minuteness, the progress of our civilization.
    In early times, the post was a pure convenience of the king, instituted for the purpose of forwarding his despatches, and having no dealing with the public whatsoever. Instead of St. Martin's-le-Grand being the point of departure, "the court," wherever it might happen to be, "made up the mails." How these mails were forwarded may be imagined from the following exculpatory letter written by one Brian Tuke, "Master of the Postes," in Henry the Eighth's time. It would appear that Cromwell had been pulling him up rather sharply for remissness in the forwarding of despatches. The worthy functionary states that:—
    "The Kinges Grace hath no moo ordinary postes, ne of many days hathe had, but betwene London and Calais . . . For, sir, ye knowe well, that, except the hackney horses betwene Gravesende and Dovour, there is no suche usual conveyance in post for men in this realme as in the accustomed places of France and other parties; ne men can keepe horses in redynes withoute som way to bere the charges; but when placarde be sent for suche cause (to [-5-] order the immediate forwarding of some State packet,) the constables many tymes be fayne to take horses oute of plowes and cartes, wherein can be no extreme diligence."
    We should think not, Master Tuke. The worthy postmaster further shows how simple and rude were the arrangements of that day, by detailing the manner in which the royal letters were conveyed in what we should have considered to be one of their most important stages:—
    "As to postes betwene London and the courte, there be nowe but 2; wherof the on is a good robust felowe, and was wont to be diligent, evil intreated many tymes, he and other postes, by the herbigeours, for lack of horse rome or horsemete, withoute which diligence cannot be. The other hath been the meat payneful felowe, in nyght and daye, that I have knowen amongst the messengers. If he nowe slak he shalbe changed, as reason is."
    This was in the year 1533. In the time of Elizabeth and James I., horse-posts were established on all the great routes for the conveying of the king's letters. This postal system was, of course, a source of expense to the Government — in the latter reign of about £3,400 annually. All this time subjects' letters were conveyed by foot-posts, and carriers, whose expedition may be judged of by the following extracts from a project for "accelerating" letters by means of a public post first started in 1635:—
    "If (say the projectors) anie of his Mats subjects shall write to Madrid in Spain, hee shall receive answer sooner and surer than hee shall out of Scotland or Ireland. The letters being now carried by carriers or footposts 16 or 18 miles a-day, it is full two monthes before any answer from Scotland or Ireland to London."
    [-6-] This project seems to have been acted upon, for three years later we find a vast reform effected in the post. In fact, it was put upon a foundation which lasted up to the introduction of mail-coaches; as it was settled to have a "running post or two to run night and day between Edinburgh in Scotland, and the city of London, to go thither and come back again in six days;" carrying, of course, all the letters of the intermediate towns: the like posts were established in the following year on all the great routes.
    The principle of posts for the people once established, the deficit was soon changed to a revenue. Cromwell farmed the Post-office for £10,000 a year, he being the first to establish the general office in London. It might not be out of place to give an insight as to the scale of charges for letters, then settled. A single letter could be posted within eighty miles of London for 2d.; above that distance for 3d. ; to Scotland for 4d. ; and to Ireland for 6d.; double letters being charged double price: not such high charges these, considering the expenditure of horse-flesh and post-boys' breath; for every rider was obliged to ride "seven miles an hour in summer and five in winter, according as the ways might be," and to blow his horn whenever he met a company, and four times besides in every hour. Charles II. leased the profits of the Post-office for £21,500 a year. The country, it was evident, was rapidly advancing in commercial greatness and activity, for in 1694 the profits of the Post-office were £59,972  14s 9d. In the next century the introduction of mail-coaches gave an immense impulse to the transactions of the Post-office, which augmented gradually until the end of the year 1839, when the number of letters  [-7-] passing through all the offices in the kingdom amounted to 75,907,572, and the net profit upon their carriage was £1,659,509  17s.d.
    With the beginning of the year 1840 commenced that vast revolution in the system so long projected by Sir Rowland Hill — the Penny Postage.
