London Penny Post

When William Dockwra established the Penny Post in 1680, London was a city in flux. Large areas were being rebuilt after the great fire while trade began to settle following the disruptions of the Civil War. The Royal Mail, with its headquarters on Lombard Street, was the only official carrier of letters in the city. Beyond this, private arrangements were rife, as merchants and traders employed armies of messengers and porters to carry their messages around the city. A vibrant trade in letter-carrying therefore already existed when the businessman William Dockwra saw an opportunity. What if a more regular, affordable and cohesive service could be offered? It would surely meet a large demand.

He and a partner, Robert Murray, began planning their scheme in 1678. It launched in March 1680 in Lime Street, where Dockwra also lived. Their idea followed a similar system begun in Paris in 1653. Receiving houses were set up all over the city delivering any latter for one penny. They employed unofficial messengers who shuttled mail between receiving houses, which included coffee shops, pubs and printers. For the carriers, summer hours were 6am to 9pm. Dispatches were once an hour for the short distances and five a day over longer stretches. During 1681 they expanded operations to include over 400 receiving houses and many more clerks were employed. Residents near to the Thames were even invited to give their letters to watermen by Westminster Bridge and London Bridge.

The popularity of their scheme attracted strong opposition. Murray was arrested in 1680 for encouraging others to sell "seditious" books and pamphlets. (He later complained that he had not been fairly credited as the true inventor of the service, while Dockwra disagreed, believing it was he who had made a success of it). In November, following various legal challenges, the Government stepped in and shut down the Penny Post. When it was reopened the following month under the control of Lord Arlington, the Postmaster General, Dockwra's clerks were persuaded to hand over their copies of "Schemes, Methods and Rules" and many of his former messengers were re-hired and asked to report to the General Post Office on Lombard Street.

Dockwra subsequently spent many years petitioning parliament for compensation and published pamphlets in which he sought recognition as the true creator of the Penny Post. He received a second appointment to run the service in 1696 and continued until 1700 when he was again ousted amidst allegations of mismanagement. Nevertheless, it is his name most often associated with the London Penny Post which outlived him, securing his contribution to the story of The People's Post.

Further Reading

The British Postal Museum & Archive is home to much material on the early history of metropolitan penny posts. Visitors can peruse a portfolio of articles and cuttings on Dockwra and see early examples of postmarks at the Royal Mail Archive, while the archive's library holds books such as T. Todd, William Dockwra and the rest of the Undertakers: the story of the London Penny Post, 1680-82 (1952). Chris Taft's blog William Dockwra, The Penny Post and Coffee Houses gives further information on this topic.

Illustrations
Dockwra's Penny Post (1 of 2)

Dockwra's Penny Post (1 of 2)

Dockwra's Penny Post (2 of 2)

Dockwra's Penny Post (2 of 2)

Dockwra’s Penny Post handbill

Dockwra’s Penny Post handbill

Letter sent through Penny Post

Letter sent through Penny Post

Letter to James Gordon (1)

Letter to James Gordon (1)

Letter to James Gordon (2)

Letter to James Gordon (2)


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