The penny post


(not actually the penny post – it’s from Victoria where the post cost 2d in the 1890’s …)

I’ve written about the significance of the penny post before, but one thing that comes through from both accounts of the Madeleine Smith trial and the novels of Wilkie Collins is just how many letters people wrote, and how it changed people’s lives – people expected to send and receive letters speedily, and not just within the British Isles or the colonies.


(Nineteenth century post card sent from London to Batavia (now Jakarta) for 1/2d)

The penny post was the email and the Messenger of its day and allowed people to communicate quickly and cheaply no matter where they were. Remember that before 1840 sending a letter was expensive, and often letters sent to distant places would be sent informally with someone travelling there rather than via the official post. (And of course they sometimes got lost or never reached their destination)

This meant that letters were rare, special, exotic things. Come 1840 it was suddenly affordable for the middle classes, and as other countries adopted a cheap universal mail service peering arrangements came into place by which one country’s postal service would agree to handle mail sent from overseas with the expectation that it’s overseas mail would be handled the same way.

At the same time railways and steamships were developing, ensuring reliable and predictable communication. If you’ve ever looked inside one of these Victorian compendiums of useful information there’s usually a section entitled ‘Mail to the Colonies’ detailing the costs and likely transit times for letters and packages sent overseas.

I’m also old enough to remember writing to a girlfriend overseas and knowing that a letter sent on Monday would most likely be there by Friday, meaning the replay should most likely come the following Friday, and the agony and anticipation of waiting for a letter with foreign stamps to appear in the mail, so I can appreciate just how important the predictability of the service was to the Victorians.

So not only could the butcher the baker and for all I know the candlestick maker send their monthly bills in the mail, raffish cousin Albert could also stay in touch despite having been sent to the colonies for having a fling with the parlourmaid and the popular young curate who, despairing of ever getting a living, had taken a post in a church overseas, could write back to his friends and family about how he was finding life among the heathen …

And of course these letters tell us vast amounts of detail about people’s lives and how they managed in a strange and alien land, as well as how people lived their lives at home, as social history is built on what is essentially gossip and the minutiae of people’s lives …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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