SHOW MENU

The Franking System to 1839

Introduction

"Franked" mail refers to letters sent through the post for free, most commonly under the signature ("frank") of someone with the privilege of sending and receiving at least some of their mail without charge. It is therefore largely tangential to a rates listing, but as mail of this type was an important part of the postal system, and subject to charges in certain circumstances, a very brief outline of the major points is given here.

The franking system originated to carry official mail, without charge to the officials or to the Revenue. It was widely abused by those with the privilege, who would frank mail for friends and contacts, resulting in the rules being tightened over the years (not always effectively). The franked mail most frequently seen today is that of Members of Parliament (both Commons and Lords), as many examples were preserved as "free fronts" by contemporary autograph collectors. However, a range of other officials and official bodies also had the franking privilege, in the latter case especially sometimes using pre-printed stationery.

Charges Covered by the Franking Privilege

The franking privilege applied (with rare exceptions) only to inland mail, and covered only General Post charges. None of the following were payable on franked mail:

Charges Applicable to Franked Mail

The franking privilege did not apply to local post charges. All of the following were payable on franked letters posted in or delivered from a local post:

Letters exceeding the weight or number allowances were charged at the normal rates, and under many Acts attempts at fraud were supposed to be charged double or triple postage (with the sender liable to a fine), although it appears this did not often happen in practice. In principle the privilege did not apply between Great Britain and Ireland in the early days of Grattan's Parliament, as the Act setting up a separate Irish Post Office in 1784 did not include provision for it, but this was corrected by no later than 1787.

Rules for Members of Parliament

These rules (unless otherword stated) applied to mail sent by MPs. Mail sent to them (at any of their normal places of residence, the Houses of Parliament, or their current location) was automatically granted free postage.

Date Auth. Period of validity Size limit Other conditions
1652
(Nov)
Council of State and Ordinance 2 Sep 1654 any any Letters sent by MPs, identified by their seal or endorsed for the service of the Commonwealth
1661
(24 May)
Mercurius Publicus During sitting of Parliament Single only
1685
(Jun)
Calendar of State Papers During sitting of Parliament and 40 days before/after any? Sent under known seal of MP
1764
(1 May)
4 Geo 3 c.24 During sitting of Parliament and 40 days before/after 2oz
  • Signed by the MP
  • Whole superscription written in MP's own hand
1784
(20 Aug)[*]
24 Geo 3 s.2 c.37 During sitting of Parliament and 40 days before/after 2oz
  • Office and date of posting written at top of address panel
  • Signature of MP at lower left
  • Whole superscription written in MP's own hand
1795
(5 May)
35 Geo 3 c.53 During sitting of Parliament and 40 days before/after 1oz
  • Office and date of posting written at top of address panel
  • Signature of MP at lower left
  • Whole superscription written in MP's own hand
  • MP must be physically near office on the day
  • MP may send only 10 letters free each day
  • MP may receive only 15 letters free each day

[*]The Act stated that the new rules would apply "from and after the End of this present Session of Parliament", which turned out to be 20th August 1784. Letters may have been franked by the method from July,

Franking of Newspapers and Parliamentary Proceedings

In the early days of the posts it was common for postal officials to have a sideline in supplying subscribers with copies of newspapers and Parliamentary Proceedings, sent by post under the franking privilege, a perquisite that was officially authorised by Act of Parliament from 1764. This continued in some form right up until the abolition of the franking privilege, although local post charges still applied.

Date Auth. Franking of
newspapers?
Franking of
Par. Pro.?
Notes
to 1764 Anywhere within
British Isles
Anywhere within
British Isles
Allowed as
unofficial perquisite
1764
(1 May)
4 Geo 3 c.24 Anywhere within
British Isles
Anywhere within
British Isles
Allowed under
Act of Parliament
1784
(1 Aug)
23/24 Geo 3 c.17 (Irish) Within Great Britain
or within Ireland
Within Great Britain
or within Ireland
Not allowed between
Great Britain and Ireland
1802
(22 Jun)
42 Geo 3 c.63 Anywhere within
British Isles
Anywhere within
British Isles
1834
(1 Oct)
4/5 Wm 4 c.44 Not allowed Anywhere within
British Isles