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The Empire and the century/Imperial Postal Services

< The Empire and the century




It may he well to explain that no attempt is here made to give a complete and connected history of our inland and foreign mail services. But a selection has been made of the leading facts on the subject, especially such as relate to communication with Britons beyond the seas, and accordingly possess some interest for students of Imperial questions.

The germ of the modern post may be traced back to the earliest times. Hezekiah sent round his royal letters by the 'posts.' The late Max Müller lectured on correspondence of Egyptian Kings with Asia, scratched on tablets, 8,400 years ago, and doubtless enjoyed it more than the brightest pages of Lady Mary or Horace Walpole. The Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all had horses or footrunners stationed at regular distances for conveying messages. The distance was ascertained by King Cyrus in this practical way. He despatched a mounted messenger, who rode as far as his horse could run without baiting, and at that point a 'post' with a relay was placed. Thus, provided the beasts were not defrauded of their corn, a rough timetable could be kept. Caesar had a service of footrunners in Gaul, and two of his letters reached Rome in twenty-eight days. Charlemagne also established a post.

But in all countries, including our own, the ancient post was an organization for conveying the royal missives only; the private letter-writer was not thought of, perhaps because he hardly existed. Learned individuals, however, continued to exchange notes by uncertain means, and finally the University of Paris, perhaps as early as the eleventh century, established a post for carrying the students' letters to their families—doubtless narrating wonderful progress in study, with postscripts requesting cakes and pocket-money, like students' 'letters home' in more recent times. The service was a popular one, as the messengers were exempt from wine duty; but whether this exemption tended to foster speed and safe transmission is more than questionable.

As other Universities imitated Paris in the matter, Oxford, no doubt, maintained a special messenger service in very remote times. Otherwise the postal service in England was for centuries still very much what it was when the last Roman Legion crossed over to Calais—an establishment of royal couriers, forerunners of the modern 'King's Messengers.' So far back as 1250, as we find from the Royal Wardrobe Accounts, these couriers were paid. They must have worn the royal livery of scarlet, and have been familiar figures on the roads of the time. In 1481 Edward IV. was kept advised of events in Scotland by relays of horsemen, each of whom rode a stage of twenty miles.

But postal revenue came in those days from the Crown, not the people; and the Crown sometimes forgot to pay. In August, 1588, Thomas Cromwell wrote sharply to Sir Brian Tuke, 'Magister Nunciorum, Cursorum, sive Postarum,' complaining of 'great default in conveyance of letters,' and signifying the King's pleasure 'that posts be better appointed.' Sir Brian replied with a few eloquent facts:

'The King's Grace hath no moo ordinary posts, ne of many days hathe had, but between London and Calais. … For, Sir, ye knowe well, that, except the hackney horses between Gravesend and Dovour, there is no such usual conveyance in post for men in this realme as in the accustomed places of France and other partes, ne men can keep horses in readiness without some way to here the charges … the constables many times be faine to take horses out of plowes and cartes, wherein can be no extreme diligence,' etc.

Sir Brian's riders were ordered to accept and carry letters for private persons. But near the beginning of Henry's reign the Flemings, probably for good reasons, established their own post to the Continent, and appointed their own postmaster. We may be sure that this undertaking was managed on 'business principles,' and that its usefulness must speedily have become apparent to Englishmen. But even the Dover road was so bad that King Charles I. and his Consort were four days travelling from the coast to London. (The first stage-coaches, which appeared early in the seventeenth century, could only accomplish two or three miles an hour.) In 1608 the King's messengers paid 2½d. per mile for a horse, 'besides the guide's groats.'

Down to 1638 there was but one mail a week between London and Brussels, and this took from four to five days. Subsequently two mails a week were arranged, and the transit was effected in two days. In 1635 the first British public post was established by Charles I. No journey was to exceed three days, and the postage was 6d« per letter. The roads were left in statu quo, and even in 1732 the mails travelled but sixty miles in twenty-four hours. In 1637 a proclamation forbade all persons other than those employed by the Postmaster-General, to carry letters, unless to places not served by the King's posts, and with the exceptions of common carriers, messengers, or those carrying letters for friends. By 1644 a weekly service was maintained to all parts of England. At each post the time of the courier's arrival was marked on the letter, so that he could not loiter too long at wayside alehouses.

Witherings (whose name I may be allowed to recall with veneration as that of our first postal reformer) was Postmaster-General in 1635. Before his day a letter took one month to reach Edinburgh. He accomplished the feat in three days, for a postage of 8d. The post then yielded £5,000 a year. Under the Commonwealth it was farmed to contractors. The second postal reformer, John Hill, of York, placed relays of horses from that city to London, and began to carry letters at half rates. He aimed at establishing a penny post for England, with a 2d. rate to Scotland, and a 4d. one to Ireland. But the farmers complained, and his men were 'trampled down' and hunted off the road by the soldiery of Cromwell. Hill published a spirited protest, a copy of which may be seen at the British Museum.

In 1688 the Merry Monarch had to provide for his brother James, and generously settled the Post-Office on him (having, indeed, very little else to settle). We can understand the illiberal way in which reformers were now treated. One instance will suffice. Two men, Dockwra and Murray, set up a London Penny Post, which ultimately was left in the hands of Dockwra alone. He carried, registered and insured, both letters and parcels weighing less than 1 pound, for 1d. each. He had a chief office, seven sorting offices, and some 500 receiving houses and wall-boxes, with hourly collections, and ten deliveries daily. Just as he had elaborated his system he was pounced upon by the Duke of York, who stopped his proceedings, but continued the penny post for his own benefit.

