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“Postage is one of the worst of our taxes. Few taxes, if any, have so injurious a tendency as the tax upon the communication by letters. I cannot doubt that a taxation upon communication by letters must bear heavily upon commerce; it is, in fact, taxing the conversation of people who live at a distance from each other. The communication of letters by persons living at a distance is the same as a communication by word of mouth between persons living in the same town. You might as well tax words spoken upon the Royal Exchange as the communications of various persons living in Manchester, Liverpool, and London.”—Lord Ashburton, a conservative peer.

“We build National Galleries, and furnish them with pictures; we propose to create public walks for the air and health and exercise of the community at the general cost of the country. I do not think that either of these, useful and valuable as they are to the community, and fit as they are for Government to sanction, are more conducive to the moral and social advancement of the community than the facility of intercourse by post.”—Samuel Jones Loyd (Lord Overstone), banker and financier.

“It is commercial suicide to restrict the free transmission of letters.”—(Sir) William Brown, a Liverpool merchant.

“We are cut off from our relatives by the high rates of postage.”—G. Henson, a working hosier of Nottingham.

In a short sketch of the postal reform written by my brother,[18] in the year of the late Queen's first jubilee— [Pg 40] which was also the jubilee of the publication of our father's “Post Office Reform,” the pamphlet that swept away the old system—the following passage from Miss Martineau's “History of the Thirty Years' Peace, 1815-1845” is quoted with excellent effect. From a novel point of view, and in somewhat startling colours, it presents us with a picture of the state of things which, under that old system, existed in our country through four-tenths (less one year) of the nineteenth century, and is therefore within the recollection of people still living.

We look back now, Miss Martineau says,[19] with a sort of amazed compassion to the old crusading days when warrior husbands and their wives, grey-headed parents and their brave sons parted, with the knowledge that it must be months or years before they could hear even of one another's existence. We wonder how they bore the depth of silence, and we feel the same now about the families of polar voyagers;[20] but till the commencement of Her Majesty's reign it did not occur to many of us how like to this was the fate of the largest classes in our own country. The fact is that there was no full and free epistolary intercourse in the country except for those who, like Members of Parliament, had the command of franks. There were few families in the wide middle class who did not feel the cost of [Pg 41] postage to be a heavy item in their expenditure; and if the young people sent letters home only once a fortnight, the amount at the year's end was a rather serious matter. But it was the vast multitude of the poorer classes who suffered, like the crusading families of old, and the geographical discoverers of all time. When the young people went out into the world the separation between them and those left behind was almost like that of death. The hundreds of thousands of apprentices, of shopmen, of governesses, of domestic servants, were cut off from family relations as effectually as if seas or deserts divided them (vol. iv. p. 11).

Yet it was not so much the number of miles of severance or the paucity of means of communication that raised walls of oblivion between members of those poorer families which form the large majority of our race; for by 1840—the year when the postal reform was established—communication between even distant places was becoming comparatively easy. Separation was mainly caused by dear postal charges. Fourpence carried a letter 15 miles only; the average rate, even taking into account the many penny letters circulated by the local town-posts—which, it is said, numbered some two hundred, the greater part being very profitable undertakings—was 6-?d.[21] Mr Brewin of Cirencester, in his evidence [Pg 42] before the Parliamentary Committee of 1838 (Third Report), put the case with startling effect when he said: “Sixpence is a third of a poor man's daily income. If a gentleman whose fortune is a thousand a year, or £3 a day, had to pay one-third of his daily income—a sovereign—for a letter, how often would he write letters of friendship?”

But Mr Brewin's illustration, admirable as it is, did not cover the entire case. And, first, it is worth pointing out that the “poor man's daily income” was not only actually smaller, but, generally speaking, it had also smaller purchasing power in the 'thirties than it came to have later in the century when freer trade and lighter taxation prevailed. The real hardship, however, was that too often the man “whose fortune is a thousand a year”—and sometimes much more—was, unlike his poorer brother on 1s. 6d. a day, exempt altogether from postal charges.

For the franking system is a hoary iniquity. It dates back considerably more than two hundred years. To such an extent was the practice, legally or illegally, carried, that, as Mr Joyce, in his “History of the Post Office,” tells us: “In Great Britain alone the postage represented by the franked letters, excluding those which were, or which purported to be, 'On His Majesty's Service,' amounted in 1716 to what was, for that time relatively to the total Post Office revenue, the enormous sum of £17,500 a year” (p. 142). By 1838 the number of franked missives was some 7,000,000 a year. Of these, rather less that 5,000,000 were “double” letters, about 2,000,000 eight-fold letters, and some 77,000 thirteen-fold letters, [Pg 43] free carriage of which caused a loss to the revenue during the twelvemonths of about £1,065,000.