    The effect of that system upon the number of letters passing through the post, and upon the manner of payment, was almost instantaneous. During the last month of the old high rates of postage, the total number of letters passing through the general office was a little more than two millions and a half; of these 1,159,224 were unpaid, and only 484,309 paid. In the same time — a short twelvemonth after the introduction of the cheap postage —the proportion of paid to unpaid letters was entirely changed; the latter had shrunk to the number of 473,821, whilst the former had run up to the enormous number of 5,451,022. Since 1841 the flow of letters has been continually on the increase. The return made to Parliament in 1847 gave the following results:— Unpaid, 644,642; paid, 10,957,033: the term "paid" includes, of course, all those letters on which the penny was prepaid, and those impressed with her Majesty's gracious countenance. The prepayment of the penny was a vast benefit to the post, and, together with the general introduction of letter-boxes in private houscs, saved the whole time lost to the letter-carriers whilst old ladies were fumbling for the postage; but the introduction of the stamp was of still greater importance, as on its ultimate exclusive adoption a vast saving was effected in the labour of receiving letters.
    When stamps were first introduced by Sir Rowland Hill,  [-8-] he did not appear to anticipate the use that would be made of them as a medium of exchange; but every one is aware how extensively they are used in the smaller monetary transactions of the country. Bankers, dealing in magnificent sums, do not deign to take notice of vulgar pence: the Government has, however, taken up the neglected coin, and represented its value by a paper currency, which, if not legally negotiable, yet passes from hand to hand unquestioned. The Post-office now allows, and even recommends, the use of postage-stamps as a medium of currency, in order to discourage the sending of coins by post. With this view, provision has been made in the London office for exchanging postage-stamps for money, a small deduction being made as commission on the transaction. It would be impossible, of course, to ascertain the amount of penny stamps that pass from town to town, and from man to man, in payment of small debts; but without doubt it must be very considerable — very much beyond the demand for letters: as long, therefore, as this sum is floating, until it comes to the post (its bank) for payment in shape of letter-carriage, it is a clear public advance to the Exchequer.
     The only good reason yet assigned against introducing these penny stamps, and those representing a higher value, such as the colonial shilling stamp, as a regular currency, is the fear of forgery. At the present time great precautions are used to prevent such an evil; the die itself, hideous and contemptible as it undoubtedly is as a work of art, in intricacy of execution is considered a master-piece at the Stamp-office. If you take one from your pocket-book, good reader, and inspect it, you will doubtless pronounce it to be a gross libel upon her Majesty's  [-9-] countenance, muddled in line, and dirty in printing; but those who know the trick, see in that confusion and jumble certain significant lines, certain combinations of letters in the comers, which: render forgery no such easy matter.
    The great security against fraud, however, is that letter-stamps are placed upon the same footing as receipt or bill stamps. Venders can buy them at first hand only of the Government; and the consequent difficulty forgers would have in putting sufficient spurious stamps in circulation to pay them for their risk and trouble, seems to obviate all risk of their being turned to improper account.
    It is our intention to confine ourselves mainly, in this article, to the operations of the General Post-office; but in order to give our readers an idea of the vast amount of correspondence which annually takes place in the United Kingdom, it may be as well, perhaps, to take a glance at the general postal transactions of the country. Make a round guess at the number of letters which traverse the broad lands of Britain, which circulate in the streets and alleys of our great towns, and which fly on the wings of steam, and under bellying sail, to the uttermost parts of the earth. You cannot?  Well, then, what say you to 544,000,000 , To that enormous amount had they arrived in the year ending 31st December, 1859.
    The number of letters posted in the metropolis and in the country is subject at stated times to a very great augmentation. In London, for instance, on Saturday night and Monday morning, an increase in letters of from thirty to forty per cent, takes place, owing to the Sunday closing of the Post-office. Valentine's Day, again, has an immense effect in gorging the general as well as local posts  [-10-] with love epistles. Those who move in the higher circles might imagine the valentine to be "a dead letter;" but the experience of the Post-office shows that the warm old saint still keeps up an active agitation among tender hearts. According to the evidence given by Sir Rowland Hill, the increase of letters on the 14th of February is not less than half a million throughout the United Kingdom.
