By Jesse Robitaille
This is the final story in a three-part series highlighting Great Britain’s mid-19th century postal reforms.
The first “real reform” of Great Britain’s postal system came in December 1839, when the uniform four-penny post was implemented.
The short-lived change, which was in effect for only 36 days – from Dec. 5 until Jan. 9, 1840 – saw the end of rates calculated by distance. Instead, postage was now charged based on weight – four pence for pre-paid letters up to half an ounce – and there was no penalty for multiple sheets. What’s more, for mail with rates already less than four pence, the existing lower rates applied.
Before the uniform four-penny post was implemented, the Select Committee, of which Sir Rowland Hill was a member, did an “amazing investigation of the number of letters mailed,” said Tom Slemons, a U.S.-based director of the Great Britain Collectors Club.
The committee analyzed how many letters were mailed at a specific time in a certain town or county. After learning how many letters the postmasters were handling, it determined how many of those letters were sent from each post office at each of the different rates.
“These postmasters had to keep track of it – there were no calculators or database – and count these things to send in the information,” said Slemons, who’s a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society London.
“The poor postmaster had to spend hours of time keeping track of every letter he took in and record the rate. For a small town, it wasn’t such a giant job as it was for Ipswich, where there were 25,000 people and they were mailing 10,000 letters a week.”
Through its study, the committee was attempting to determine if the postal system would continue to profit after lowering its rates and if it was feasible to handle the increased volume of mail that would come from cheaper postage.
“They changed it to a single rate – four pence – or if a letter went for less than four, like the penny post or the two-penny post, that rate stood. Any rate greater than four was reduced to four, and the half-penny Scotland mail tax was taken away,” said Slemons, who added free franks were still allowed.
THE FIRST DAY
A “wonderful” cover mailed from Ipswich to Norfolk – about 80 kilometres north – on the first day of the uniform four-penny post highlights this rate change.
“The eight-penny letter was marked in red,” Slemons said, adding this indicated the new rate was four pence.
Another “fantastic” example is the only known piece mailed from England to Malta, an archipelago about 2,800 kilometres away from London in the central Mediterranean, in the four-penny post period.
“This goes back into the cheating business. The rate to go to Malta wasn’t four pence – the rate was four pence for any place in the U.K. – but this young lady was writing to ‘care of Mr. Stilwell,’ and his address was in London.”
An attorney with the Royal Navy, Stilwell would have somehow snuck the letter onto the ship destined for Malta, where the letter writer’s father was the quartermaster for the Royal Navy.
“She got a cheap ride to Malta.”
While free franks were still permitted, the post office was “very specific” about how people prepared their letters for legal free franking, Slemons said.
“You had to have the nearest post town in the upper left; you had to have the date; and then it had to be signed by a person who was authorized to mail it. Part of that inefficiency was they had to keep a list of the names of people and samples of their signature to make sure it was really legal. You had to jump through all the hoops to get it.”
Among the examples of these changes in free franking is a letter mailed by General Charles Rochfort Scott, a British Army officer who later became Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey.
“This was Jan. 6, and he forgot what year it was and began writing 1-8-3, but then remembered it was a new year. That was an invalid date and never should’ve been accepted in the post. What he should’ve done is scratch out the ‘1839,’ put 1840 and initial it to make it legal,” said Slemons. “You can make a mistake, but you have to correct it – but they accepted this letter anyway.”
Archibald Acheson, the governor general of British North America from 1835-37, made a similar error in the new year but corrected it properly with his initials.
“It was January, but he put ‘8,’ which was the wrong day, so he put ‘9’ and then his little ‘A’ up there to make it correct.”
UNIFORM PENNY POST
The post office determined its plans for reform were feasible, and Jan. 10, 1840 marked the beginning of the uniform penny post, which allowed letters to be sent anywhere in Britain for a penny.
“This gets back to one of the premises that Rowland Hill wanted, and that’s fiscal responsibility. He wanted everything pre-paid; he wanted to eliminate the delivery of unpaid letters, but they weren’t quite ready for that. It had been that way too long.”
Instead, the post office decided if people wanted to send unpaid letters, they would have to pay double the rate.
“It was a penny paid or a tuppence unpaid, up to half an ounce,” said Slemons, who added the use of free franks was also eliminated due to its abuse within the postal system.
“Queen Victoria said, ‘If my subjects have to pay postage, I’ll pay postage,’ so the wealthy started paying postage.”
The young lady who mailed her father in Malta tried to reach him again on Jan. 18, only eight days after the launch of the uniform penny post.
“She sent it unpaid to the attorney in London, but he missed the boat, so the attorney crossed out his name and wrote ‘MALTA’ and went to the post office to mail it. The postman didn’t quite understand all these new rates either, so he said the rate was a penny plus a shilling to go on to Malta,” said Slemons.
“I don’t know whether the attorney was sharp enough to tell him that wasn’t the way it worked, but it was a shilling to go anywhere in Britain to Malta, so then he had to strike out the one he put on there and it ended up as a pre-paid shilling. The attorney had to pay the full amount this time.”
Later that year, on May 1, 1840, the penny black – the world’s first adhesive postage stamp – was issued, although it wasn’t valid for use until May 6.