The franking privilege—which enabled its possessor to write his name outside a letter, thereby rendering it exempt from postal charge—was in vogue long before it received formal recognition by Parliament, and is indeed said to have been given by way of bribe to the Commons what time the Post Office became a Crown monopoly. The first intention was that franking should be enjoyed only by Members during each session; but later it was practised in and out of session. When the measure came before the House, a few Members condemned it as “shabby,” “a poor mendicant proviso,” etc. But the Bill was passed. The Upper House rejected it. Then the Commons, with a knowledge of human nature creditable to their understanding if to nothing else, inserted a clause providing that the Lords' letters should also be franked; whereupon the Bill became an Act.

The old system worked with great tenderness towards the “haves,” and with corresponding harshness towards the “have nots.” It enabled some members of the favoured classes to send by post free of charge such things as fifteen couples of hounds, two maid servants, a cow, two bales of stockings, a deal case containing flitches of bacon, a huge feather-bed, and other bulky products, animate and inanimate. “The 'Ambassador's bag,'” said Mr Roebuck one night in the House of Commons, “was often unduly weighted. Coats, lace, boots, and other articles were sent by it; even a pianoforte, and a horse!”[22]

[Pg 44]

On the other hand, the unfavoured many were heavily taxed for the transmission of missives often smaller, easier of carriage, and lighter of weight; and were so taxed to make up for the immunity enjoyed by the favoured few, since the revenue, at all costs, must be maintained. Thus to Rowland Hill's parents, and to many thousands more, in those days of slender income and heavy taxation, the postman's knock was a sound of dread. The accepted letter might prove to be a worthless circular or other useless sheet, on which the too-trusting recipient had thrown away the money needed for necessary things whose purchase must be deferred.

Incredibly high the postal rates sometimes were. A packet weighing 32 oz. was once sent from Deal to London. The postage was over £6, being, as Rowland Hill's informant remarked, four times as much as the charge for an inside place by the coach.[23] Again, a parcel of official papers, small enough to slip inside an ordinary pocket, was sent from Dublin to another Irish town addressed to Sir John Burgogne. By mistake it was charged as a letter instead of as a parcel, and cost £11! For that amount the whole mail-coach plying between the two towns, with places for seven passengers and their luggage, might have been hired. Extreme cases these perhaps, but that they could and did [Pg 45] happen argued something rotten in the state of—the old system.

The peers of the realm and the Members of Parliament could not only frank their own letters, but those also of their friends, who, perhaps, in nine cases out of ten could well afford to do without such help. The number of franks which privileged people could write was limited by law,[24] but was frequently exceeded if a donor hated to say “No,” or found that compliance with requests enhanced his popularity, or was to his advantage. Members of Parliament sometimes signed franks by the packet, and gave them to constituents and friends. It was an easy, inexpensive way of making a present, or of practising a little bribery and corruption. The chief offenders were said to be the banker Members, who, in one day (of 1794), sent 103,000 franked letters through the London Post Office alone. No wonder a “banker's frank” came to be a byword. Franks were also sometimes given to servants instead of, or to eke out, their wages; and the servants, being then as a rule illiterate, sold the franks again.

Forgery of franks was extensively practised, since to imitate a man's writing is not difficult. Mr Joyce tells us that, under the old system, the proportion of counterfeit to genuine franks varied from half to three-quarters of the entire number. Why forgery should be resorted to is easy to understand. The unprivileged nursed a natural grudge against the privileged, and saw no harm in occasionally enjoying a like immunity from postal charges. Prosecutions [Pg 46] availed little as deterrents. Even the fate of the Rev. Dr Dodd, hanged at Tyburn in 1771 for the offence, could not check the practice.

The strictness of the rules against forging the frank on a letter, so long a capital offence, contrasted strangely with the extraordinary laxity of those relating to the franking of newspapers. To pass freely through the post, a newspaper, like a letter, had to be franked by a peer or a Member of Parliament. But no pretence was ever made that the signatures were genuine; and not only was anybody at liberty to write the name of peer or Member, but the publishers themselves were accustomed to issue the newspapers with their customer's name and address, and the franking signature already printed on each cover! Indeed, were this useless form to be disregarded, the paper was counted as an unpaid letter, and became liable to a charge of perhaps several shillings.