    We have spoken hitherto only of the conveyance of letters, but they form an inferior portion of the weight carried by the Post-office. The number of newspapers and book packets posted in London throughout the week is something enormous. Several vanfuls of the Times, for instance, are despatched by every morning and evening mail; other morning papers contribute their sackfuls of broad-sheets; and on Saturday evening not a paper of any circulation in the metropolis, but contributes more or lese largely to swell that enormous avalanche of packets which descend upon the Post-office. In the long room lately added to the establishment of St. Martin's-le-Grand, which swings so ingeniously from its suspending rods, a vast platform attracts the eye of the visitor; he sees upon it half a dozen men struggling amid a chaos of newspapers, which seem countless as the heaped-up bricks of ruined Babylon. As they are carried to the different tables to be sorted, great baskets with fresh supplies are wound up by the endless chain which passes from top to bottom of the building. The number of books and papers passing through all the post-offices in the kingdom is not less than 81,000,000 per annum. Of late years the broadsheet has materially increased in size and weight, each paper now averaging five ounces; so that tens of thousands  [-11-] of tons weight of papers annually are posted, full half of which pass through St. Martin's-le-Grand, and thence to the uttermost ends of the earth — to India, China, or Australia — for one penny; whilst if they were charged by the letter scale, tenpence would be the postage; so that, if weight were considered in the accounts of the Post-office, there would be a loss in their carriage of ninepence on every newspaper. Of course this loss is mostly nominal, as the railways take the mails without calculating their weight; and to the packets, tons or hundredweights make no earthly difference. Even if this cost were real, the speedy transmission of news to all parts of the kingdom and its colonies is a matter of so much importance, that it would not by any means be purchased dearly.
    We are continually seeing letters from subscribers in the Times, complaining that their papers do not reach them, and hinting that the clerks must keep them back purposely to read them. If one of these writers were to catch a glance of the bustle of the office at the time of making up of the mails, he would smile indeed at his own absurdity. We should like to see one of the sorting clerks quietly reading in the midst of the general despatch; the sight would be refreshing. The real cause of delays and errors of all kinds in the transmission of newspapers, is the flimsy manner in which their envelopes and addresses are frequently placed upon them. Two or three. clerks are employed exclusively in endeavouring to restore wrappers that have been broken off. We asked one of these officials once what he did with those papers that had entirely escaped from their addresses? "We do, sir," said he, very significantly, "the best that we can," at the same time packing up the [-12-] loose papers with great speed in the first broken wrappers that came to hand. The result of this chance medley upon the readers must be funny enough; a rabid Tory sometimes getting a copy perhaps of the Daily News, a Manchester Rad a Morning Post, or an old dowager down at Bath, a copy of the Mark Lane Express.
    The carriage of magazines and other books is an entirely new feature in post-office transactions, introduced by Sir Rowland Hill. At the end of every month the sorting tables at the Post-office are like publishers' counters, from the number of quarterlies, monthlies, magazines, and serials, posted for transmission to country subscribers. The lighter ones must all be stamped at the Stamp-office, like newspapers; and any magazine under two ounces with this talisman pressed upon it, passes without further question to any part of the United Kingdom free, whilst books under sixteen ounces can be forwarded for fourpence. This arrangement is a wise and liberal one, recognizing as it does the advantage of circulating as widely as possible the current literature of the country. Many a dull village, where the current literature of the day penetrated not a few years ago, by this means is now kept up level in its reading with the metropolis.
    The miscellaneous articles that pass through the post under the new regulations are sometimes of the most extraordinary nature. Among the live stock, canary birds, lizards, and dormice, passed not long ago, and sometimes travelled hundreds of miles under the tender protection of rough mail-guards. Leeches are also very commonly sent, sometimes to the very serious inconvenience of the post-men. Ladies' shoes go through the general office into the  [-13-] country by dozens every week; shawls, gloves, wigs, and all imaginable articles of a light weight, crowd the Post-office; limbs for dissection have even been discovered (by the smell), and detained. In short, the public have so little conscience with respect to what is proper to be forwarded, that they would move a house through the post if they could do it at any reasonable charge. Considerable restrictions have, however, lately been placed on this promiscuous use of the post.
    The manner in which a letter will sometimes track a person, like a bloodhound, appears marvellous enough, and is calculated to impress the public with a deep sense of the patience and sagacity of the Post-office officials. An immense number of letters reach the post in the course of the week, with directions perfectly unreadable to ordinary persons; others — sometimes circulars by the thousand — with only the name of some out-of-the-way villages upon them; others, again, without a single word of direction. Of these latter, about eight a day are received on an average, affording a singular example of the regularity with which irregularities and oversights are committed by the public. All these letters, with the exception of the latter, which might be called stone blind, and are immediately opened by the secretary, are taken to the Blind Letter-office, where a set of clerks decipher hieroglyphics without any other assistance than the Rosetta stone of experience, and make shrewd guesses at enigmas which would have puzzled even the Sphinx. How often in directing a letter we throw aside an envelope because the direction does not seem distinct — useless precaution! the difficulty seems to be to write so that these cunning folks cannot understand.  [-14-] Who would imagine the destination of such a letter as this, for instance?—

L. Moses,
    Ratliuhiuai.

