Postal Service pre-1840

Before Rowland Hill’s postal reforms of 1840 when the penny post and prepayment using stamps became the standard in Britain, the postal service was expensive. The cost was paid by the recipient and it was determined by the number of sheets. A sealed letter where the number of sheets could not easily be known would be weighed. For instance, letter 17 is marked on the cover, presumably at the time of delivery, ‘1 oz, 2/8’. This means that a letter from the West Indies weighing an ounce (28g) cost more than a labourer’s wage for a day to receive.

So it is not surprising that letter writers crammed as much as they could into the space available. Cross writing was common, and both English and his wife (see letter 116) used it almost throughout the series. Sometimes he even added a third coverage of the sheet, this time often in red ink. For instance, letter 17 consists of three sheets of paper, each 372 by 226mm, one of which is folded round the others, and sealed to form a cover. It is cross-written all over, except those parts of the cover which show after the letter has been sealed. It contains more than 4000 words.

The Post Office service between England and the West Indies was based in Falmouth, from which port packet vessels sailed as regularly as weather conditions permitted. Some home bound packet letters were franked by the Post Office at the point of departure. Collection of mail from the various colonies for transit by the packet is described in letter 12. In letter 27 of 1 February 1835, English tells Kate that the packet service is to be operated by steamers, and in letter 29 he states that the bags were made up in London on the 1st and 15th of each month. Alternatively, mail could be entrusted to the captain of any homeward bound ship, either merchant or Royal Navy, who was paid a fee for delivering to the Post Office on arrival. Such letters were called Ship Letters, and were often franked as such at the port of arrival. This service would not have been available to Kate unless she had a means of conveying mail to a port. She therefore either used the postal service, or sent mail via the Royal Engineers office in Pall Mall. In letter 103, English tells her that the former is the more reliable because the office did not forward mail promptly. Letters via the office would presumably only incur inland postage rates, and would therefore be much cheaper, but in letter 52 English mentions a prohibition on sending private correspondence through official channels, which he intends to ignore.

In letter 76 English mentions that some letters have miscarried.

An Act of Parliament of 1795 (35 Geo III cap 53) allowed seamen, NCOs and soldiers serving overseas, but, in English’s view very unfairly, not officers, to send and receive letters by post at a special rate of one penny per letter.