The cost of conveying newspapers by post was practically covered by the duty stamp. Yet “No newspaper could be posted in any provincial town for delivery within the same, nor anywhere within the London District (a circle of 12 miles radius from the General Post Office) for delivery within the same circle, unless a postage of 1d., in addition to the impressed newspaper stamp, were paid upon it—a regulation which, however, was constantly evaded by large numbers of newspapers intended for delivery in London being sent by newsagents down the river to be posted at Gravesend, the Post Office then having the trouble [Pg 47] of bringing them back, and of delivering them without charge.”[25]

The newspaper duty at its lowest charge was 1d., and at its highest 4d., and varied with the varying burden of taxation. Thus during the long period of George III.'s almost incessant wars it rose from the lower to the higher figure. Before a word could be printed on any newspaper the blank sheet had to be taken to the Stamp Office to receive the impress of the duty stamp, and therefore prepayment of newspaper postage was secured. It may be that when the stamp duty rose to 3d. and 4d., the official conscience was satisfied that sufficient payment had been made; and thus the franking signature became an unnecessary survival, a mere process of lily-painting and refined gold-gilding, which at some future time might be quietly got rid of. If so, the reason becomes evident why the forgery of franks on newspapers was viewed with leniency, the authorities having, by means of the stamp, secured their “pound of flesh.” But no duty stamp was ever impressed on letters which were treated altogether differently, prepayment in their case being, if not actually out of the question, so rare as to be practically non-existent.

The duty on newspapers was an odious “tax on knowledge,” and rendered a cheap Press impossible. Only the well-to-do could indulge in the luxury of a daily paper; and recollection of childish days brings back a vision of the sheet passing through a succession of households till its contents had become [Pg 48] “ancient history,” and it ended its existence in tatters. The repeal of the stamp duty and of that other “tax unwise,” the paper duty, changed all this, and gave rise to the penny and halfpenny Press of modern times and the cheap and good books that are now within the reach of all. The fact is worth recording that yet another—perhaps more than one other—article of daily use did duty in a plurality of households during those far-off days of general dearness. This was tea, then so costly that it was a common practice for poor people to call at the houses of the well-to-do, and ask for the used leaves, though not to cleanse carpets and glassware as we do at the present day, but to infuse afresh.

The making of exemptions is a huge mistake; and, according to the cynic, a mistake is more reprehensible than a crime. Exemptions create discontent, and justly so. Peel, inimical as he was to the postal reform, was well aware of the evils of the franking system, and said that “were each Government Department required to pay its own postage, much would be done towards checking the abuse.”[26]

It was Rowland Hill's wish that franking should be totally abolished. But vested interests—that worst bar to all social progress—proved stronger than the reformer; and his plan, in that and some other details, was not carried out in its entirety. Franking was enormously curtailed, but it was a scotching rather than a killing process; and after his retirement the evil [Pg 49] thing slowly but steadily increased. Nor does the tendency at the present day give sign of abatement.
Yours very affectionately Rowland Hill
From a Photograph by the London Stereoscopic Co.

As some of that increasingly large portion of the public which knows nothing of the old postal system are under the erroneous impression that others than Rowland Hill suggested the use of postage stamps for letters, it is well to point out that the employment of such stamps before 1840, so far from cheapening or rendering easier the payment of postal charges, must have made them considerably dearer, and have yet further complicated the process of letter-“taxing.”[27]

