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Background Information, Terms and Notes

Before 1840 the rates of inland postage in the General Post depended on both the distance the letter was carried and the number of sheets of paper it contained. Rates were frequently set separately for England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland; the currencies were not fully unified until 1826; combination rates for letters between different parts of the UK are not always well-documented. There could be special rules and additional charges for such things as delivery in local posts, sea carriage, or despatch by specific routes. A letter might therefore be subject to several different charges for various parts of its journey which were added together to give the final rate (normally paid on delivery, not at the time of posting).

If this sounds quite complex, that's because it is -- far more so than post-1840 rates! The information given here is an attempt to provide a ready reference for the basic rates, together with as much detail as can be included without complicating things to the point of confusion rather than enlightenment. This should suffice to interpret 99% of inland rates, even difficult ones; if it doesn't, that's the time to get out the detailed reference books.

To quote David Robinson:

"Rates can be one of the most fascinating parts of postal history, but interpretation of charges must be done conscientiously if it is to be done successfully. The basic rules are: do not cut corners, do cross-check everything, and if the charge remains a puzzle try again later! Always be very wary of explaining a rate as error by the Post Office; charging errors did occur, but experience has shown that some further research will eventually lead to explanation of most supposed errors."

His 1990 book For the Port & Carriage of Letters - A Practical Guide to the Inland and Foreign Postage Rates of the British Isles 1570 to 1840 is still the most detailed and helpful work on this period (sadly out of print now though, although there is a copy in the GBPS library). The explanations of how the charges fitted together in practice have proven invaluable in the production of these web pages. If you can obtain a copy second-hand, do! Also useful are British Postal Rates, 1635 to 1839 by Sanford and Salt and United Kingdom Letter Rates 1657-1900 Inland and Overseas by Colin Tabeart, although both of these tend to list all changes in chronological order, which is not always easy to follow, especially where more than one charge applies.

In addition, the texts of most of the important Acts of Parliament are available on the GBPS website.

The following notes attempt to give background information and general guidance on a few important points that may not be immediately obvious.

Country Names

Before 1840 rates were frequently set separately for different parts of the British Isles. Whereas in common parlance "Great Britain", "the United Kingdom" and (in US usage!) "England" are more or less interchangeable, they actually have different, specific meanings. The differences are significant, as the Acts of Parliament that set rates used those specific meanings. In the period in question:

  • The British Isles consist of Great Britain and Ireland, and the term is usually taken to include the other islands in the area under the British crown -- i.e. the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
  • Great Britain, as a geographical term, technically refers to the main island only -- comprising the mainland of England, Scotland and Wales (but not Ireland). It is normally used in a broader sense, however, to include the smaller offshore islands that are grouped with them politically -- e.g. the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, and the Shetlands.
  • The United Kingdom is an overall political grouping, and has included different parts of the British Isles at different times. England and Wales joined with Scotland in 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain, with this joined to Ireland in 1801 as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
  • England and Wales have generally been treated as a unit politically since the 16th century, and the latter may be presumed to be included here when the former is specified unless otherwise stated.
  • Scotland was a separate kingdom until union in 1707, although with the same monarch as England, Wales, and Ireland from 1603.
  • Ireland here refers to the entire island, both north and south (together with its small offshore islands), which was not partitioned until long after 1840. It was a separate kingdom under the English/British crown until 1801.
  • The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are technically separate Crown Dependencies, and neither are part of the United Kingdom. Postally, they were treated as if part of England, except for extra charges for sea carriage.

Postal Routes

Early main post roads ran from the capital cities -- London, Edinburgh, and Dublin -- and the common routing for "country" letters between two provincial Post Towns on different roads was through the capital, even if that meant a considerable detour. The classic example is for a letter between Bristol and Exeter, 76 miles apart -- in the early days there was no direct post road between the two, and so a letter was charged for two journeys of more than 80 miles to and from London. (For an explanation of the charging principles, see below.)

Letters between two places on the same road did not go through the capital. These were known as way letters or sometimes bye letters, although the latter term normally referred to a letter that travelled between a Post Town on a main route and a town on a branch route (bye-post). Until 1765 the authorities generally paid little attention to these, allowing the local postmasters to handle them and keep the revenue they brought in.

Direct routes linking towns on different main post roads were known as cross posts. Perhaps understandably, the first important one was set up between Bristol and Exeter in 1696. Many others were developed over the years; in the absence of specific knowledge of local routes a lower rate than would be expected via the capital indicates that the letter was sent by cross post.

"Country" Letters Passing Through the Capitals

This was a very common routing. Initially, such letters were subject to separate charges for each stage of the journey -- i.e. the current rates from the town of origin to the capital, and from the capital to the destination. The two charges were typically shown separately but paid together on delivery. Letters that travelled through two capitals -- e.g. a letter from Dover to Aberdeen via London and Edinburgh -- paid a capital-to-capital charge in addition to the charges to and from the capitals.

Letters from town to town that were not sent via a capital (i.e. by way-, bye-, or cross-post, see above) were charged once on the total distance travelled. This method of charging (which would often work out cheaper) was eventually introduced for letters via a capital also -- for England and Wales in 1797, for Scotland in 1801, and for Ireland in 1814.