    Some Russian or Polish town immediately occurs to one from the look of the word, and from its sound; but a blind-letter clerk at once clears up the difficulty, by passing his pen through it and substituting — Ratcliffe Highway.
    Letters of this class, in which two or three directions run all into one, and garnished with ludicrous spelling, are of constant occurrence, but they invariably find out their owners. Cases sometimes happen, however, in which even the sharp wits of the Blind Letter-office are non-plussed. The following, for instance, is a veritable address:—

Mrs. Smith
        At the back of the Church,
                England.


    Much was this letter paused over before it was given up. "It would have been such a triumph of our skill," said one of the clerks to us, "to have delivered it safely;  but we  [-15-] could not do it. Consider, sir," said he, deprecatingly, "how many Smiths there are in England, and what a number of churches!" In all cases like this, in which it is found impossible to forward them, they are passed to what is called the Dead Letter-office, there opened and sent to their writers if possible. So that out of the many millions of letters passing through the Post-office in the course of the year, a very few only form a residuum, and are ultimately destroyed.
    The workings of the Dead Letter-office form not the least interesting feature of this gigantic establishment. According to a return moved for by Mr. T. Duncombe in 1847, there were in the July of that year 4,658 letters containing property consigned to this department, representing perhaps a two months' accumulation. In these were found coin, principally in small sums, of the value of £310 9s. 7d.; money-orders for £407 12s.; and banknotes representing £1,010. We might then estimate the whole amount of money which rests for any time without owners in the Dead. Letter-office, to be £11,000 in the year. Of this sum the greater portion is ultimately restored to the owners — only a very small amount, say one-and-an-eighth per cent., finding its way into the public exchequer. A vast number of bank post-bills and bills of exchange .are found in these dead letters, amounting in the whole to between two or three millions a year; as in nearly all cases, however, they are duplicates, and of only nominal value, they are destroyed with the permission of the owners. According to Mr. Greer's return of 1858, 30,000 letters containing property reached the Dead Letter-office.
    Of the miscellaneous articles found in these letters, there [-16-] is a very curious assortment. The ladies appear to find the Post-office a vast convenience, by the number of fancy articles of female gear found in them. Lace, ribands, handkerchiefs, cuffs, muffettees, gloves, fringe — a range of articles, in short, is discovered in them sufficient to set up a dozen pedlars' boxes for Autolycus. Little presents of jewellery are also very commonly to be found: rings, brooches, gold pins, and the like. These articles are sold to some jeweller, whilst the gloves and handkerchiefs, and other articles fitted for the young bucks of the office, are put up to auction and bought among themselves. These dead letters are the residuum, if we may so term it, of all the offices in England, as, after remaining in the local posts for a given time, they are transferred to the central office. The establishments of Dublin and Edinburgh, in like manner, collect all the same class of letters in Ireland and Scotland.
    In looking over the list of articles remaining in these two letter-offices, one cannot help being struck with the manner in which they illustrate the feelings and habits of the two peoples. The Scotch dead letters rarely contain coin; and of articles of jewellery, such as form presents sent as tokens of affection, there is a lamentable deficiency; whilst the Irish ones are full of little cadeau and small sums of money, illustrating at once the careless yet affectionate nature of the people. One item constantly meets the eye in Irish dead letters — "A free passage to New York." Relations, who have gone to America and done well, purchase an emigration ticket, and forward it to some relative in the "ould country" whom they wish to come over to join them in their prosperity. Badly written and  [-17-] worse spelled, many of them have little chance of ever reaching their destination, and as little of being returned to those who sent them: they lie silent in the office for a time, and are then destroyed, whilst hearts, endeared to each other by absence enforced by the sundering ocean, mourn in sorrow an imaginary neglect.
    When one considers it, the duties of the Post-office are multifarious indeed. Independently of its original function as an establishment for the conveyance of letters, of late it has become a parcel-de1ivery company and banking-house. In the sale of postage-stamps it makes itself clearly a bank of issue, and in the circulation of money-orders it still more seriously invades the avocations of the Lombard-street fraternity.