Postage stamps, like railway tickets, are mere tokens of prepayment, and, however mentally hazy on the subject of the origin of postage stamps some of us may be, we can all easily understand how absurd, indeed impossible, introduction of the tickets would have been in the dark ages before railway trains began to run. Equally impossible would have been the employment, or even the suggestion, of stamps when letters were posted unpaid. Under the old system the letters of the unprivileged classes were rated, primarily, according to the distance travelled, though not necessarily the distance actually separating writer and recipient, because, although before 1840 railways existed, no close network of lines covered our land, providing, as it does to-day, direct and plentiful means of inter-communication; and therefore the Post Office, to suit its own convenience, often obliged some of its mail matter to perform very circuitous routes, thereby [Pg 50] not only retarding delivery, but rendering still greater the already great variability of rates. “Thus, for example, letters from Loughton to Epping (places only 2 or 3 miles apart) were carried into London and out again, and charged a postage of 7d.—that being the rate under the old system for letters between post towns ranging from 30 to 50 miles apart.”[28] That this circumambulatory practice was responsible for waste of time as well as increase of cost is shown by the fact that of two letters, the one addressed to Highgate, and the other to Wolverhampton (120 miles further along the same coach road), and both posted in London at the same hour, the Highgate letter would be delivered last. As regards cost, an anomaly quite as absurd as the two foregoing existed in the case of letters between Wolverhampton and Brierley Hill which were carried by a cross-post passing through Dudley. If a letter went the whole way, the postage was 1d.; but if it stopped short at Dudley, 4d. was charged. Of the letters which performed circuitous routes, Scott, in the fortieth chapter of “Guy Mannering,” humorously remarks that, “There was a custom, not yet wholly obsolete, of causing a letter from one town to another, perhaps within the distance of 30 miles, to perform a circuit of 200 miles before delivery; which had the combined advantage of airing the epistle thoroughly, of adding some pence to the revenue of the Post Office, and of exercising the patience of the correspondents.”

The question of charge was still further complicated, because, secondarily, there existed “single,” “double,” [Pg 51] “treble,” and yet heavier rates of postage; as when the treble rate was passed, further increase was reckoned by weight, the charge being quadrupled when the letter weighed an ounce, rising afterwards by a “single” postage for every additional quarter ounce. It was as well, perhaps, that the people who lived before the 'forties did not lead the feverish life of to-day. Otherwise, how would the post officials, to say nothing of the public, have remembered these positively bewildering details?

A “single” letter had to be written on a single sheet of paper, whose use probably gave rise to the practice of that now obsolete “cross” writing which often made an epistle all but illegible, but to which in those days of dear postage recourse was unavoidable when much matter had to be crammed into the limited compass of that single sheet. If a second sheet, or even the smallest piece of paper, were added to the first, the postage was doubled. The effect of fastening an adhesive stamp on to a single letter would therefore have been to subject the missive to a double charge; while to have affixed a stamp to an envelope containing a letter would have trebled the postage. In other words, a man living, say, 400 miles from his correspondent, would have to pay something like 4s. for the privilege of receiving from him a single sheet of paper carried in a wholly unnecessary cover bearing an equally unnecessary, because entirely useless, adornment in the shape of an adhesive stamp. For obvious reasons, therefore neither “the little bags called envelopes,” as in his pamphlet Rowland Hill quaintly described these [Pg 52] novel adjuncts, nor the stamps, were, or could be, in use.[29]

One veracious anecdote will suffice to show what came of evasion, wilful or unintentional, of a hard and fast postal rule. A letter was once sent from London to Wolverhampton, containing an enclosure to which a small piece of paper had been fastened. The process called “candling” showed that the letter consisted of three parts; and the single postage being 10d., a charge was made of 2s. 6d.[30]

[Pg 53]

It will thus be seen that in reckoning the postage on a letter, distance, the number of enclosures (if any), and, finally, weight had to be taken into consideration. Nor should it be forgotten that of single inland letters the variations of charge amounted to over forty. Under so complicated a system, it was, save in very exceptional circumstances, far easier to collect the postage at the end of the letter's journey than at its beginning; and, in the absence of prepayment, of what possible use could stamps have been, or what man in his senses would have proposed them?[31] Had later-day ignorance of the actual state of things under the old postal system been less widespread than it is, any claim to authorship of postage stamps before reform of that system was attempted or achieved [Pg 54] would, for lack of the credulous element among the public, scarcely have been hazarded.

The “candling” of letters was practised to ascertain whether single, double, treble, or still heavier postage should be charged. The missive was carried into a darkened room, and held up against a strong artificial light. This process not only gave the examining official some idea of the number of enclosures, if any, but often revealed their character. It was to defeat temptation to dishonesty caused by this scrutiny that the practice, not yet obsolete, was adopted of cutting a banknote in two before posting it, and keeping back the second half till receipt of the first had been acknowledged.

Single letter postage between London and Edinburgh or Glasgow cost 1s. 3-?d., between London and Aberdeen 1s. 4-?d., and between London and Thurso 1s. 5-?d., the odd halfpenny being the duty exacted in protectionist days to enable the epistle to cross the Scottish border. A letter to Ireland via Holyhead paid, in addition to ordinary postage, steamer rates and toll for using the Menai and Conway bridges. Or, if a letter took the southerly route to Ireland, the extra charge was levied at Milford. Single letter postage to Londonderry was 1s. 5d. To the many other more distant Irish towns it was still heavier.

