The Bath Postal Museum: the History of the Postal Services

Talk chaired by Rob Randall

Colin Baker

Trustee, Postal Museum, Bath

8 April 2004

This talk described the development of the postal service in this country, the significance of Bath in that story and the work of the Bath Postal Museum in maintaining records and telling the public the story of the history of communications.


Today we expect to be able to drop a letter or card into one of dozens of pillar boxes around Bath and for it to drop on someone’s doormat the next morning anywhere in the United Kingdom, or within a day or two in any town or city across the globe. However this was not always the case and 500 years ago there was no post as we know it today.

The Post in the Early Days

By the Middle Ages there were 4 systems operating for the carriage and delivery of letters and packets.

1. Royal or Court post for the use of the monarch, parliament and government officers.

2. Monastic & University post which carried all correspondence relating to the church and educational establishments

3. Mercantile League post, which carried all the commercial and business mail, necessary for trade to be maintained and developed.

4. Judicial or Legal post, which dealt with all matters relating to civil and criminal proceedings.

Private letters were carried by whatever means possible, either using one of the above four systems if the writer had influence, or by a servant or paid private letter carrier.

Gradually these posts developed, and it could have been any one of the four that would become the main system. In the end the Court Post or Royal Mail established itself as the leader and the one which would eventually become the national postal system.

From 1510 - 1603, under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, semi-permanent posts were set up on certain roads leading out of London to the main centres of population and ports around the country. But these were only for sending Royal Letters and Packets. These posts were stages set at about 20 mile intervals at which horses were stationed for the use of Royal messengers. However, they only remained in place when needed, although the roads to Dover and Plymouth were more or less kept in use permanently.

By the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, many more of these post roads had become permanent.

The responsibility for looking after each post was gradually transferred from Government agents to local inn keepers who were paid 1/- (1 shilling = 12 pennies) a day plus 2½d (1p = 2.4d)) a mile for the use of their horses. As a reward, they also were given the monopoly on their stretch of road for hiring 16th century private letters were being carried by the Royal messengers without charge, but they had to wait despatch until official mail was ready to go.

Farming out the Post

In 1635 Charles I (short of cash because he was engaged in the odd fight, both here and abroad) accepted commercial letters on a fixed scale of charges. The system was put in the care of Thomas Witherings who organised the post along 6 major routes, all starting and finishing in London, so all mail had to go via the capital.

In 1653 the right to run the post was farmed out (or leased) to John Manley who paid £10,000 a year to run the system, charging private individuals whatever he liked. But in 1657 Parliament fixed the rates for sending letters (i.e. London to Scotland cost 4d).

The price of buying the right to run the Post rose year by year. In 1660, Henry Bishop paid £25,500 a year. In 1661, following complaints that letters were being delayed, he was the first person to put a stamp on letters showing the date (day and month) a letter was received.

Today we take the meaning of the word ‘stamp’ to be an adhesive piece of paper that we stick onto letters to show that postage has been prepaid. However, in the 17th and 18th centuries the word meant a mark applied by a device that was inked on a pad and struck on the paper or letter. In the 19th century that the term ‘stamp’ was broadened to include postage stamps. Bishop later improved the system of marking letters by adding am or pm. But mail still had to go via London, irrespective of whether it was quicker for it to travel across the country. Fourteen years later, in 1667, with the post being such a financial success, the Government took it back under its own control, where it has rested ever since.

The London Penny Post

In 1680 William Dockwra, a London merchant, set up a London Penny Post, when letters within the capital were collected from, and delivered to, the many receiving houses (shops and inns) scattered around the city. The system was highly successful and so the Post Office considered this was an infringement of its monopoly and two years later shut it down, only to reopen it a few weeks later as an official Post Office service.

(The speaker explained that the pennies mentioned were the pre-decimal variety that amounted to 240 to one pound.)

Ralph Allen & the Cross Posts

Ralph Allen was born in Cornwall in 1693. At the age of 14 he ran the Post Office at St Colomb in Cornwall for his grandmother, whose health had deteriorated. In 1712 he went to the Post Office in Exeter and later, in 1719, became the postmaster of Bath.

