A culture of letters

In her book, The Pen and the People, Susan Whyman has explored the culture of letter-writing in seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain. She details the ways ordinary people from modest backgrounds used letters to connect with friends and families. They wrote to express both love and sorrow, to offer support and congratulations, or to seek employment and conduct business. Whyman's research and the examples quoted in this episode show that well before the Victorian expansion of postal services, writing letters was already a well established national pastime.

This was made possible thanks to the emergence of a robust and integrated postal system, with its headquarters in London and its reach extending to the most outlying British towns, the cities of Europe and even America. The inner workings of the system were recorded in 1677 by the Controller of the Inland Office, Thomas Gardiner in A General Survey of the Post Office. From Inland Office on Lombard Street, letters would travel to throughout Britain along the six main post roads. Rates for letters were determined by weight and distance. One sheet within 80 miles cost 2d, while two sheets over 80 miles costs 6d. Letters could also be sent to various towns in Europe for between 8d and 1s.

Gardener's "Survey" recorded that postmasters were required to keep good horses and provide speedy conveyance at all times. They were to be careful with mail bags, ensuring they were properly sealed, and instructed to employ post boys no younger than fourteen. They were paid quarterly and received Gazettes free of postage which they were free to sell on. Lists of all dispatches and monthly accounts were sent to London, where sorters checked for errors. There, the Inland Office was a hive of activity full of clerks, sorters and letter carriers who conspired to sort and deliver the London mail, starting at 4am in summer and 5am in winter. At night, outbound mail was stamped and prepared for the "Clarkes of the Road". Once the names of the delivery stages were written into the "Road Book", the bags were labelled and sealed and ready to head out onto each of the six post roads emanating from the city.

Further Reading

Gardener's Survey is one of several documents used in researching this episode of The People's Post. It is available to view in the Royal Mail Archive, as are original maps of the early routes and Acts of Parliament which detailed changes to services and employment. The archive library contains books dealing with administrative and logistical aspects, such as Kenneth Ellis, The Post Office in the Eighteenth Century (1958) and more personal histories of letter writing such as the Susan Whyman, The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers, 1660-1800 (2009). Emma Harper's blog A Culture of Letters gives further information on this topic.

Illustrations
'The Country Letter Carrier'

'The Country Letter Carrier'

'The Postman'

'The Postman'

Sorting Room General Post Office

Sorting Room General Post Office

Cross-written letter

Cross-written letter


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