These single charges—enforced, too, at a time when the nation, wearied out with many years of almost incessant war, was poorer far than it is now—seem to us exorbitant. When, therefore, we think of them as doubled, trebled, quadrupled, and so forth, [Pg 55] it is easy to understand why to all but the rich letter-writing became an almost lost art; and we realise more clearly the truth of Miss Martineau's word-picture which a superficial reader might be inclined to pronounce overdrawn.

The rates had been oppressive enough in 1801 when, in order to swell the war-tax, a further contribution to the Exchequer of £150,000 was enforced. But in 1812 a yet further contribution of £200,000 was required; and these higher rates—the highest ever reached—were maintained for a quarter of a century after the peace of 1815: that is, till Rowland Hill's reform swept the old system away.

In order to increase the postal revenue, the screw had been tightened in a variety of ways, even to the arresting of further progress in Ralph Allen's much-needed “cross-posts” reform.[32] As Mr Joyce puts it: “In 1695 a circuitous post would be converted into a direct one, even though the shorter distance carried less postage; in 1813 a direct post in place of a circuitous one was constantly being refused on the plea that a loss of postage would result.”[33] In the latter year all sorts of oppressive and even bewildering new regulations were enforced whose tendency was to make of the Post Office a yet harsher tax-raising machine. One new charge was of “an additional penny on each letter for the privilege of [Pg 56] the mail-coach passing through”[34] certain towns; and other rules were equally vexatious.

The lowest single postage to Paris was 1s. 8d.; and in the case of foreign letters partial prepayment was the rule. For instance, when a letter travelled from London to Paris, the writer paid 10d., which freed it as far as Calais only, its recipient paying the other 10d. on its delivery in the French capital. Collection of postage at the end of the entire journey would have been contrary to regulation.

The lowest single postage to Gibraltar was 2s. 10d.; and to Egypt, 3s. 2d. When a letter crossed the Atlantic to Canada or the United States an inland rate at each end of the transit was charged in addition to the heavy ocean postage. A packet of manuscript to either of those countries cost £5 under the old system. But at this “reduced” (!) rate only a 3-lb. packet could be sent. Did one weigh the merest fraction of a pound over the permitted three, it could not go except as a letter, the postage upon which would have been £22, 0s. 8d.[35] One can hardly expect the public of to-day to believe that rates such as these were ever in force. They sufficiently explain why it was that the ill-to-do relatives of equally ill-to-do people who emigrated to the Colonies or foreign countries often lost all trace of them.

In the Morning Chronicle of 22nd August 1837, appeared an announcement that, “Henceforth postage on letters to the Mediterranean will be at the rate [Pg 57] of only 10s. an ounce”—showing that even as regards countries nearer home than America postal charges rendered letter-writing an expensive occupation even to the well-to-do if they had a large foreign correspondence. To-day “a letter can be sent from London westward to San Francisco or eastward to Constantinople or Siberia for a less amount of postage than was charged in 1836 on one going from Charing Cross to Brompton.”[36] And in the future the cost is likely to become less.

The old postal rates being so burdensome, it was inevitable that tricks and evasions of many sorts should be practised, notwithstanding the merciless penalties that were inflicted on delinquents detected in the act.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that hundreds, if not thousands, of newspapers were annually posted which no one particularly cared to read. Yet it is certain that many a recipient eagerly welcomed the paper sent him even though he might rarely unfold its pages. As newspapers went free—or nominally did so, for after all the postage was indirectly taken out of the pocket of the man who invested 5d. in every copy of his “daily”—and letters, except those which passed between members of the privileged classes, did not, the newspaper came to be a frequent bearer of well-disguised messages from one member of the unprivileged classes to another. The employment of inks of different colours, of variations in modes of writing names, callings, and [Pg 58] addresses, and even peculiar flourishes executed by the pen, conveyed valuable information to him who received the paper, and enabled many tradesmen to keep up a brisk correspondence without contributing a farthing to the revenue.