Charles appointed a Postmaster-General for Scotland. It is curious that, down to 1715, the Scottish mails were carried by foot-runners. In 1711 the Secretary of State was empowered to order the opening of any letter. The rates were then 8d. per letter for eighty miles, 4d. for a greater distance, and 6d. to Edinburgh or Dublin. In 1720 cross-road posts were established by Ralph Allen.

In 1782 John Palmer, lessee of the Bath Theatre, proposed to send the mails by the stage-coaches instead of by postboys. So numerous were highway robberies that an official notice advised people to send banknotes in halves. 'The mails,' wrote Palmer, 'are generally entrusted to some idle boy without character, mounted on a worn-out hack, and who, so far from being able to defend himself, or escape from a robber, is much more likely to be in league with him.' The boys rode about three and a half miles an hour, and carried immense quantities of unposted letters. Pitt utilized the coaches in 1784. In that year the postal revenue was £196,000, and in 1805 it had risen to £944,000. With the means of sure, regular transmission, correspondence rapidity developed. Above all, letters were safe. The guard's blunderbuss, so much laughed at nowadays, must have been a deadly weapon at close quarters; and when Jerry Cruncher stopped the Dover coach, he knew what would happen if he indulged in any suspicious movement.[1]

Coaches were also introduced into Scotland, but the tracks were so bad that the horses could only crawl at a snail's pace to their destinations.

In Ireland the roads were still worse; but in 1815 Bianconi introduced his stoutly-built mail-cars in that country, and Thackeray has portrayed himself (paying particular attention to a fair colleen), on one of these vehicles; which are still, I believe, running in some districts.

We come to the greatest name in postal history—Rowland Hill. This illustrious reformer was a born mathematician, with a genius for organization, energetic, indefatigable, and resourceful. He was 'ever a fighter,' and a good hater, as is shown by his remark that there was one thing might be said for the Revolution of 1848, namely, that it had removed M. Dubost, an opponent of postal reform.

In 1887 about 96,000,000 letters were exchanged by the 25,600,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom, or four per head, as against sixty-one per head in 1904. There were forty rates for inland letters. The charge rose from 2d. for eight miles to 4d. for fifteen, and then by irregular gradation to 1s. for 800 miles, and 1d. for each addition of 100. The average postage per letter was 6¼d. Extra postage had to be paid on letters crossing the sea, the Scottish border, and certain bridges, and even for delivery; while, if there were an enclosure of a piece of paper, however small, the rate was doubled. The addressees had to pay everything; and Rowland Hill relates how his mother dreaded the advent of a letter, not having always the shilling to pay for it. All sorts of tricks were resorted to in order to escape postage. Rowland, on a journey, would send newspapers marked in a preconcerted way to give news of his health and whereabouts. As all Peers and Members had the privilege of franking for themselves and friends, the upper classes were practically exempt from postage. The working-classes hardly corresponded at all, and the revenue came from the middle, or trading, class. Cobden reported that five-sixths of the letters from Manchester to London were smuggled, and the loss through franking was about £1,000,000 a year.

Rowland Hill proved that the cost of conveying a letter from London to Edinburgh did not exceed 136d. He therefore, in 1887, proposed a uniform rate of a penny, which, to save the cost of collecting, should be prepaid by a stamped cover (or an adhesive stamp, as suggested by David Chalmers). As the Government would not move, he issued his famous pamphlet, setting forth his case, and the public instantly and warmly supported him. A Committee of the Commons was appointed to inquire into the subject. The postal officials were bitterly opposed to the plan, and Lord Lichfield, Postmaster-General, said that 'of all the wild and visionary schemes which he had ever heard or read of, it was the most extraordinary.' The officials gravely argued that the General Post-Office would not contain the number of letters that would be written, and that there were not enough coaches to carry them. In 1889, however. Lord John Russell announced that the reform would be brought forward. On January 10, 1840, Inland Penny Postage came into operation, and Harriet Martineau neatly summed up the result thus: 'The poor can now write to one another as if they were all M.P.'s.'

From the first postal revenue increased 'by leaps and bounds.' The Post-Office was in 1649 farrmed at £5,000; in 1663 at £21,000; in 1674 at £48,000; in 1685 at £65,000.


We cannot forbear sympathizing with our forefathers as we recall some of the postage rates that vexed them.

1290. Letter-carrier brought Edward I. a despatch announcing the arrival of the Maid of Norway. For this pleasing intelligence the King had to pay 18s. 4d.

1631. Postage on a letter for 80 miles, 2d.; under 140 miles, 4d.; above that distance, in England, 6d.; to Scotland, 8d.

1677. Beyond 80 miles in England Wales, single letter, 8d., or 1s. an ounce.

1770. In England, 8d. if under 80 miles; 4d. if above 80 miles; 6d. to Edinburgh or Dublin.

In England, from 1797 to 1812, the following rates were charged:

Up to  15 miles, single letter, 3d.; 1 ounce 1s. 0d.
 „  30   „ 4d.   „ 1s. 4d.
 „  60   „ 5d.   „ 1s. 8d.
 „ 100  „ 6d.   „ 2s. 0d.
 „ 150   „ 7d.   „ 2s. 4d.
Over 150  „ 8d.   „ 2s. 8d.
Add for Scotland 1d.   „    4d.

In 1695 postage from London to York or Plymouth was 8d.; but in 1818, 11d.

In 1812, at the crisis of the Napoleonic struggle, there were increased charges for postage, which were augmented a few years later, and continued in force till 1839. Thus:

Up to 15 miles,  4d.
 „  20 „  5d.
 „  30 „  6d.
 „  50 „  7d.
 „  80 „  8d.
 „ 120 „  9d.
 „ 170 „ 10d.
 „ 280 „ 11d.
 „ 300 „ 12d.

