Postal services then and now
Mail Coach in a Drift of Snow by James Pollard
Much of the last month has been spent on research for my next project, a biography only obliquely related to Jamaica. It included a week spent at the wonderful National Archives at Kew doing research the old fashioned way by handling actual documents. Even then modern technology comes to our aid, and I and most others there were using pocket digital cameras to photograph documents rather than having to sit and make laborious, detailed notes and transcriptions. Moreover having got the images home I can blow up difficult to read handwriting in a way that you can’t with the real thing.
So much has changed for historical research in a digital age with huge commercial genealogical websites, the pioneering IGI (now given a facelift and including lots of new data) and even local county record offices are putting much of their material on-line saving the researcher in time and travel costs, not to mention the ease with which material can be found when it has been indexed on computer.
Nevertheless sometimes one has to rely on the postal services either to receive photocopied material, or as several weeks ago, to pay by dollar cheque for material sent from an American University. They were kind enough to send the material first and invoice afterwards. Because they had no facility for paying on-line, I then had to visit my local bank and obtain a dollar cheque (for which they charged an arm and a leg!) which I then posted by registered airmail.
Here the saga began since six weeks later it has still not arrived and I have had to arrange a wired payment instead and now wait to hear if the Post Office will refund the value of the missing cheque, plus bank charges and postal costs.
It made me think once more how impressive in fact were the eighteenth century postal services. On a fast passage by packet boat letters from London might reach Jamaica in the time it has taken for my letter to fail to arrive in America! Moreover, many of the papers I have been looking at in the National Archives are letters sent within England which are dated and have a postmark demonstrating that they arrived just as quickly as a modern letter – and sometimes faster!
From the mid-eighteenth century houses in most British towns began to have numbers to help the postboy deliver to the correct address, as the quantity of letters handled by the mail increased. In 1760 the Post Office revenues were taken over from the Crown and merged with general revenue and the Post Office took over direct management of the Inland Post, Foreign Letter Post, the Penny Post and the Bye and Cross Roads Letter Post.
There were problems in relation to political influence, for example the contract for the provision of packet boats to places such as Jamaica was often held by an MP whose support might be required by the government, regardless of how efficiently he managed the contract. Members of both Houses of Parliament were allowed to send letters, packets and newspapers post free and often provided a ‘frank’ to others with a consequent loss to the revenue. Those who could not afford the penny post, payable on delivery, would send a letter with a code on the address to indicate that they were well and the letter could then be refused by the recipient who had in fact received the intended message.
In 1784 the first Mail Coaches replaced post boys on horseback and there were experiments in Ireland with a new kind of mail cart probably similar to those still in use in the early 20th century. There were however still problems with the quality of the roads, and as the picture above shows, severe weather could delay the mail.
For international mail, wars and weather could take their toll and it was common practice to send important letters in more than one copy by separate boats, as I discovered when preparing the Lee letters for publication in A Parcel of Ribbons. Shipwreck could also result in the loss of correspondence as for example in December 1768 when a box addressed to Joseph Lee, then visiting London from Jamaica, was washed up along with some Jamaican mahogany on the Cornish coast following a winter storm.
It would be interesting to compare the time it now takes to send a parcel by surface mail from England to America or Jamaica relative to the eighteenth century times. Of course air mail makes all the difference now – when it works!