How, for example, should the uninitiated postal authorities know that the innocent-looking superscription on a newspaper sent from London to “Mr John Smith, Grocer, Tea-dealer, etc, No. 1 High Street Edinburgh,” conveyed to Mr Smith the assurance that on Tuesday the price of sugar was falling, and that the remittances he had sent in discharge of his indebtedness had been received? Yet so it was, for however fictitious the name and address, the case is genuine, the conspiring pair of correspondents having come forward during the agitation for penny postage as voluntary witnesses to the necessity for the reform, their evidence being the revelation of their fraud made on condition that they should be held exempt from prosecution. There were six different modes of writing Mr Smith's name, one for each working day of the week; and the wording of his trade varied still oftener, and served to give him the latest news of the market. If Mr Smith's fellow-tradesman (and fellow-conspirator) in London wrote the address immediately after the name, omitting all mention of Mr Smith's calling, the latter knew that the goods he had sent had reached their destination. Variations rung upon the locality name, such as High Street (without the number), High St., 1 High Street, 1 High St., No. 1 High Street, or No. 1 High St., related to pecuniary matters. For while we have seen how satisfactory [Pg 59] was the news conveyed in “No. 1 High Street,” “High St.,” on the contrary, told Mr Smith that the bills he sent had been dishonoured.

But Mr Smith and colleague were by no means the only correspondents who deliberately plotted to defraud the revenue; for, under the old system, it seemed to be each person's aim to extract the cost of postage on his own letters out of the pocket of some other person. In this achievement, however, there can be little doubt that, as a rule, the well-to-do made the most successful score.

The story told by Mr Bertram in “Some Memories of Books” about the apprentice to a printing firm is another instance of evasion. The young man was frequently in want of clothing, and made known his need to those at home with as little outlay as though he had been a member of Parliament or peer of the realm. He printed small slips of paper bearing such legends as “want trousers,” “send new coat,” etc., pasted them into newspapers, and sent these to his parents.

At the present day indulgence in a practice of this sort would seem contemptible, a fraud to which only the meanest of mankind would resort. But had we too lived when postage was charged on a fourth part only of the entire mail, and when the writers of the letters forming that fourth part, and we among them, were taxed to make up the loss on the franked three-quarters, perhaps even we, immaculate as we believe ourselves to be, might have been tempted to put our scruples into our pocket to keep company with our slender purse, and have taken to [Pg 60] “ways that are dark,” though, if less astute than Mr John Smith and his London correspondent, possibly also to “tricks that are vain”—with unpleasant consequences to ourselves.

There is an oft-quoted story about Coleridge, who, one day while wandering through the Lake District, saw a poor woman refuse a letter which the postman offered her. The kindly poet, in spite of the woman's evident reluctance to accept the gift, paid the money she could not raise; but when the letter was opened, it was seen to be a blank sheet of paper not intended for acceptance, but sent by her son according to preconcerted agreement as a sign that he was well.[37] This, then, is not only yet another illustration of the frauds to which the “have nots” were driven to resort, but, further, shows how profitless, even costly, was the labour imposed upon the Post Office by the system to which the authorities clung with so unaccountable an affection. For an unaccepted sheet of paper does not travel from London to the Lake District for nothing; and when we multiply one unaccepted letter by many thousands, one may form some idea of the amount of fruitless trouble as well as fruitless outlay which was incurred by the Department.

The enforced silence between severed relations and friends was therefore rendered yet more painful [Pg 61] when the letters—genuine letters too, not dummies—got as far as the post office nearest to their intended destination, or even to the door of the poor dwellings to which they were addressed, yet failed to cross the threshold because their should-be recipients were too poverty-stricken to “take them up.” In many instances mothers yearning to hear from absent children would pawn clothing or household necessaries rather than be deprived of the letters which, but for that sacrifice, must be carried back to the nearest post office to await payment. One poor woman, after striving for several weeks to make up the money to redeem a longed-for letter from her granddaughter in London, went at last to the local office with the shilling which a pitying lady gave her, only to find that the letter had been returned to town. She never received it. Another poor woman begged a local postmaster's daughter to accept a spoon by way of pledge till the ninepence charged upon a letter awaiting payment at the office could be raised. A labouring man declined an eightpenny letter though it came from a far-off daughter because the price meant one loaf the less for his other children. It was much harder for the poorest classes to find pence enough to lavish on postage in those yet earlier and often hungrier nineteenth century decades than even the “Hungry Forties”; during which years a man had sometimes to spend more than eightpence—more occasionally than double that sum—on his children's loaf.

The refused missives, after waiting a while at the local office for the chance of redemption, went back [Pg 62] to the chief office, were consigned to the “dead” department, and were there destroyed, thus costing the Service—meaning, of course, the public—the useless double journey and the wasted labour of not a few officials.