And every additional 100 miles, 1d. One halfpenny extra on each letter entering Scotland or crossing the Menai Bridge. London to Edinburgh, 1s. 1½d., or for 1 ounce four single letter rates were charged.

1839. A uniform rate of 4d. per letter.

1840. Inland Penny Postage: 1d. per ½ ounce.

1897. Up to 4 ounces 1d.; ½d. for each addition of 2 ounces.

Speed (Inland).

Then in regard to the speed with which letters were carried:

1566. From Croydon to Croxton, 68 miles, took nearly 40 hours.

1635. Edinburgh to London and back, 6 days.

1678. Edinburgh to Glasgow, 44 miles, took 6 days.

1689. News of King's abdication reached the Orkneys in 8 months.

1696. Exeter to Bristol, 65 miles, took 24 hours.

1750. Edinburgh to Glasgow, 44 miles, took 86 hours.

1768. Edinburgh to London, a monthly service, taking a fortnight each way.

1776. The first London stage-coach reached Edinburgh in 60 hours.

1814. Thanks to macadamized roads, the coaches ran 10 miles an hour.

1836. London to Edinburgh, 42 hours.

1837. London to Liverpool and Manchester, 16½ hours.

Foreign and Colonial Mails.

The most wonderful spectacle revealed by the microscope is the circulation of the blood, say in the web of a young frog's foot Through the network of arteries and veins flow never-ending processions of corpuscles, swimming in a colourless stream, one following another, two little ones amicably progressing side by side, the big, long ones turning endways to pass the narrowest channels. If the Man in the Moon really existed, and had sufficiently powerful binoculars, he would witness a similar phenomenon on the earth's oceans. He would see long lines of great ships steaming on night and day from one port to another, then turning, and steaming back again to the point of departure. We know that the circulation of the blood is an essential condition of animal life; if it were stopped, there would be an end of the frog. And so the Man in the Moon would probably conclude that he had before his eyes evidence of the working of a living organization on a vast scale. We know that if ever the great ships ceased to throb on, under sun and stars, it would mean the end of the mightiest Empire in the world's history.

'Where would your Empire be without an army?' says my gallant friend, General A. 'And navy,' modestly adds—sailors are always modest—my equally gallant friend, Admiral B. 'If you come to that,' cries C., the millionaire cotton-spinner (we will suppose this discussion to take place in a club smoking-room)—'if you come to that, where would your army and navy be without the trade that pays for 'em?' Now, if I were appealed to, I should inquire of C. where trade would be without postal and telegraphic communications. The old type, the one-man Empire, was like the famous chess automaton, which beat and puzzled the players of that noble game, until one day a little man was dragged out of the machine, and the imposture was discovered. So, when Alexander or Cromwell died, or Napoleon was defeated, their elaborate governmental arrangements fell to pieces. In the immediate neighbourhood of the great man, and so far as imperfect communications permitted him to act promptly, there was a sort of unity of administration. Outside of that zone, justice varied according to the length of the local Governor's foot, and loyalty to the monarch, or a sense of citizenship, must have been of a shadowy character. Any interference with, or unnecessary restriction of, the means of communication, is foolish and dangerous. We all see this in the case of the colossal Slav Empire. But we do not so readily admit that we long blundered as seriously in maintaining heavy postal rates to the Colonies as we still blunder in levying high cable rates.

The Imperial ensign flies on some 561 ships of war (not one of obsolete type), manned by 129,000 brave and skilful sailors. We may add forty-six steam clippers, specially built for use in war-time as cruisers and transports, and meanwhile employed in our colonial and American traffic.

A passenger to Greenwich by one of the London County Council river steamers regards with awe the long lines of huge vessels that fringe the city's stately wharves. He feels a strange, sudden thrill of fellowship with unseen, swarthy millions, a sense of vast, responsible power, a consciousness of dignity, such as he could never gather from cold statistics. If he travelled round the globe he would witness a similar display of maritime activity in a score of spacious British ports; while on the voyage he would constantly see, by day the ensign, and at night the lights, of some passing British steamship. The aggregate of the mercantile marine protected by the navy is nearly 15,000,000 tons.

If we would understand the need of unrestricted Imperial communications, we find it vividly displayed in the returns of exports and imports. Here are some annual totals:

1854   268,210,145
1884   685,986,152
1908   902,978,961
1905 (approximate) 1,000,000,000

The British Empire embraces 11,400,000 square miles, inhabited by 410,000,000 human beings, and divided into sixty colonies and dependencies, beside many protectorates.

These figures are symbols of a nebulous immensity, which must bewilder even a poet's imagination. We have conventional ideas, as we have conventional phrases; the untravelled man speaks of a sunrise on the Alps, or the roar of Niagara, or a battle in Manchuria, with the faintest notion of the awful phenomena indicated by his words. And so, in speaking of the 'British Empire,' we are apt to be content with commonplaces and generalities, having but a bare glimpse of the complexity and diversity of the multitudinous interests and activities, qualities, and forces, involved in that expression.

As early as 1681 the 'Postmaster for Foreign Posts' was directed to open regular communication between London (and Edinburgh) and Ireland: each letter to cost for 80 miles, 2d.; up to 140 miles, 4d.; above that distance, in England, 6d.; in Scotland, 8d.; to Ireland, 9d. By 1635 this officer, the famous Witherings, had established a post to most of the Irish towns. In 1685 he proposed the employment of regularly sailing packet-boats for letters. He paid good wages. In 1689 one of the barque-owners received £10 a month for the Irish service. Those were quiet times at sea. But our continental quarrels under the later Stuarts made it necessary to arm the packets. The common packet-sailor was in 1688 paid up to 80s. a month, was free from impressment, and was allowed a share of prize-money. The armed boats ran from Dover, Harwich, and Falmouth—when the wind and the Dutch permitted.

