Saturday Magazine




THE term Post, as applied to the conveyance of letters, is derived from the Latin word positi, placed; the horse which conveyed them having placed or posted from distance to distance.
The plan of despatching letters by a regular conveyance, and at stated times, from one part of the country to another, only reached its present state of perfection so lately as the year 1784. Letters and packets of importance were in ancient times forwarded by means of men on horseback, or on foot, and this practice still continues in may parts of the world; but from the uncertain times at which they started, as well as from their being only applied to the purposes of Government, they may more properly be called Couriers than Posts.

In some parts of the east they avail themselves of pigeons, these birds being known to return instinctively to their mates, at whatever distance they may be from them, as a means of forwarding information form one place to another. In former times, the Consul of Alexandretta used to send news daily, in five hours time, to Aleppo, by means of pigeons; though these two place are three days journey on horseback apart. The Dutch also employed the same mode of sending intelligence in several instances, particularly at the siege of Haerlem, when information was convey to the besieged of the approach of relief, at a time when they were on the point of surrendering.

In point of fact, Posts on their present plan, that is for the accommodation of all, are but a modern invention. In England they were first established in the reign of Charles the First, though something of the sort appears to have existed much earlier, since an Act of Parliament, dated 1548, fixes the rate of post-horse at one penny per mile. Under Elizabeth, in 1581, mention is made of the office of chief Post-master of England, and in 1631, of that of Post-master for foreign parts: this latter office appears to have been first created by James the First.

In 1635, a Letter-office was erected for England and Scotland, under the direction of Thomas Withering, and certain rates of postage settled: but from some abuses in the execution of his office, Withering was removed, and the business was placed under the control of the principal Secretary of State. Shortly after the breaking out of the civil war, the outline of the present more extended and regular plan seems to have been conceived by Mr. Edmond Prideaux, who was appointed Attorney-general after the murder of King Charles. He first established a weekly conveyance of letter to all parts of the nation, and saved the public the charge of maintaining Post-masters, to the amount of £7000 per annum. The profits of his office appear to have been so great as to have excited an attempt on the part of the city of London, to form a rival establishment, but the affair was set at rest by a vote of the House of Commons, declaring the office to be at the disposal of parliament.

In 1657, a regular Post Office was established by the Protector and his Parliament, on nearly the same plan as that since adopted, and the rates of postage then charged were continued unaltered till the reign of Queen Anne.

After the restoration, in the year 1660, the Post Office was first established by statute, when the Commons claimed the privilege of franking their letters; but this claim was afterwards dropped, on a private assurance from the crown, that the privilege should be allowed the members.

Accordingly, a warrant was constantly issued to the Post-master-general, directing the allowance thereof to the extent of two ounces in weight, till at length, it was expressly confirmed by an Act of Parliament of the 4th of George the Third, which added also, many new regulations. Other restrictions were afterwards imposed in the 35th year of the same reign, when it was settled that “no letter sent by any member shall be exempted from the payment of postage, unless he shall be actually in the post town, or within the limits of its delivery of letter, or within twenty miles of such post town, on the day, or the day before the day, on which the letter shall be put into the office.” The number was also limited to the sending of ten, and the receiving of fifteen each day.
In 1654, the revenues of the Post Office were farmed by John Manly, Esq., for the yearly sum of 10,000l. In 1665, the Office was settled on the Duke of York, and its produce amounted to 21,500l. Thus, in little more than ten years, the amount was doubled, and it still continued to increase until the reign of William and Mary, when it was considerably influenced by the state of the country, its revenue during the eight years of war only averaging 67,222l. a-year, and producing, in the succeeding four years of peace, and average of 82,319l.

On the Union of England with Scotland, in 1710, a General Post Office was established by Act of Parliament, which included, besides Great Britain and Ireland, our West India and American Colonies. This extension increased the revenue to 111,461l. What portion of this sum was produced by the respective countries does not appear, but there is reason to believe it was almost entirely Irish and English, for even so late as between 1730 and 1740, the Post was only sent three days a-week, between Edinburgh and London, and on one occasion conveyed only a single letter, which was for an Edinburgh banker named Ramsay!

In 1784, a most remarkable change took place in the mode of conveying the letters. Till this time the mails had been sent by carts, or post-boys on horseback, a mode attended with danger and delay; but in this year, John Palmer, Esq., recommended a plan to Government, calculated to increase the revenue and accommodate the public. His proposal was acceded to; he was rewarded with a large sum of money, and was afterwards appointed Comptroller-General of the Post Office. His plan was the establishment of the present Mail Coaches, which were to leave London at 8 o’clock every evening precisely, to travel at the rate of 8 miles an hour, including stoppages, so that their arrival at any place in their route might be calculated to a certainty. They were allowed to carry four passengers inside and two outside, this offering accommodation for persons whose business required expedition and certainty; for at this time the stage coaches were much inferior in speed and comfort to what they are at present.

The first Mail Coach was established to Bristol in 1784. From this moment the prosperity of the Post Office increased rapidly. The revenue, which, at its first institution was not more than 5000l. a-year, and which, after the revolution of two centuries, only produced, in 1783, 146,000l. annually, yielded, thirty years afterwards, nearly 1,700,000l., yet the expense is now at a less rate per mile than upon the old plan. The total amount of the annual receipts in now about 2,400,000l. and the net revenue about 1,500,000l.

The General Post Office was originally established in Cloak-lane, near Dowgate-hill, whence it was removed to the Black Swan, in Bishopsgate-street. On occasion of the Great Fire, in 1666, it was removed to the Two Black Pillars, in Brydges-street, Covent-garden; and afterwards to Sir Robert Viner's mansion, in Lombard-street, where it continued to September 23, 1829, when it was removed to a new and spacious office erected for the purpose on the site of an ancient college and sanctuary in St. Martin’s le Grand.

