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A Distinct and Separate Service: Registration of Overseas Mail 1795-1841
IntroductionRegistration of letters was a rather a latecomer to the UK postal system. There was in fact no inland registration at all until 1792, when a gratis and ad hoc system for "Money Letters" containing coins was introduced. Registration of any letter on demand for a fee came only in 1841.
However, registration was a part of the postal systems of many European states, and naturally some registered letters were sent to addresses in Britain. The GPO's Foreign Office seem to have evolved not only equally ad hoc procedures for handling these, but even a simple method for registering letters sent overseas.
The commencement date is uncertain. Post Office Secretary Francis Freeling wrote in 1805:
"... that the practice is almost co-eval with the Post Office, that it is of occasional great Importance to those Merchants whose Correspondents abroad resort to it and that it is necessary, unless the enregistering Packets could be abolished, that a Fee should be demanded, to prevent it being resorted to so frequently as to impede the general and ordinary duties of the Department. It is, in fact, a distinct and separate service and its utility was so obvious that the Commissioners of Inquiry, appointed by Parliament, in proposing that money Fees of this office should be abolished, recommended that the Fee in question should be continued"This would date it to the 17th century, although more likely Freeling merely meant to imply it was then a very long-standing practice. The first clear documentation (Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the Post Office, 1787) implied it had then been in operation for some time.
The French Post Office sent over a letter-bill with the addresses and numbers of registered letters. The procedure adopted seems to have been to retain letters for London at the GPO, notify the addressee of their arrival, and charge a 5s fee. Registered letters for other parts of the country appear to have been treated as "Money Letters" in transit, at least until the late 1830s.
Outward registration consisted simply of noting the details of letters sent in a book kept at the Foreign Office, with a reference number written on the letter. The fee was an exorbitant one guinea to keep the numbers low (three weeks wages to a labourer), and thus only a few items of very high value were registered outwards (such as packets of diamonds or securities).
The fees were a perquisite of the Foreign Office staff until 1834, In 1836 a new postal treaty with France greatly reduced the charges and extended outward registration to the rest of the country, with a further reduction in 1837. The traffic was never high -- figures from the 1837 Commission of Inquiry give 178 incoming letters in 1784, rising to 1336 in 1836. Outgoing letters ran at about one a week from London, with only one registered at Edinburgh in the first 18 months.
This exhibit attempts to show what is known of the workings of the system, given the paucity of surviving documentation and examples. It covers the years from the late eighteenth century until 1841, when the first general British registration system was introduced, and overseas registered letters were no longer quite such a special case.
Registration Rates before 1841
17th century -- 5s London, zero elsewhere
20th July 1836 -- 2s 6d
November 1837 -- Actual postage on letter to max 2s 6d
17th century -- £1 1s (from London only)
20th July 1836 -- 2s 6d British fee + French postage
November 1837 -- Actual British postage to max 2s 6d + French postage