At first the Postmasters -General built their own packets, expressly for speed. These early 'ocean greyhounds' were intended to show the enemy their heels; but, like our torpedo-boats, they shipped, according to an old report, 'soe much water that the men are constantly wet all through.' A new type of fighting packet was approved.

The instructions to captains of the new vessels were to run while they could, fight when they could no longer run, and throw the mails overboard when fighting would no longer avail. In 1698 such a ship was described as 'of eighty-five tons and fourteen guns, with a crew of twenty-one, and with powder, shot, and firearms, and all other munitions of war.' This was near the end of the seventeenth century. At the end of the eighteenth century, a mail-packet on the Falmouth station, reckoned fit to proceed to any part of the world, was of about 179 tons burthen, with a crew all told of twenty-eight persons, and six four-pounder guns. The victualling was at the rate of 10d. per man daily, and the annual charge for the packet was £2,112 6s. 8d.

To-day a mail-packet is of perhaps 10,000 tons, with a crew of 500 men, and covers some 400 miles in twenty-four hours. And turbine-steamships are expected to develop a speed of 1,000 miles in the same period. One has already crossed the Atlantic in less than four and a quarter days.

In 1654 packets were appointed to ply weekly between Dublin and Chester (the postage being 6d.), and between Milford and Waterford; but these services were soon withdrawn, and not re-established till 150 years later. In 1662 the line of packets between Port Patrick and Donaghadee was established.

In 1690 there were eleven packet-boats—namely, two to France (not running, owing to the war), two to Flanders, two to Holland, two for the Downs, and three to Ireland. At that time Sir Robert Cotton and Sir Thomas Frankland were joint Postmasters-General; the former (according to the late Mr. F. J. Scudamore) controlling inland, and the latter packet business. The following observation in one of their official letters gives proof of their sagacity:

'We have indeed found by experience that where we have made the correspondence more easy and cheape, the number of letters have been thereby much increased.'

Unfortunately, the true bearing of these words was not perceived till a century and a half had elapsed. The old letter-books contain several such articles as this: 'Your business cannot be settled until Sir T. Frankland, who hath a fitte of the gout, shall be somewhat recovered.' But when recovered, Sir Thomas was ready to hear everybody, and do what was right for them. Thus, James Vickers petitioned for compensation. As his packet, the Grace Dogger, lay off Dublin Bay, she was seized by a French privateer, the crew of which stripped the packet of everything, 'leaving not so much as a spoon, or a naile hooke to hang anything on,' and exacted fifty guineas for releasing the dismantled craft. Granted.

Anne, widow of John Paghall, master of the Barbabella packet, seeks compensation for the loss of her husband, who died a prisoner in Dunkirk. Granted.

The Postmasters-General ordered that compensation for wounds received in their service should be awarded by scale. Amputation above the knee or elbow brought the sufferer, if he survived the rough surgery of those days, a pension of £8 a year; below the joint, a pension of 20 nobles. A man received £5 if he lost an eye, and £14 if he lost both eyes.

The packet-masters were allowed to carry passengers. At the close of the seventeenth century the fares from Harwich to Holland were raised from 12s. and 6s. for first and second class passengers to 20s. and 10s.; but it was ordered that 'recruits and indigent persons shall still have their passage free.' In May, 1695, a Harwich packet had a crew of twenty-one men, all told, and an agent; and the total for wages was £50 a month.

The strangest postal parcels were franked by packets even in war time. We find entries like the following:

'Fifteen couple of hounds for the King of the Romans.' (One can imagine the uproar raised by thirty bell-mouthed dogs during a storm, and the efforts of master and mate to make themselves heard amid the canine outcry, and the howling of the blast.)

'Two servant maids, going as laundresses to my Lord Ambassador Methuen.' (Doubtless a delightful voyage for all concerned, if only the sea was smooth, and we may be sure the gallant Mounseers, in response to the signal 'Women on board,' sheered off without firing, dipping their ensign.)

'Dr. Crichton, carrying with him a cow, and other necessaries.' (Perhaps Dr. Crichton was on the way to some distant spot where milk, cream, butter, and cheese were as yet unknown.) It may be remembered that Jos Sedley complained: 'Our cream is very bad in Bengal. We generally use goat's milk' ('Vanity Fair').

Here is an official letter: 'Wee are concerned to find the letters brought by your boat (from the West Indies) to be so consumed by the ratts, that we cannot find out to whom they belong.'

And another runs: 'The woman, whose complaint we herewith send you, having given us much trouble upon the same, we desire you will enquire into the same, and see justice done her, believing she may have had her brandy stole from her by the sailors.'

The packets were constantly stopped by our own war vessels, and at last each vessel carrying mails displayed a 'postboy-jack'—a Union Jack with the additional design of a postboy blowing his horn—so as to be saved from its friends.

On December 1, 1798, the Antelope packet, with twenty men and some passengers, was pursued, caught, and grappled by the Atlanta a French privateer with eight guns and sixty-five men. The Frenchmen, after a sanguinary contest, were compelled to yield.

Another French privateer, in 1807, chased and grappled the Windsor Castle packet off Barbadoes, and suffered the same fate as the Atlanta.

Between April, 1798, and January, 1798, no less than nineteen packets, all belonging to Falmouth, had been captured by the enemy.