This magnificent building was commenced in 1825, from designs by R. Smirke, Esq., and completed in 1829. It is of the Grecian Ionic order. The basement is of granite; but the building itself is of brick, entirely faced with Portland stone, resting on pedestals of granite. The vestibule, or great hall, occupying the centre of the building, forms a public thoroughfare from St. Martin’s le Grand to Foster-lane. This hall is 80 feet long, 60 broad, and 53 feet high in the centre.
On the north side of the Hall are the several receiving-rooms for newspapers and inland and ship-letters; and behind these, further north, are the rooms for the inland-letter-sorters and letter-carriers. These rooms extend the whole length of the front, from the portico to the north wing; that for the letter-carriers is 35 feet in height.

The mails are received at the door in the east front, north of the hall, leading to the inland offices, and are taken into the tick-room, where the bags are opened. In this part of the building, also, are the West Indies, Comptroller’s and Mail Coach offices.

On the South side of the hall are the Foreign, Receiver-general’s, and Accountant’s offices. At the east end of the hall is the Two-penny Post Office, containing the Receiving, Sorters’, and Carriers’ rooms. A novel mode has been adopted for conveying letters, which have come to the wrong department, from one room to another: they are placed in small wagons beneath the pavement of the hall, and made to travel through a tunnel by machinery.

On the upper stories are sleeping-rooms for the foreign clerks, who are liable to be called to duty on the arrival of the mails. The assistant-secretary resides at the south-west extremity of the building.

The basement story is rendered fire-proof by brick vaultings. It comprises rooms for the mail-guards, an armoury, and servants’ offices. There is also some ingenious machinery for conveying coals to each story, and a simple means of forcing water to any part of the edifice in the case of fire. The whole building is lighted with gas, of which there are nearly one thousand burners.

The regularity with which the business of the Post Office is conducted, is truly surprising. There are two periods of meeting in the day: one for the distribution of the letters that come up from the country, and another for the despatch of those that are to be sent down. The first commences at 6 in the morning, and the task is accomplished by half-past 8 or 9, except when the mails are delayed by the badness of the roads. The letters are counted, and the amount of postage taken, so as to check the accounts of the country post-masters; they are then examined, to tell whether the charges on them are accurate, stamped with the date, and arranged for the letter-carriers, to whom they are counted twice over. The postage is paid to the Receiver-general three times a-week, when the amount of each letter-carrier’s delivery for every day is again checked.

The dispatch of letters in the evening is conducted on the admirable system as their distribution in the morning; the whole business being performed in three hours, from 5 to 8. The letter are first taken out of the receiving-house and arranged in different compartments, named after the mails sent out. This is done by the junior clerks, who this acquire a perfect knowledge of the situation and distance of all the post towns; the senior clerks then mark on the letters the proper rate of postage, which they do at an average of one letter per second; and the letters are placed in boxes, labelled with the names of the towns. When the Receiving-office closes, the letters for each town are summed up, put in the bag, and a copy of the amount sent with them. The letter-bags, tied and sealed, are all delivered to the respective guards of the mail coaches by 8 o’clock.

According to a calculation made in the month of May, 1828, it appears that the daily average number of letters brought into London by twenty-four mails was 28,466; 15,359 of which were delivered east of Temple Bar, and 13,107 west of the same place, making, at the same daily rate, 170,802 letters each week; and 8,881,704 in the course of the year.
The following list show the number of letters sent at the same period from various towns, together with their delivery east and west of Temple Bar.








The following regulation for the advantage of merchants and manufacturers, is perhaps not generally known.- “Every cover containing patterns or samples of goods, not exceeding one ounce, shall be charged only as a single letter, if sent open at the sides, and without any letter, or writing therewith, other than the name of the person sending the same, the place of his abode, and the price of the article.”

The TWO-PENNY, or as it was called when first established, the Penny-Post was set up in the year 1683, by a private individual, for the conveyance of letters and small parcels; and to his assigns, government allowed an income of 200l. per annum for life, in place of the revenue arising from it. It is said however, that after a trial in the Court of King’s Bench, the projectors had the mortification to find this office adjudged to belong to the Duke of York, as a branch of the General Post Office.

The first notice of the Penny Post, however, in the Statute-book, occurs in the 9th. year of the reign of Queen Anne, when it was very essentially improved, although it may be said to have been originally instituted in 1683.

By the Tow-penny Post, any letter or parcel, not exceeding four ounces in weight, can be conveyed to any distance within three miles of the General Post-Office for the charge of two-pence. To any place beyond this distance,and not in the list of places to which the General Posts extends, the charge is three-pence.

The number of letters delivered by the Two-penny Post, ins about 40,000 daily, or 12,529,000 in the year. If this be added to the delivery of the General Post, it makes a total yearly amount of 21,510,704 letters, or about 413,000 each week. The number of letters delivered annually by the Paris Post Office, is about fourteen millions and a half, of which about nine millions and a quarter come from the departments.

It may be observed, that few institutions afford more advantages than that of Posts. Indeed their usefulness, not to say necessity, in commercial concerns, it too obvious to admit of any doubt, and the assistance they render to political transactions is little less apparent. But it is in the more confined and humble scenes of social life, that they spread comfort and joy, with a liberality which we seldom her sufficiently acknowledged; although to them, the absent parent, child, and friend, are repeatedly indebted for the removal of anxiety and the solace of dejection.

The paper messengers of friends,
For absence almost make amends.