    The money-order system has sprung up almost with the rapidity of Jack the Giant-killer's bean-stalk. In the year ending April, 1839, there were only 28,838 orders issued, representing £49,496. 5s. 8d.; whilst in the year ending December, 1859, there were sold 6,969,108, value £13,250,930, or nearly one order to every four persons of the entire population of the kingdom. The next ten years will in all probability greatly enhance this amount, as the increase up to the present time has been quite gradual. It cannot be doubted that the issuing of money-orders must have seriously infringed upon the bank-draft system, and every day it will do so more, as persons no longer confine themselves to transmitting small amounts, it being frequently the case that sums of £50 and upwards are forwarded in this manner by means of a multiplication of orders. The rationale of money-orders is so simple, and fully understood by all persons, that they must rapidly  [-18-] increase, and we do not doubt that Sir Rowland Hill's suggestion of making them for larger amounts will before long be carried into execution, as it is found that the public cannot be deterred, by limiting the amount of the order, from sending what sums they like, and the making one order supply the place of two or three would naturally diminish the very expensive labour of this department. The thirteen millions of money in round numbers represented by these orders, of course includes the transactions of the whole country, but they are properly considered under the head of the General Office, as all the accounts are kept there, and there every money-order is ultimately checked. About 18,000 money-orders are issued daily in England and Wales, and a duplicate advice of every order is sent to the Chief Office in London for the purpose of recording the transaction and checking the Postmaster's accounts. These' advices are examined and entered by upwards of 100 clerks. Formerly 200 were employed. Thus, while the work has increased, the establishment of clerks has been considerably reduced, a most commendable fact in a Government office. On the sale of money-orders the Government gains £4 10s. per thousand (in number) issued, and this more than covers the whole expense of the greatest monetary convenience for the body of the people ever established.
    There is one room in the Post-office which visitors should not fail to inquire for — the late Secret Office. When Smirke designed the building he must have known the particular use to which this room would be put; a more low-browed, villanous-looking apartment could not well be conceived. It looks the room of a sneak, and it  [-19-] was one — an official sneak, it is true, but none the less a sneak. As we progress in civilization, force gives place to ingenious fraud. When Wolsey wished to gain possession of the letters of the ambassador to Charles V. he did so openly and dauntlessly, having ordered, as he says,
    "A privye watche shoulde be made in London, and by a certain circute and space aboutes it; in the whiche watche, after mydnyght, was taken passing between London and Brayneford, be certain of the watche appointed to that quarter, . one riding towards the said Brayneford ; who, examyned by the watche, answered so closely, that upon suspicion thereof, they searched hym, and founde secretly hyd aboutes hym a little pacquet of letters superscribed in Frenche."
    More modern ministers or state liked not this rough manner, but turning up their cuffs, and by the aid of a light finger, obtained what they wanted, without the sufferer being in the least aware of the activity of their digits. In this room the official letter-picker was appropriately housed. Unchallenged, and in fact unknown to any of the army of a thousand persons that garrisoned the Post-office, he passed by a secret staircase every morning to his odious duties; every night he went out again unseen. He was, in short, the man in the iron mask of the Post-office.
    Behold him, in the latter day of his pride, in 1842, when the Chartists kept the north in commotion, and Sir James Graham issued more warrants authorizing the breaking open letters than any previous Secretary of State on record, — behold him in the full exercise of his stealthy art!
      [-20-] Some poor physical-force wretch at Manchester or Birmingham has been writing some trashy letters about pikes and fire-balls to his London confederates. See the springes a powerful government set to catch such miserable game ! Immediately upon the arrival of the mails from the north the bags from the above-mentioned places, together with one or two others to serve as a blind to the Post-office people, are immediately taken, sealed as they are, to the den of this secret inquisitor. He selects from them the letters he intends to operate upon. Before him lie the implements of his craft — a range of seals bearing upon them the ordinary mottoes, and a piece of tobacco-pipe. If none of the seals will fit the impressions upon the letters, he carefully takes copies in bread; and now the more serious operation commences. The tobacco-pipe red-hot pours a burning blast upon the yielding wax; the letter is opened, copied, resealed, and returned to the bag, and reaches the person to whom it is directed, apparently unviolated.