A mail-packet, from be earliest little sloop down to the stately 'liner,' has always been an object of exceptional interest at sea. Her freight is the thought, the hopes and fears, schemes and wishes, love and tenderness of countless thousands; and for this delicate commerce other thousands, far away on lonely islands, in remote settlements, in great cities by the ocean's verge, are waiting—waiting. One can imagine the intense watch kept on the horizon in olden times, at such stations as Bombay, New York, or Sydney, for the packet from home, and what rapture attended a first glimpse of a white-winged messenger, hailed like the weary dove that descended, leaf in mouth, from the blue, to cheer the prisoners in the ark!

For some time before 1788 the packets belonged either to the Crown or to members of the Post-Office Staff and their friends. The service was (from 1635 to 1887) controlled by the Post-Office; in the latter year it was placed under the control of the Admiralty, and in 1860 the Post-Office resumed control The first commercial contract for the conveyance of mails was entered into by the Postmaster-General in 1883, with the Mona Isle Steamer Company, which agreed to run steamers twice a week between Liverpool and Douglas.

In 1788 the Commissioners of Fees and Gratuities recommended that the packets should be provided by open tender.

In 1799 the Ship-Letter Act was passed, by which letters were to be conveyed at half packet rates.

In 1885, thanks to Lieutenant Waghorn, letters were, for the first time, sent by the overland route across the Isthmus of Suez to India and Australia. And we all remember how, thanks to M. de Lesseps, our mail-packets were at last enabled to steam right through the Isthmus from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea.

Some of the old charges make one wince to this day. Sir Walter Scott absently opened a bulky letter from New York, and found it contained a play by a young lady, who requested him to add a prologue, etc., and make arrangements for production. He had to pay nearly £5 for postage. A week later he (again absently) opened a similar package, and found a duplicate copy of the drama, sent in case the first should miscarry. He had to pay a second time. Dr. Johnson was more wary. He received a packet from Lisbon, on which he was invited to pay about £10, but he flatly refused to part with the money.

1797. Postage from Great Britain to:

Portugal, single letter. 1s.; 1 ounce, 4s.
British America, single letter. 1s.; 1 ounce, 4s.
Gibraltar, single letter. 1s. 9d.; 1 ounce, 7s.
Malta, single letter, 2s. 1d.; 1 ounce, 8s. 4d.

In 1825 the postage on a letter was to:

s. d.
France 1 2
Holland 1 4
Italy 1 11
Spain 2 2
Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia 1 8

The inland rate was also payable on such letters if posted in the provinces.

s. d.
Portugal 2 6
Gibraltar 2 10
Malta and Corfu 3 2
Madeira 2 7
Brazil 3 6
Buenos Ayres 3 6
America 2 2
Jamaica and Leeward Islands 2 2
Mexico 3 0
La Guayra 3 0
s. d.
1887. To France 0 10
1887. To North Germany 1 8
1887. To South America 4 6

In 1887 reductions were made in foreign postage; how far required may be judged from the fact that it was notified that letter postage to the Mediterranean would be 'at the rate of only ten shillings per ounce.'

s. d.
1853. Letter to India, over 1 ounce 7 9
1853. Letter to France, ½ ounce 1 3
1853. Letter to San Francisco 1 2
1889. To Australia 6 
1889. To India 5 
1889. To Canada
1889. To South Africa 4 

1890. Uniform Colonial and Indian postage 2½d. per ½ ounce.

1898. Imperial penny postage established.

Here are a few comparative rates:

1829. 1884. 1899.
s. d. d. d.
Letter to France 2 1
Letter to Italy 2 10
Letter to Spain 3 1
Letter to Sweden 2 7
Letter to Portugal 2 9
Letter to Gibraltar 3 1 1  
Letter to Malta 3 5 1  
Letter to United States 2 5
Letter to Brazil 3 9 4  

The farther an Englishman is from home, the keener his interest in mailing matters. It follows that this interest is very noticeable in Australia, the part of the Empire most distant from the Motherland. Old colonists remember how in 1846 their latest news from England was five months old! On January 15, 1849, they had not received the mails despatched from London on September 1, 1848. At this date the Lords of the Admiralty advertised for tenders to convey the mails viâ Singapore and Torres Straits. Storms and calms, aye, and lurking reefs, had to be reckoned with in those days of sails and spars. But on July 28, 1852, the smoke of the P. and O. steamer Chusan, the first steamship from England, was sighted in Melbourne, and on August 8 in Sydney. Since then the marine engineer has been continually improving the service, and now the mails are delivered in from twenty-eight to thirty days after leaving St. Martin's-le-Grand. A few days are saved by sending the bags overland between Calais and Brindisi, or Naples; but the French and Italian Governments exact an enormous toll for this privilege. (It is to be hoped that the happy effects of the entente cordiale will speedily extend to postal as well as diplomatic conventions.) At first the authorities thought a monthly service sufficient to meet all requirements, but the mercantile element was no doubt restive, and a fortnightly despatch was organized. Now the mails are sent off weekly, and I trust there will be soon a bi-weekly service.

It is interesting, in view of this wonderful 'shrinkage' of time and distance, to read the well-known letter of Charles Lamb to a friend at Sydney—a letter brimming over with humour, yet vividly reflecting the pathetic sense of separation then experienced.

'It is a sort of presumption to expect that one's thoughts should live so far.

'It is like writing for posterity.

'What security can I have that what I now send you for truth shall not, before you get it, unaccountably turn into a lie? I am going to the play this evening. You naturally lick your lips and envy me my felicity. Think but a moment … it is 1828.

'When I revert to the space that is between us, a length of passage enough to render obsolete the phrases of our English letters before they can reach you.'—'Distant Correspondents (1822).'

In 1756 the English packets were due in Dublin thrice a week« So late as 1829, and perhaps later, voyages to the undermentioned places and home again—'For ever running an enchanted round'—were estimated to take—

Jamaica 112 days.
America 105 days.
Leeward Islands 91 days.
Malta 98 days.
Brazil 140 days.
Lisbon 28 days.
Australia 120 days.
Buenos Ayres 154 days.