The double-charging method was straightforward enough before 1784, but unfortunately the wording of the Act of that year was ambiguous. It added an extra 1d or 2d to all the rate stages -- but for letters travelling via London or Edinburgh, it did not specify whether this was to be applied once (to the total charge for the whole journey), or twice (separately to the charges to and from the capital).

This appears to have caused some confusion at the time, as well as for later postal historians! Most commonly the rates seen on such letters are the sum of the current rates for the towns to and from the capital, with the extra 1d or 2d thus added twice; occasionally letters are seen rated the other way. The original charge marks were now often crossed out in the capital and a new charge mark for the total written on the letter.

The 1797 Act was expressed in a similarly ambiguous way, in terms of increasing the current rates by a penny, although in practice it only made a difference for Scottish letters (see above). This time the other method was used; the town-to-town rate via Edinburgh was one penny less than the sum of the current rates for the towns to and from Edinburgh.

In addition to all the other charges, there were separate charges for the packet boat crossings between Great Britain and Ireland, and between Great Britain and some of its offshore islands.

Multiple Rates

The "single letter" rates given in the tables were generally understood to be the charge for the carriage of a letter written on a single sheet of paper (of whatever size). The principle for letters containing more than one sheet was to charge one rate for each -- so if the rate for a given distance was 6d for one sheet, two sheets would be 1s, three sheets 1s 6d and so on. An enclosure such as a coin counted as an extra "sheet", as did an envelope (which is why few people used envelopes before 1840).

Until 1784, this rule applied to "packets of letters" containing many sheets -- they were charged one rate per sheet or enclosure. There was however a separate category of "packets of writs, deeds and other things" (sic!) -- i.e. large legal or commercial papers -- which were charged by the ounce. These per-ounce rates were normally four times the single rate, but until 1711 this was not always the case, and they should therefore not be confused with the ounce rates for ordinary letters. From 1784, however, packets of any kind weighing an ounce or more were charged at one single letter rate per quarter-ounce, regardless of how many items they contained or what they were. (It seems this often happened unofficially well before 1784.)

Conversely -- and this is an important point that is often not appreciated! -- for mail in Great Britain from 1784 there was a rule that a letter that weighed less than an ounce would not be charged more than triple rate even if it contained four or more items. This rule did not apply to Irish inland rates, which were charged at one rate per sheet right up to the introduction of Uniform Fourpenny Post in 1839. However, from 1827, it did apply to letters between Britain and Ireland in either direction, which from that point were charged a single rate based on the total land distance!

Currency

Most of the rates here are given in terms of English currency, or later British currency, but both Scotland and Ireland had their own currencies for many years.

Rates in Scotland up to 1711 were defined in terms of Scots currency -- after the Union a recoinage followed during 1707-10. Prior to this, although the exchange value fluctuated somewhat during the 17th century, generally speaking (and for postal purposes) the value was one-twelfth of the English currency. This meant that one Scots shilling was equal to one English penny -- so where a single numeral is shown as the charge, this was the same value in either currency. Otherwise, Scots currency is sometimes shown specifically, but charges are typically shown in English currency.

Rates in Ireland were defined in terms of Irish currency up until its abolition in 1826. The conversion rate here was 13:12, i.e. 1s 1d Irish was equal to 1s British. This can cause confusion over the rates on Anglo-Irish letters, although the general principle was that the charges in each country were made in its own currency, with the total collected as if all in the currency of the destination.

Measurements of Distance

Most rates before 1839 varied according to distance. As with currencies, England, Scotland and Ireland all had their own definitions of a "mile". The English or statute mile of 1,760 yards is still used today, and is the one referred to unless otherwise stated.

The Scots mile varied from place to place but the most commonly accepted length is 1,976 Imperial yards, approximately 1.12 statute miles. Distances in Scots miles were quoted by Scottish statutes for rates in Scotland and this applied until 1711.

The Irish mile was 2,240 yards, approximately 1.27 statute miles. Distances in Irish miles were actually used right up until 1839 to determine internal Irish rates, and this should be taken into account when separate British and Irish charges need to be worked out. However, from 1827 mail between Great Britain and Ireland was rated based on the total land distance travelled (on both sides of the Irish Sea) in statute miles.

There is a further complication in that accurate measurements of the distances between places were often not available before the 18th century. In practice, therefore, the early Post Office worked on the basis of "computed" distances, which were the best estimates of the Post Office surveyors. These estimates were often poor -- typically 10% too short in southern England, and 30% short or more in the North and Scotland. This is why rates on early letters may not seem to make sense if interpreted on the basis of the current measured distances!

From 1711 to 1765 the Act in force allowed the Postmaster General to order measurements of post roads to be taken, "except such roads where stages are already settled". Existing routes therefore continued to use the old computed miles perforce, although measured distances were often used for new routes. After 1765 this restriction was lifted and new measurements made, and by 1784 statute miles were used exclusively (in Great Britain). Distances from the three capitals were shown on a new type of postmark -- "mileage marks".