Up to this time, all mail had to go via London. Letters were charged according to the mileage travelled and those which could have gone across country on a short journey went on a much longer route via the capital, incurring a much increased charge. Allen could see the sense in organising posts between major towns, bypassing the capital, although the Post Office felt it could not run such a system efficiently and thus allowed it to be farmed out to private enterprise. In 1720 Allen entered into a seven year contract with the Post Office, paying £6,000 a year to run 2 cross posts, Exeter to Chester and Bristol to Oxford. The cross posts were later extended between many more towns and cities, and 45 years later covered virtually the whole country.

Ralph Allen was so successful at running the cross posts that he made a fortune from them. He used this money to acquire the stone quarries at Coombe Down outside Bath, just as the building boom started in the city, making him a second fortune. He was a benevolent man, giving money for the building of the Mineral Water Hospital in Bath, as well as building cottages for his masons working in the quarry.

On his death 1764 the cross post system was taken over by the Post Office, and was never given into private hands again. Ralph Allen is buried in a pyramid-topped tomb in Claverton Churchyard.

John Palmer & the Mail Coaches

John Palmer was the only son of a Bath brewer, and was also a partner in the Orchard Street Theatre. He was given a Royal Patent for this theatre, the first for any theatre outside London, and later obtained another for his theatre in Bristol. He managed both theatres himself, using post-chaise to move actors and scenery between the two.

This inspired him to persuade the Post Office to let him trial a mail coach run from Bath to London on 2 August 1784. Palmer had to organise the many changes of horses needed with innkeepers along the Bath to London Road. This trial run was so successful that it became permanent, providing a huge increase in PO revenue, with the mail coaches service being eventually extended to the whole country under Palmer's control, despite substantial opposition from other coach operators who would lose out. Palmer’s career included serving in the Post Office in London, and he was also twice mayor of Bath (1796 and 1809), as well as being MP for Bath from 1801 to 1807.

The Cost of Sending a Letter

Up to the time of John Palmer, it was normal for letters to be paid for on delivery. However they were was very costly, with the London to Edinburgh route rising from 6d in 1765 to 1/1½d (1 shilling and 1½ pence =13½d) in 1812, which remained the rate until 1839. There were penny posts, but these were only for delivery within major towns and their environs, and the 1d fee was charged on top of the national postage rates. Mail was usually paid for on delivery to ensure that it got there. It was also considered an insult to others to pay the postage in advance, suggesting the recipient could not afford it. The exception to this rule was for letters to one’s subordinates.

Letters were charged according to the number of sheets of paper used, thus envelopes were normally never used as this was considered an extra sheet of paper and would have incurred double postage on the letter. The only exception to this was where the sender had the privilege of free post, when no payment would be raised on delivery.

One method of ensuring people made the most of the postage was to fill all the available sheet of paper with writing in one direction and then to turn the sheet through 900 and write some more, (known as cross writing) although sometimes it made it very difficult to read.

Other families set up codes in the address so that they would know that the writer was well, had found employment, lodgings and so on. Once the address had been seen and decoded, the letter was rejected and no payment received for it.

A few privileged citizens, members of parliament and high ranking government officials, enjoyed free post, where their signature on the front of a letter ensured that it was delivered free of charge. The system was abused and people with this privilege were often made company directors simply so that the firm could save on postage. The regulations relating to free post were tightened allowing only 10 letters a day to be sent, and these had to be dated on the day they were posted. However, the free post system continued to be abused by those privileged to use it.

The Uniform Penny Post

Rowland Hill was a schoolmaster and with the backing of the Glasgow MP Robert Wallace campaigned for uniform 1d post. He published data to show that it should be possible for a letter to be sent anywhere within the British Isles for 1d, but still make a profit for the Government. He stated that by abolishing the system of free post and by paying for mail when it was posted the service would be much more efficient. After years of campaigning, and once the new Queen Victoria come to the throne declaring she would give up her privilege of free post, parliament eventually gave in.

This led to the introduction of the uniform 4d post in December 1839, when a letter weighing up to ½ ounce could be sent from anywhere to anywhere else within the British Isles for 4d, a considerable reduction on the cost of sending a letter across the country. This was such a success that after only four weeks the promised 1d uniform post came into being on 10 January 1840, making it possible for anyone to send a letter anywhere with this country for 1d.