Here are a few records and comparisons of the time taken by mail steamers:

1819. New York to United Kingdom (Savannah) 25 d.
1860. United Kingdom to New York (Great Eastern) 10 1/2 d.
1890. Dover to Calais 1 h.
Holyhead to Kingstown 3 1/2 h.
To Capetown 16 d.
To Australia 27 d.
1894. Queenstown to New York (Lucania) 5 d. 7 h.
1894. Charing Cross to Bombay 13 d.
Euston to Dublin 9 h. 29 m.
1905. Turbine steamship crossed the Atlantic 4 1/4 d.

It may surprise some readers to be reminded that in 1889 for the first time letters from New York were delivered in London within a week of despatch.

As early as 1816 two steamships, about 65 feet long, and of 20 h.p., were constructed for the Dublin-Holyhead line. In 1818 the Rising Sun, a steamship built by Lord Cochrane, crossed the Atlantic. In 1819 the Savannah steamship reached this country from New York in twenty-five days. It was in 1821 that the Post-Office first arranged for the conveyance of the mails by steamship. As with sailing packets, the first steam-packets were built by the Government, six (averaging about 100 tons) being stationed at Holyhead, and others at Dover and other ports. These little ships were valued at from £1,600 to £2,400 each.

In 1822 for the first time the mail was conveyed from Dover to Calais by steamship.

In 1825 Captain Johnson obtained £10,000 for making the first voyage to India by steam in the Enterprise.

In 1888 the Royal William was said to have crossed the Atlantic in twenty-one days.

In 1888 the Sirius left Queenstown April 4, and reached New York April 21. The Royal Navy, as already stated, includes 561 armed vessels, manned by 129,000 trained sailors. Besides these there is available, in case of war, an auxiliary force of forty-six merchant cruisers, all ocean-going ships of high speed. The value of such a reserve is apparent enough; but it is not quite so clear why the Post-Office should be called on to find the subventions very properly paid to the owners for maintaining a Naval Reserve. These subventions are very large. In 1889-1890 they amounted to £665,875; last year the total was £805,822. The packets run in every direction—northwards to the Scottish Isles, eastwards to Holland and Germany, southwards to France, Portugal, and the Mediterranean. The Cunard, White Star, and American lines communicate with the United States and Canada; and other great lines with the British African Colonies, while the Peninsular and Oriental and Orient companies perform the service to India, the East, and Australia. Finally, there is the service between Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong.

1768. There were four packets at Harwich, six at Dover, and five to New York, the total cost being £10,000 per annum.

1788. Commissioners of Fees and Gratuities reported that in the preceding seventeen years the cost of the packets had been £1,088,188, or about £61,000 a year; that many of the vessels belonged to officers of the Post-Office; and that the service should be provided by competitive tender.

1797 (War time)  78,489
1810 105,000
1814 160,608
1820 (Peace)  85,000
1822 115,429
1824 116,062
1826 144,592
1827 159,250
1829 108,805

1834. The General Steam Navigation Company had £17,000 a year for conveying mails between London and Rotterdam, and London and Hamburg.

1837. £29,000 a year paid for mails to Lisbon and Gibraltar.

1839. A fortnightly mail between Liverpool, Halifax, and Boston established by contract between the Postmaster-General and Samuel Cunard, of Halifax, at £60,000 a year.

1840. A contract made for mail steamers to Malta, Corfu, and Alexandria.

1845. Mediterranean mail contract extended to Suez, Bombay, Ceylon, Calcutta, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.

1850. The Cunard contract renewed at £178,340, and certain contingent allowances in addition; weekly, instead of fortnightly, trips being required, and the ports made Boston and New York alternately.

1858. Loss to revenue by packet service, £325,000.

1855. (War.) The packets numbered 110, and the cost was £800,000 a year.

1889–1890. £665,375.

1905. £720,000.

It goes without saying that shipping subsidies have no necessary relation to the quantity of a nation's mails. The fact that a particular State has little correspondence with other States or colonies oversea is the very reason why it should lavish more and more money in subsidies, so as to create trade. Bearing this in mind, the following figures are significant:

Foreign Steamship Subsidies.
Germany pays  417,525
France 1,187,271
Russia 364,756
Austria 318,988
Hungary 80,755
Italy 320,000
Sweden 20,591
Norway 28,252
Denmark 29,669
Japan 745,607 (!)

United States: Besides large payments for mails, £1,000,000 a year is proposed to encourage shipbuilding, and, after 1907, £1,600,000.

The Postal Union.

It was a Swiss, I believe, who was first struck with the absurdity of taxing letters at every frontier, like cigars or potato-spirit How he reasoned I know not; but he must have perceived that correspondence benefits receivers at least as much as senders; that the post is the driving-wheel of trade; that nothing promotes international understandings like epistolary facilities; and that thought is essentially too subtle and inappreciable a thing to be weighed in scales. The result of his exertions was the establishment of the Postal Union in 1870. It was agreed, at a conference of postal representatives, that one primary charge should suffice to forward a letter, printed paper, or sample, throughout the territories of the States signing the convention, and that this charge should be 2½d. for a letter of ½oz. in weight. The congress has reassembled at fixed intervals, and sanctioned various changes, but has hitherto steadily maintained this high letter-postage of 2½d. It was provided that any two States, contiguous, or communicating by water, might fix a lower rate between themselves by forming a Restricted Union'; and, accordingly, Canada and the United States began to exchange mails at their respective inland rates—1½d. for Canada, Id. for the United States; and the Americans made a similar arrangement with Mexico, while, in Europe, Germany and Austria also entered into one of these Unions. It might have been expected that our Government would eagerly embrace the opportunity of forming such a postal federation, embracing the whole Empire. But the authorities seemed to be still under the old delusion that the higher the rate the larger the revenue; and for many years we had to pay more than twice as much as fore4ners paid on letters to some of our most important Colonies.

