Postal services in the beginning of the nineteenth century were faster and wider reaching than they had ever been, and yet using the mail was still a relatively costly affair. When a letter was delivered, the recipient might have to pay more than a day's wages, meaning that many looked for ways to write to each other without using the official service. During the eighteenth century, Post Office officials detected the growth of an illegal trade in carrying letters, and tried to prevent others who had found ways to exploit loopholes in the official tariffs. This was a risky business. To deter the practice and protect its revenue, the Royal Mail imposed heavy fines on those found in breach of its monopoly, but still, with sufficient ingenuity, determination and sometimes corruption, techniques for dodging payment abounded.
Various methods were popular. One was to disguise packs of letters as parcels. Another was to conceal them in piles of clothes, books or barrels of butter. Other scammers exploited cheaper rates for posting newspapers, by pricking out coded messages in their pages. The most controversial mechanism for avoiding payment was the use of the franking privilege enjoyed by members of parliament, who could send mail without charge by signing their correspondence. However some MPs abused this privilege and a several acts of parliament sought to control the situation. Others, meanwhile, found ways to exploit it to their advantage, including the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, who used a parliamentary contact to send each other copies of their poems for free.
This episode of The People's Post presented examples of the cunning and imagination involved in these efforts. Further reading can be found in Susan Whyman, The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers, 1660-1800 (2009), available at the Royal Mail Archive. Mike Bament's blog Free Post gives further information on this topic.
Envelope sent by Robert Wallace
Letter sent by Lord Byron
Commander in Chief letter
Copy of a Henry Cole cartoon
Parcels on a mail coach with labels