Sometimes a kind-hearted postmaster would advance the sum due for a letter out of his own pocket, taking his chance of being repaid. But not every postmaster could afford to take such risks, nor was it desirable that they should be laid upon the wrong shoulders.

In 1837 the Finance Account showed a profitless expenditure of £122,000 for letters “refused, mis-sent, re-directed, and so forth.” This loss of revenue was, of course, quite distinct from that already mentioned as caused by the use of franks fictitious and genuine. Truly, the unprivileged paid somewhat dearly for the advantages enjoyed by the privileged, since it lay with the former both to make good the loss and to provide the required profit.

Under the old system the postman would often be detained, sometimes as much as five minutes, at each house at which he called while he handed in his letters, and received the money due upon them. In business quarters this sort of thing had long been found intolerable, and therefore, by private arrangement with the merchants, the postman, on the first, and by far the heaviest, delivery of the day, did not wait for his money. But after the second delivery he had to call at every house where he had left letters earlier in the day and collect the postage: a process which often made the second delivery lengthy and [Pg 63] wearisome. A test case showed that while it took a man an hour and a half to deliver 67 letters for which he waited to receive payment, half an hour sufficed for the delivery of 570 letters for which he did not wait to be paid.[38]

Another evil of the old system was the temptation to fraud which it put in the way of the letter-carriers. When a weak or unscrupulous man found a supply of loose cash in his pocket at the end of his delivery, his fingers would itch—and not always in vain—to keep it there. Again, an honest man, on his way back to the office with the proceeds of his round upon him, was not safe from attack if his road was lonely or the streets ill-lighted or deserted. The old foot and horse posts were often robbed. Murders even, Mr Joyce reminds us, were not infrequent, and executions failed to check them.

The system of account-keeping was “an exceedingly tedious, inconvenient, and, consequently, expensive process.”[39] The money which the recipient of a letter paid to the postman passed to the local postmaster, who sent it on to the head office. It went through many hands, and peculation was rife. “The [Pg 64] deputy postmasters could not be held to effectual responsibility as regards the amounts due from them to the General Office; and as many instances of deficit came at times to light, sometimes following each other week after week in the same office, there can be no doubt that the total annual loss must have reached a serious amount.”[40]

On the arrival of the mails at the General Post Office, the clerks were required to see that the charge entered upon every letter had been correctly made, and that each deputy postmaster had debited himself with the correct amount of postage; to stamp the letters—that is, to impress on them the date when they were posted; to assort them for delivery, in which work the letter-carriers assisted; to ascertain the amount of postage to be collected by each letter-carrier, and to charge him therewith. In addition to all this, another detail must not be forgotten—that in the London Office alone there were daily many thousands of letters which had to undergo the “candling” process.

For the outgoing mails the duties were somewhat similar, and quite as complicated, and some seven hundred accounts had to be made out against as many deputy postmasters.

Simplification of account-keeping under the old system, however much needed, seemed hopeless of attainment.

Even in England, the most prosperous “partner” of the United Kingdom, there were at the time of the late Queen's accession, districts larger than [Pg 65] Middlesex, within whose borders the postman never set foot. Of the 2,100 Registrar's districts into which England and Wales were divided, 400 districts, each containing on the average about 20 square miles and some 4,000 inhabitants—making in all a population of about a million and a half—had no post office whatever. The chief places in these districts, containing about 1,400 inhabitants each, were on the average some 5 miles, and in several instances as much as 16 miles, from the nearest post office.[41]

The 50,000 Irish, or immediate descendants of Irish in Manchester, said Cobden in his evidence before the Parliamentary Committee of 1838, were almost as completely cut off from communication with their relatives in Ireland as though they were in New South Wales.[42] And when he drew this comparison, it counted for much more than it would do to-day. Great Britain and Australia were then practically much further asunder than they are now, sailing vessels at that time taking from four to six months to do the single, and sometimes nearly twelve the double voyage. A good many years had yet to elapse before the Indian Ocean was bridged by the fast steamships which have reduced that several months' journey to one of a few weeks only.

The great free-trader's calico printing works were situated at a little town or village, of some 1,200 inhabitants, called Sabden, 28 miles from Manchester. Although a manufacturing centre, it had no post office, and nothing that did duty for one.

[Pg 66]

In the opening paragraph of the twenty-seventh chapter of “The Heart of Midlothian,” Scott says that in 1737 “So slight and infrequent was the intercourse betwixt London and Edinburgh, that upon one occasion the mail from the former city arrived at the General Post Office in Scotland with only one letter in it. The fact is certain. The single epistle was addressed to the principal director of the British Linen Company.”