It is not for me to write a lengthy account of the movement for instituting a uniform penny rate for any distance, small or great, throughout the length and breadth of the British dominions. But there are times when a man must speak of his work, and Imperial Penny Postage is an essential part of my subject.

In 1886 the following was the state of affairs: The cost of posting a letter from France, Germany, or Russia to India was 2½d., while the charge from the United Kingdom to India was 5d. The Postmaster-General was supplied with a list of forty British Colonies to which the postage from France, Germany, or Russia was half the rate charged from England. We paid 4d. to South Africa and 6d. to Australia. One agent boasted that he saved £1,800 a year by posting in France British letters for the Colonies. At that moment certain foreign Powers were exhausting every device to oust us from the Colonial, African, and Asiatic markets.

Imperial Penny Postage.

In 1886 I moved a resolution in the House of Commons inviting the Government to open negotiations for universal or world-wide penny postage, and 142 members voted for it. The Liberal Government, influenced by the Post-Office, was hostile. But the press of all shades called next morning for penny postage within the British Empire at least. It was like one of those grand passages of Handel where choir, organ, and orchestra give out a phrase in unison, and wood, string, brass, and voices utter a single note. It was proved that a letter could be carried to the Antipodes for 1d.—indeed, ½d. would amply remunerate the shipowner. If a letter could be sent by rail from New York to San Francisco (8,000 miles) for 1d., why not from Liverpool to New York (8,000 miles) by sea for 1d.? The charge for conveying valuable goods half way round the world being £2 per ton, why should the Post-Office charge postage at the rate of £1,792 per ton? Why should it charge 1d. for conveying the Times, weighing 4 ounces, to Australia, and exact 4s. for a letter of the same weight, and sent in the same bag to Australia?

The explanation was that the Government was paying some £640,000 a year to the steamship companies in subsidies for building and maintaining vessels available as cruisers and transports in times of war; these payments being also intended to encourage British commerce, and to promote the shipbuilding and carrying trades. The ships, however, also served to carry the mailbags, and though these bags occupied but a small fraction of the space for freight, the whole subsidy was charged against the Post-Office. That wealthy and apathetic department thereupon protested that it could not reduce the postal rates.

Up to 1858 the subsidies were charged to the Admiralty. In that year the burden was transferred to the Post-Office, although it was notorious that the packets were not established primarily for postal purposes. Thus the West India packets were to cost £250,000 a year, though the postage was only expected to be £40,000 a year. There was a postal deficit (allowing for subsidies) of £200,000 for India alone.

I am old enough to be suffered to tell one of my favourite stories over again. An M.P., staying in Lincolnshire, saw an old woman come into the local post-office and ask the amount of postage to her son in Australia. On learning that it was sixpence, she said she had not so much, and was tottering away, almost in tears, when the M.P. paid the trifle required. Three months afterwards (at Christmas time) the postmaster, smiling, informed him that the son had sent his mother £5 in response to her letter, and arranged to pay her passage out to him.

There had long been a steady increase of correspondence with the Colonies, even under the old rates. In 1880 the Britannia took a week's mails, 700 bags, to India and Australia. In 1890, 1,200 bags were put on board. In 1880 the weekly average for India was 250 bags; in 1890, 400. In those ten years the Australian receipts showed an increase of 50 per cent. The American service also showed a great increase, and a profit of £100,000 per annum.

Finally, it was shown that as each country pays for the carriage of its outgoing mails, and delivers free the incoming mails; and as we sent far more than we received, our Post-Office was benefiting to the extent of £228,000 a year. As an argumentum ad hominem, I at last offered, in conjunction with two wealthy friends, to give the Chancellor of the Exchequer a bank guarantee against loss. He was virtuous enough to refuse.

Our strongest argument, however, though it could hardly be stated in pounds, shillings, and pence, was the sun-browned emigrant, with his dependents here and across the ocean. Long before the Imperial sentiment became fashionable, it was remarkable how a chance allusion to this unseen pioneer of Empire would stir the imagination, the sympathy of an English audience. Hard-headed reactionaries in the House, who yawned at the idea of encouraging Imperial communications, or fostering British trade, would sit spellbound as we pictured our sturdy cousins, hewing tracks in the tropical forest, bridging torrents, draining swamps, planting, building, rearing stock—sheep, cattle, horses—and, above all, that indomitable Anglo-Saxon stock which seems fated to transform the globe. It is calculated that about seventeen million examples of our choicest manhood and womanhood have left these shores during the past twenty years, never to return. And the dullest, the coldest, could not fail to perceive the wisdom of stimulating and facilitating the only possible intercourse between these exiles and their mends and relatives in the Old Country. The emigrant was, as he always is, silent; but his exalted virtues (to quote a Japanese expression) conquered. The Post-Office gave way.

The Post-Office yielded by degrees, penny by penny, like the miserly outfitter on the Dover road, who purchased David Copperfield's coat, and could not bring himself to pay the price, eighteenpence, by instalments, in less than half a day. First they grudgingly granted us an ocean, or all-sea, service to the Colonies, but made the postage 4d. In 1800 they established a general 2½d. rate to the Colonies; and in 1898, under the stimulus administered by Mr. Chamberlain, they gave us the long-delayed penny rate, to which Australia signified her adhesion in the present year.

