At Vindolanda in 1973, a cache of 1500 letters were discovered. They had been written on bark about 2000 years ago and had been preserved by compression in anaerobic conditions. Since Roman times there has been a need for records to be kept and documents transported. Early letters were written by the few well- educated people or else by scribes, and these were delivered by servant on horseback. Since they had to travel over private land, agreements were made between landowners for the transport of letters over their land free of charge. In 1430 the ‘Merchant Strangers’ post was established in Italy to convey mercantile documents between Merchants in Venice. This later was made available to the public under the title ‘Merchant Adventurers’.
Henry I was the first English monarch known to have officially appointed messengers to carry government documents. In 1484 Richard III developed this process by appointing horsemen at intervals of about 20 miles along a route to carry letters hand to hand at high speed. By this method a letter could be delivered 200 miles away within 2 days. Henry VIII is credited with establishing the first Post Office. In 1512 he paid Sir Brian Tuke £100 to deliver royal letters, and in 1516 he appointed Sir Brian as Master of the Post. Staging posts, usually inns, were established at 20 mile intervals for changing the horses. Tuke established routes from London to Dover and London to Edinburgh via the Great North Road.
Post boys were often employed to deliver mail, initially for a pittance, but as literacy improved and the numbers of private letters sent increased so did the post boys’ wages.
By 1603 post masters had been appointed at various stages along the Great North Road. Charles I opened the ‘Kings Post’ for the use of the public on 31st July 1635 with a proclamation setting up a letter office available day and night. A letter from London to Edinburgh took 5 days to deliver. A single letter consisting of 1 sheet of paper was charged at a rate of 2d (2 old pence) for a distance of less than 80 miles, 4d for between 80 and 140 miles and 6d for greater distances. A letter to the Borders from London would have cost 8d. If more sheets were used then the tariff increased according to the ‘bigness of the packet’. To keep costs down some people resorted to the use of ‘cross-writing’ horizontally and then vertically – for this, clear handwriting was essential! The first Post Master General was Henry Bishop, appointed at the suggestion of Oliver Cromwell in 1688. He used a post mark then known as the Bishop’s mark.
During times of war postal rates would increase, so that posting a letter could cost the average working man a week’s wages. At such times the post was rarely used except for official business. In 1834 certain areas were allowed to have their own ‘penny post’ in order to reduce the spiralling costs. The penny post became very popular and by 1840 Sir Roland Hill introduced the system countrywide . The first postage stamp, the ‘penny black’, came into use on 6 May 1840 and this was affixed to envelopes. Additionally a ‘tuppeny blue’, 2d stamp was introduced as were prepaid envelopes called ‘Mulready Covers’. We were shown one of these covers dated 2nd May, 4 days before the official date of issue, and worth £12000. Subsequently stamps with errors, omissions or printing faults have become highly prized by collectors, and hence very valuable.
The second part of the talk focussed on World War I. In the Navy letters written aboard ship had to be left unsealed until checked by a censor, normally a senior officer, who would read it, then seal and stamp it. Mail bags that were off loaded in the UK would be opened and the letters cancelled by the Post Master, this post mark giving no information about the location so as not to reveal the positions of warships to the enemy.
Letters to soldiers serving abroad were post free, but this was not true for seamen who had to pay a charge of 1d, although this was later repealed as it was rightly considered unfair.
The then King, George V, was a keen philatelist who established the Royal Collection. Every Wednesday he reputedly spent in his ‘stamp room’, and asked not to be disturbed except for matters of national importance. This only occurred 3 times between 1914 and 1918.
Various letters were on display, written by George V himself. One was to his artist, Chevalier de Martini, another to Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland who cared for wounded soldiers at the front. There was a letter from a navel commander at the Battle of Jutland who censored his own post. His leg was shot away during the battle, and patched up by a stoker who applied a tourniquet. The ship’s ensign was also shot away but swiftly replaced so as not to infer surrender. The ship was later torpedoed and sunk with just 7 survivors. The commander’s body was washed up in Sweden and a medal awarded posthumously. A letter from bandsman drummer Morley to his wife recounted how his ship was sunk off South Africa. The band played on as the ship went down, the crew alone being initially rescued, but finally a further rescue ship arrived and picked up the band.
All in all this was a fascinating talk.