In “Her Majesty's Mails” Mr Lewins says that: “About the same time the Edinburgh mail is said to have arrived in London containing but one letter addressed to Sir William Pulteney, the banker” (p. 85).

The old system being at once clumsy, irrational, irritating, and unjust, little wonder need be felt that when Queen Victoria's reign began, each inhabitant of England and Wales received on an average one letter in three months, of Scotland one in four months, and of Ireland one a year.[43]

Until 1748 there were but three posts a week between London and Birmingham. In that year the number was doubled. The notice making known this improvement contains denunciations of the people who were in “any way concerned in the illegal collecting or delivery of Letters or Packets of Letters.” The fines for the offence were “£5 for every letter, and £100 for every week this practice is continued.” But fines could not arrest the smuggling, because the practice was remunerative to the smugglers, and popular among those who employed them, and who [Pg 67] thus enjoyed cheap rates of postage. Therefore the illegal traffic went on growing, till by the time the old system came to an end it had assumed vast proportions.

Publishers and other business men wrote letters on one large sheet of paper for different people living in the same district. On reaching its destination the sheet was divided into its separate parts, each of which being then delivered by hand or local post. A similar practice in respect of money payments prevailed.[44] One publisher and bookseller said he was “not caught” till he had thus distributed some 20,000 letters. Several carriers made the collection and distribution of letters their only business, and in the collecting process women and children were employed. In one district the illegal practice was more than fifty years old, and in at least another, as we see by the notice quoted in the preceding paragraph, its age must have exceeded a century. In one then small town the daily average of smuggled letters amounted to more than 50, and on one occasion rose above 150. The Mr Brewin of Cirencester already mentioned said he knew two carriers who conveyed four times as many letters as did the mail.[45] One carrier confessed to having smuggled about 60 letters a day. On another carrier's premises a bag was seized containing 1,100 letters. Twelve walking carriers between Birmingham and Walsall were employed exclusively in conveying letters at a charge of a penny apiece. [Pg 68] Five Glasgow merchants illegally transmitted letters at the rate severally of three, eighteen, sixteen, eight, and fifteen to one that went legally. Five-sixths of the Manchester letters contributed nothing whatever to the postal revenue.[46] Nor does the list of delinquencies end here.

Letters were also smuggled in warehousemen's bales and parcels; among manufacturers' patterns and other things which coach proprietors, on payment of a trifle for booking, carried free of charge; in weavers' bags, in farmers' “family boxes,” and in other ways.[1]

Even the mail-coach drivers and guards engaged in the unlawful traffic, though in many instances letters were sent in coach parcels not so much to save postage as to facilitate transmission and ensure early delivery.

Mr Maury, of the American Chamber of Commerce, assured the select Committee that when regular steam communication between Liverpool and New York was established, the first steamer carried five letters in the large bag provided in expectation of a heavy dispatch. Ten thousand letters were, however, placed in another bag sent to the care of the consignee of the same vessel; and Mr Maury himself contributed some 200 free letters to this second bag. Every ten days a steamer left this country for America each carrying some 4,000 smuggled letters—a fact of which the postal authorities were well aware; and almost every shipbroker hung a bag in his office [Pg 69] for the convenience of those who sent letters otherwise than through the post. Letters so collected by one broker for different ships in which he was interested were said to be sometimes “enough to load a cab.” In 111 packages containing 822 newspapers sent in the course of five months to America, 648 letters were found concealed. The postmaster of Margate reported that in the visitors' season the increase of population there made no proportionate increase of postage, a fact which he attributed to the illegal conveyance of letters by steamers. The growing facilities for travel caused a corresponding growth of letter-smuggling. At the same time, the more general establishment of local penny posts tended to secure to the Post Office the conveyance of letters between neighbouring towns and villages;[47] and undoubtedly did much to recoup that extensively swindled Department for its loss of revenue caused by franking, evasions like those of Mr John Smith and others, and letter-smuggling.

As usual, the people who practised the deception were scarcely so much to blame as those who, spite of every effort at reform, persisted in maintaining a system which created favouritism, hampered trade, severed family ties, and practically created the smuggling offence which scandalised the official conscience. Had the rates been less exorbitant, and had they fallen impartially on rich and poor, these dishonest practices might have had little or no existence. They ceased only when at last the old order changed, and, happily, gave place to new.

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