At first letters had to be taken to the Post Office and prepaid in cash, the system had been introduced so quickly that the promised stamps and stationery for paying for the postage were not ready. At the time letters could still be sent unpaid but postage was doubled on delivery and from 1840 onwards the vast majority of mail was prepaid.

The Penny Black stamp and the prepaid stationery were made ready by the beginning of May 1840, but were not permitted for prepaying postage until 6 May, their official first day. However, the postmaster of Bath, Thomas Musgrave, somehow allowed his daughter to use a Penny Black on 2 May, four days before the official date. This is the earliest known use of a Penny Black. At the time the post office in Bath was located at 8 Broad Street, now the home of the Bath Postal Museum.

Thomas Musgrave also used one of the new 2d envelopes on 6 May, one of only 3 known in the world to have been used on the first official day of use. It is believed to have been sent by him to Miss I Tudor of Kelston Knowle. Musgrave knew her father, a noted surgeon. The postmark is 6 May 184?, in other words the year in not clear. But research by the Museum has shown that Miss Tudor married in December 1840, becoming Mrs Frere, therefore the 2d envelope must have been used in 1840, and not in any subsequent year.

Since the introduction of postage stamps and prepaid stationery in 1840, the Post Office has given us such items as postcards, registered letters, lettercards, and air letters.

The Museum

Audrey and Harold Swindells ran a stamp shop on Pulteney Bridge and felt there was a need for a postal museum in the city. They bought a house at 51 Great Pulteney Street, and turned part of this into their first museum, opened on 27th April 1979, almost 25 years ago.

In 1985 the Museum was in need of more space and moved to 8 Broad Street, the site of Bath’s main post office between 1822 and 1854, and the building from which the first Penny Black was sent. The Museum caters for all sorts of visitors and cares for many items of postal history and postal artefacts. It is currently involved in:

Education. It has a children’s activity room where children can learn about stamps and stamp collecting. The Museum is issuing a video CD to schools on the history of communications

Exhibitions. The Museum has several exhibitions on display at any one time. On the ground floor is the story of communications; while on the first floor there are exhibitions of the story of airmails, coaching days and coaching ways, an old post office, writing memorabilia, and a display of Victorian valentines. In the basement visitors can find an Edwardian post office, rescued from the old post office at Neston.

The Museum keeps all kinds of postal history, including its main collections of airmail stamps and envelopes, crash mail, valentines, postcards, post-boxes, PO memorabilia, and writing implements. The Museum has many visitors from all over the world. In addition it maintains a comprehensive web site that answers all sorts of questions.

Discussion & Questions

Now that the Post Office is using printed labels rather than postage stamps, will adhesive stamps as we know them today be required in the future? The Post Office make about £20M a year from selling stamps etc to collectors and it is unlikely they will give up this sort of revenue easily. Therefore I see commemorative stamps continuing for years to come.

With the advent of the internet and email, will we need a postal service in the future? While you can send a message electronically, you cannot send goods this way. Not everyone is happy about printing their own birthday card from an email and it can be much more pleasing to open cards on an anniversary.

Following on from the reports in the press recently, what is the future of the Museum? Last year BANES reduced their rent subsidy to the Museum by about £20,000 a year, a sum the Museum cannot find. It is currently looking to move away from the expensive ground floor at 8 Broad Street onto the first and second floors. It is also seeking alternative premises if these are found to be suitable and within the Museum’s budget.

Does the UPU still exist? The Universal Postal Union, founded in 1874, still carries out an important role and allows all the postal administrations around the world to communicate with each other and to agree procedures in dealing with foreign mail. It does not have any jurisdiction on a countries internal rules relating to the post, and no longer fixes international postage rates.

My mother has a sort of photographed letter that my father sent to her many years ago. Is this a proper letter? This may be an Airgraph, which were sent by many allied countries to and from their troops and other service personnel during the latter part of the Second World War. A correspondent would write a message (or draw a picture) on one side of a special form. This was then photograph onto a filmstrip, which was sent to the receiving country by air. It was developed and printed at half size onto photographic paper and despatched to the address given. When the film had been safely delivered and processed, the original forms were destroyed. Because of the huge saving in weight, this allowed families to correspond much more quickly than by surface mail, but at the same time used up very little of the much needed aircraft space.

Colin Baker