    In the case of Mazzini's letters, however (the opening of which blew up the whole system), the dirty work was not even done by deputy; his letters were forwarded unopened to the Foreign-office, and there read by the minister himself. The abuses to which the practice was carried during the last century were of the most flagrant kind. Walpole used to issue warrants for the purpose of opening letters in almost unlimited numbers, and the use to which they were sometimes put might be judged by the following:—
    "In 1741, at the request of A., a warrant issued to permit A.'s eldest son to open and inspect any letters which A.'s youngest son might write to two females,   [-21-] one of whom that youngest son had imprudently married."
    The foregoing is from the Report of the Secret Committee appointed to investigate the practice in 1844, and which contains some very curious matter. Whole mails, it appears, were sometimes detained for several days during the late war, and all the letters individually examined. French, Dutch, and Flemish enclosures were rudely rifled, and kept or sent forward at pleasure. There can be no doubt that in some cases, such as frauds upon banks or the revenue, forgeries, or murder, the power of opening letters was used, impartially to individuals and beneficially to the State; but the discoveries made thereby were so few that it did not in any way counterbalance the great public crime of violating public confidence and perpetuating an official immorality.
    Thus far we have walked with our reader, and explained to him the curious machinery which acts upon the vast correspondence of the metropolis with the country, and of the country generally with foreign parts, within the establishment at St. Martin's-le-Grand. The machinery for its conveyance is still more vast, if not so intricate. The foreign mails have at their command a fleet of steamers such as the united navies of the world can scarcely match, threading the coral reefs of the "lone Antilles," skirting the western coast of South America, touching weekly at the ports of the United States, and bi-monthly traversing the Indian Ocean — tracking, in fact, the face of the deep wherever England has great interests or her sons have many friends. Even the vast Pacific, which a hundred years ago was rarely penetrated even by the adventurous  [-22-] circumnavigator, has become a highway for the passage of her Majesty's mails; and letters pass to Australia and New Zealand, our very antipodes, as soon as the epistles of old reached the Highlands of Scotland or the western counties of Ireland. This vast system of water-posts, if so they might be called, is kept up at an annual expense of over £1,000,000 sterling. 
    The conveyance of inland letters by means of the railways is comparatively inexpensive, as many of the companies are liberal enough to take the bags at rates usually charged to, the public for parcels, the total cost for their carriage in 1854 being only £446,000. Every night and morning, like so much life-blood issuing from a great heart, the mails leave the metropolis, radiating on their fire-chariots to the extremities of the land. As they rush along, the work of digestion goes on as in the flying bird. The travelling post-office is not the least of those curious contrivances for saving time consequent upon the introduction of railroads. At the metropolitan stations from which they issue, a letter-box is open until the last moment of their departure. The last letters into it are, of course, unsorted, and have to go through that process as the train proceeds. Whilst the clerks are busy in their itinerant office, by an ingenious, self-acting process, a delivery and reception of mail-bags is going on over their heads. At the smaller stations, where the trains do not stop, the letter-bags are lightly hung upon rods, which are swept by the passing mail-carriage, and the letters drop into a net suspended on one side of it to receive them. The bags for delivery are, at the same moment, transferred from the other side to the platform. The sorting of the   [-23-] newly-received bags immediately commences, and by this arrangement letters are caught in transitu, sorted, arranged in districts, ready to be transferred to the district offices in the metropolis, without the trouble and loss of time attendant upon the old mail-coach system, which necessitated the carriage of the major part of such letters to St. Martin's-le-Grand previous to their final despatch.
    There have been a great number of pillar and wall letterboxes erected since they were first introduced about four years ago, and the plan is found to be so convenient and economical that their erection continues at the rate of about 500 a year. In most cases, the public prefer these pillar-boxes to receiving houses, as their letters are safe from the scrutiny of curious post-mistresses and their gossips.
    The success of Sir Rowland Hill's system, with its double delivery, its rapid transmissions, and its great cheapness, which brings it within the range of the very poorest, is fast becoming apparent. Year by year it is increasing the amount of revenue it returns to the State, its profits for 1859 being £1,135,960, a falling off, it is true, of of some £500,000 a year from the revenue derived under the old rates, but every day it is catching up this income, and another ten years of but average prosperity will, in all probability, place it far beyond its old receipts, with a tenfold amount of accommodation and cheapness to the public. As it is, the gross earnings have already done so by nearly £250,000 a year; but the cost of distribution has, of course, vastly augmented with the great increase of letters which pass through the post under the penny rate.

source: Andrew Wynter, Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, 1865