Undeliverable Mail and the Returned Letter Offices During the 18th and 19th Centuries
Before PO reform the main purposes of the Dead Letter Office (DLO) were accounting and protecting Post Office revenue. Most letters were sent unpaid, the recipients being charged. If letters could not be delivered that charge could not be collected. The concept that a prompt return to the senders of undeliverable mail should be part of a postal service only developed slowly through the 19th century.
Dealing with undeliverable mail was an important part of Post Office business. Before 1813 only letters of importance were returned. In 1813, 135,000 undeliverable letters were returned to sender with a gain to PO Revenue of £4500. The numbers rose to 600,000 by 1830 and 990,400 by 1836. PO reform saw a six-fold increase in the number of chargeable letters between 1839 and 1857; the number of letters sent to the Dead or Returned Letter Office (RLO) more than doubled to over 2 million. By 1891 there were approximately 15 million undeliverable items, mostly letters, books and circulars: postcards, newspapers, samples and parcels making up the rest. Most were handled in the London Office; Inverness handled the least.
The most influential figures in the development of the RLO were Rowland Hill and George Smith. After 1891 few new services were introduced but efforts were made to transfer more work to local offices to improve efficiency.
Handling of undeliverable letters and the changes in designation and functions of the RLO made by Hill, Smith and others are illustrated. Evolution of wrappers and envelopes is shown to demonstrate that they served two purposes; firstly, to return the undeliverable item and secondly, by virtue of a printed text, inform the sender of relevant Regulations, Parliamentary Acts or Cautions regarding sending valuables by post. The reason for non-delivery from manuscript markings to the use of instructional handstamps is demonstrated. Other functions of the RLOs are shown by PO notices, Returned Letter Claim Forms, Form Letters and specific labels. An indication of rarity, based on personal research, is provided in red italics. There is overlap of material in the groups defined below which nevertheless provide a framework for the exhibit.
Frames 1-3: Before Post Office Reform. Form letters, wrappers for undeliverable mail, explanatory handstamps were all introduced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries
Frames 3-6: The Rowland Hill Years: 1837-1864. Hill took over from Maberly as Secretary of the PO in 1854. The DLOs in London, Edinburgh and Dublin were rationalised. Envelopes replaced wrappers in 1852. The first envelopes did not have numbers printed on them (Period I). Numbers were introduced in 1860. They were non-standardised so the numbering schemes were different for different offices (Period II)
Frames 6-8: The George Smith Years: 1864-1891 and Beyond. Smith worked for the RLO for more than 50 years. He retired on 1 January 1892. Provincial Branches were established and new services such as those for postcards and parcels were introduced. From 1896 numbers on envelopes were standardised (Period III). In addition, Paid was generally omitted from them and Postal Packet was used. Free was included on early printings, which created the need for Charged to be included on others
GR Smith, Half-a-Century in the Dead Letter Office, Hemmons, Bristol, 1908
CF Dendy Marshall, Returned Letter Covers, The London Philatelist, 19 40, 49, 218-228
JK Snelson, RB Galland, The Returned Letter Offices of Great Britain to 1912 and Beyond, Royal Philatelic Society London 2017