The Empire has thus become a single postal 'district,' with one flag and a uniform rate of postage, communication between the most distant points being rendered as 'easy as speech, as free as air.' The Colonists, especially the Australians, have from the first warmly supported the agitation. The assurance given on their behalf in 1890, 'Let the parent duck take to the water, and the timid ducklings will quickly follow her,' has been amply fulfilled. As is well known, our cousins in Greater Britain spend £8 a head on our goods as against 10s. spent by the foreigner. Fifteen years ago, addressing the late Lord Salisbury, I ventured to say: 'Business men will appreciate the boon of being able to write to customers and agents at two-fifths of the rate which their foreign competitors have to pay. To Colonial trade, in my judgment, we must ultimately look for the subsistence of our home-working population, for every foreign market is being closed against us in turn by hostile tariffs.' How real and near the danger here indicated was at that moment the most fanatical Free Traders are now forced to perceive. Thanks, again, to Mr. Chamberlain, the danger is already provided against.

One must not forget that the immense floating British population—say, 200,000 passengers, 200,000 merchantmen sailors, and 150,000 blue-jackets, more than half a million in all—participates. Every British ship, liner, tramp, and coaster, every one of the grim, frowning, fascinating turreted monsters, so inspiring to a Briton, so terrible to the foes of our country, is a British postoffice.

It is interesting to take an occasional postal census, as casting a lateral illumination on the growth of commerce and the consolidation of Empire.

In 1897 the Christmas and New Year's mails sent to Australasia, the East, Canada, and the United States, numbered 10,890; in 1898, 11,994.

The following table, showing the mails before and after the grant of Imperial Penny Postage, is ample reward for lone years of toil One can almost hear the delighted lau^ter and see the radiant faces of those who received all this mass of correspondence; and one cannot forget the vast amount of honest work it represents for our toiling craftsmen.

Estimate of the Weight of Letters, Postcards, and other Articles Exchanged by the United Kingdom with the Colonies.

Despatched from United Kingdom to British Colonies.

Year. Letters, Postcards,
and other
Circulars, Book
Packets, Patterns,
lb. lb. lb.
1897-1898 431,800  7,006,900  7,438,700
1903-1904 989,000 11,610,000 12,499,000
Received by United Kingdom from the British Colonies.
Year. Letters, Postcards,
other Articles.
Circulars, Book
Packets, Patterns,
lb. lb. lb.
1897–1898 378,700 1,637,000 2,010,700
1903–1904. 792,000 2,488,000 3,280,000
Number of Parcels Interchanged by the United Kingdom with the British Colonies.
Year. From United
From Colonies. Total
1897–1898 472,613  206,985 679,598
1903–1904 1,177,981  357,836 1,536,816

What will be the future of our Imperial communications? This question must be answered by master-spirits like Edison and Marconi, who are learning to subdue and tame the mightiest, subtlest, and most abundant of natural forces—electricity. So swift flies the telegraphic message that, at first, the written letter seems fated to disappear. My friend, Mr. Leggo, showed me apparatus by which it is possible to send telegrams at the rate of 2,000 words an hour. The message is written on a paper, which is then attached to a kind of cylinder, and the marked surface is exactly reproduced at the other end of the wire. One is, I say, inclined to bid farewell to the pen, which has served our race so long and so well. But a letter has the inestimable advantage of secrecy. Soul communes with soul. Two minds, as far asunder as the poles, can, by the help of a spot of wax or a smear of gum, enjoy a private interview. And a little reflection will show how much commercial and social business depends on the secrecy of communications. Moreover, the present fancy price put on the electric spark is prohibitive to all but a small fraction of the community.

But the latest invention promises to combine the rapidity of the telegram with the privacy of the letter. A talented Italian engineer is erecting apparatus for propelling a box containing letters in a few minutes from Rome to Naples. He promises to send letters from London to Manchester in five minutes, and to Paris in twenty minutes. At the same rate he will doubtless forward them to New York in less than four hours, and to India during the day. This invention, if successful, promises to be the climax of postal improvement, and will be hailed as a blessing by all but the monopolists who still charge 3s. a word for a cablegram to Australia.

Personally, I am convinced that the solution of the great problem we have considered—how to enable the minds of men to commune together at will while their bodies are separated by vast oceans—is merely a question of time. The day, I believe, is not far distant, though I may not live to see it, when the peasant in Kent, or Surrey, or Kerry will enjoy as a birthright, a precious privilege, electrical communication, at a trifling cost, with his brother peasant in Canada and Australia. Until that day arrives we must be content to speed our splendid mail-packets East, West, and South, and to remember that the many millions still ruthlessly sentenced to mental separation by avaricious capitalists are, none the less, faithful sons of the Empire, true to the old flag, and fondly attached to the old Fatherland.

If I am accused of grumbling over the magnificent results achieved, let me point to the general feeling that still more magnificent achievements are possible, and are, indeed, long overdue. Let me quote the first speech made in London by the distinguished statesman who has recently been appointed American Ambassador in this country. He said: 'Give us more intimate and constant personal correspondence, and—may I add, without indiscretion—give us facilities for the transmission of our correspondence somewhat less archaic than the two countries now provide (laughter and cheers)—more nearly up to the demands of the wide-awake, active, twentieth-century Anglo-Saxon of either hemisphere.'

In conclusion, and bearing in mind Mr. Whitelaw Reid's eloquent appeal, I would repeat the words of my motion made in the House of Commons, just twenty years ago:

'That, in the opinion of this House, the time has arrived for the Government of this country to open negotiations with other Governments with a view to the establishment of a Universal International Penny Postage system.'

In other words: We have already Universal Halfpenny Postage for printed matter: let them give Universal Penny Postage for written matter.

  1. See the 'Tale of Two Cities.'