Payment of Postage in early 19th century

(This article extract is posted with the kind permission of )

In 1774 the Court of the King’s Bench decided that delivery of mail must be free within the limits of a post town; but letters to or from places outside these limits had still often to be brought or fetched under local arrangements by means of village messengers, private servants, or carriers in the employ of local postmasters. Except in the case of certain small towns, not Post Towns, which seem to have been given a grant for the purpose, or where private servants were used, a charge for the conveyance of each letter was made, or else a fixed annual sum was raised for the village or district messenger.

from Alcock & Holland, British Postmarks, A Short History & Guide

The cost of posting a letter has to be seen in the context of the ability to pay. In some cases there would be no cost, if the family was able to send a personal servant to deliver the letter. Once the Penny Posts began to be set up in the provincial cities, from 1793, the benefits of the cheaper postage would have been felt by everyone. Between 1812 and 1815 there was a rush to open Penny Post offices everywhere. The fact that the one penny charged was not such a burden is proved by the profitability of these offices.

Take this letter from a desperate mother, where she seems to be requiring such a paltry sum to settle two of her children. Notice that she has mentioned 7d a week for a constancy for the daughter, and yet it cost 8d to send the letter to the solicitor in Highworth, 82 miles away.

31st December 1831


I sincerely hope you will pardon me for intruding a subject on you so much prohibited in your last to Mr B. but my great anxiety for my family instigates me to use every endeavour to promote their welfare.

The favour I have to solicit from you Sir is the loan of twelve pounds. If my request is complied with it will enable me to provide for two of my family my Son and a daughter whose health being very delicate will not allow her to leave home. On that consideration the person has given me an offer of allowing her (for a constancy) 7d pr week if I will pay her eight pounds which I should be most happy to do if possible but I have no other means of raising that sum.

I therefore most humbly solicit your kind compliance. My son also has an eligible situation promised if we can make him respectable in his appearance which I should be enabled to do with the sum before named and should I now be successful you may rely Sir on my not again applying to you till all that is due is paid.

I sincerely hope I may not be disappointed and I shall ever Sir, pray for one whose kindness will never be forgotten by your humble servant

E. Belcher

Should you Sir comply with my request I shall feel obliged by your dropping a letter to me directed for me at the School of Industry Dalston Lane, Hackney

To put it all into perspective, here is an extract from “The Agricultural Labourer” by Peter Talbot-Ashby…

At the beginning of the 18th century in England, in most households it was necessary for the whole family to contribute to the production of an adequate subsistence and not simply rely on the efforts of a single breadwinner.

The labourer’s wife was usually a working woman, and children too were put to work at an early age. The children would be plaiting straw for several hours in the early morning, scaring crows, or weeding and picking stones from the fields.

The girls were expected to work alongside their mother in a variety of handicrafts and household chores, including sewing, weaving and feeding hens. The boys, from about the age of seven, as they became stronger, would be working beside their father 10 or 12 hours a day, doing a full day’s hard work contributing to the family budget.

To be employed in fulltime work was certainly not the normal practice, however. A few, usually unmarried and under the age of 25, might be engaged for a year as farm servants at a Mop Fair or hiring fair.

The majority of labourers were hired on a day to day basis as “wage labourers”, earning about one shilling a day (5p) in the 1700s, rising to about eight shillings (40p) by the 1830s. At harvest time work was plentiful and they could earn a little extra cash, but their day was not eight hours, as we know it today, but 12 to 15 hours of hard physical work.

In the 18th century, travel as we know it today was usually neither desired nor undertaken by the labouring classes, isolated in their village communities except for an occasional journey of a few miles to a nearby village or market town. Parish records show that many would be born, married and die within the confines of their small world, and our labourer would not have the level of national and world news that we enjoy today.

Yes, there were newspapers, but few agricultural workers could read or write.

(Family Tree Magazine, July 1995)

To read the full article, please go to –  Postal information.

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