By Professor Peter Chadwick
This article is based on Peter Chadwick’s three-frame exhibit which won a large vermeil award at the National Competition in York in July 2017. It looks at seven less common and less well-known facets of the mail system in Britain before 1840.
Although a good postal system existed for carrying messages ‘on the Queen’s business’ in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, private mail normally had to be carried privately. In 1635, King Charles I set up the General Post Office, to make a postal service available to everyone – this was intermittent and unreliable. On the restoration in 1660, King Charles II appointed Henry Bishop as postmaster – he acted rapidly and vigorously to turn the mail routes of the preceding 100 years into a good postal service. The General Post, as we know it, dates from 1660 – the first postmarks were introduced in 1661!
Initially all General Post mail was routed through London, even when it was between neighbouring towns: and mail between two ‘country’ addresses was charged for two journeys: from the point of departure to the head post office in London, and then a second journey from the head post office to its final destination. In principle, this method of charging remained in use until 1797, after which one charge was made for the total distance of the journey. In fact, by 1797, there was such a network of post roads that remarkably little of the mail went into and then out of London. The first improvement was the introduction of Cross Posts. A Cross Post was a postal service between a town on one post road, and a town on another. The first Cross Post, opened in 1696, ran between Exeter (on the Plymouth road, now the A3) and Bristol (on the road to Milford Haven and Ireland, now the A4). Exeter introduced a combined Bishop mark and stylised ‘E’, so that it read ‘E/FE/18’, as in the example shown in Figure 1, which was used on this Cross Post route. Bristol followed with a ‘B’ which was similar – a stylised ‘B’ in the format ‘B/23/Mar’. In 1700 the Cross Post was extended to Chester (then on the main road to Holyhead and to Carlisle), and once again a special stylised ‘C’, but without the date in the format ‘C/hes/ter’. After 1700, other Cross Posts followed rapidly: but without any special handstamps. A very few Cross Posts actually had a handstamp made to show they were Cross Posts, eg ‘Bridgwater X’, but these are few and rare. It was quite normal to handwrite on the front of the letter, ‘X Post’, often with additional information to help the postman, for example, ‘X Post, turn at Leominster’ (Fig 2) or ‘X Post, via Leamington Bag’.
‘Bye Posts’ is a phrase used loosely to describe two types of post. The first refers to posts from a specific point on a post road, to a town or village (or a series of ‘post towns’) off the post road. One example is the Bye Post from Fochabers to Keith (Fig 3). Fochabers lay on the main post road from Aberdeen (via Banff) to Inverness, and a post office was operating (at least unofficially) in Fochabers by 1706. From January 1706, a Bye Post was established from Fochabers to Keith: once a week, a foot postman took the mail eight miles up the hill to Keith. Later the service was extended via Huntly, right through to Aberdeen. By 1730 a foot postman went three days a week from Aberdeen to Inverness via Banff and the alternate three days via Huntly. The second description refers to posts between two points on a post road, but not going into London and out again. Normally there are no postal markings to distinguish a ‘Bye Post’, but there is one exception. Mail on any ‘walk’ in the outer area of the London District Post, sent from one post office on the walk to another, did not have to go into the centre of London, but was ‘dropped off’ as appropriate. Offices in the outer area were issued with handstamps for the 3d. charge. The normal 3d. charge of the London District Post was shown with a handstruck ‘3’ with a curled top; the outer area Bye Post handstamps were unusual struck with a flat-topped ‘3’ (Fig 4).
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