Public services


A brief note about the post

Christmas is coming, which means trips to the post office and packages on the porch. I’ve got two anna castle booksGoodreads giveaways coming up, which I’ve timed to end before the ultimate shipping chaos begins. It’s so easy, I just pop a book in a padded envelope, bought in bulk at Office Depot, and take it to the Post Office. Yes, I have to wait in line, but that lets me get a little reading done. We’ve had the same crew at my local P.O. since I moved into this neighborhood 15 years ago. Must be a decent job. I can mail a book anywhere in the U.S. for about $3.12. Truly wonderful, from the historical perspective.

We take it for granted that we can send anything anywhere (almost) and expect it to arrive at the predicted time. We might yelp about the cost, if it’s an international destination. ($23.95 to send a book from the US to Indonesia; the last time I clicked ‘All Countries’ on a Goodreads giveaway.)

People complain about the postal service. I don’t know why. In my whole life, I think I’ve had two letters go astray. But people who live at the top of the tree love to whine about the breeze. Having spent a year in rural Mexico, I know how good our postal system is. 

Domicilio conocido
Domicilio conocido

My mother, my advisor, and one friend wrote to me faithfully every week during my year in the field. I was in San Miguel Chimalapa, a small town up in the mountains. The nearest city is Juchitán. There’s one bus a day. The bus driver carried the mail, which he would pick up from the post office in Juchitán when he had time or it wasn’t too much trouble.

My letters were addressed to my consultant at Domicilio Conocido — Known Residence. Everybody knew where Germán lived, naturally. They could just as easily have addressed it to ‘La Gringa,’ since I was the only American in the Chimalapas at the time. Anyway, I’d get a stack letters every now and then. I tried to send a package of goodies to Germán once from the US. He called to ask me not to do it again. He’d had to pay a hefty sum to liberate the box from the post office. This is what we call a non-transparent governmental system.

Anyway, onward to the past! The part through the seventeenth century come from notes I took from Philip Beale’s A History of the Post in England from the Romans to the Stuarts, further proof that there’s a book about everything. I read this when I was working on a plot that turned on how fast a letters could be exchanged between London and Cambridge. (It’s 50 miles. Normal pace on a horse is 3-4 mph. A messenger could travel 25 miles in one day. So, a two-day trip each way. Not exactly suspenseful, alas.)

In the beginning

roman road
Roman road running north from Badbury Rings in Dorset

The population of Roman Britain reached between 4 and 6 million at its peak, perhaps twice that of the reign of Henry VIII. Roman legions constructed some 4,000 miles of roads. London was the hub; roads went to Exeter, Wroxeter, Colchester, Lincoln, York, Chester, Gloucester, Usk, and Caerleon.

Beale doesn’t mention an organized postal system, but Wikipedia tells us about the cursus publicus, the state-run courier and transportation service of the Roman Empire. For government purposes only. Private citizens paid their own couriers, as they undoubtedly had since the dawn of civilization and its endless need for privy communications.

The Middle Ages

The cursus publicus departed with the Romans, leaving only private couriers, like the messengers in Henry V.

I have notes about carriers, rather than couriers — a nice distinction. Towns were typically supplied from within a radius of about eight miles — their catchment area. Local delivery services handled food, materials, and messages from weekly markets. Eight miles isn’t arbitrary. It’s a reasonable distance for a person to walk round trip in one day. Not us lazy moderns! But a human can walk 8 miles in 3-4 hours.

So you walk to market, sell your goods, and walk home. Long day. Migeleños bring their produce to the big market in Juchitán on the bus. Yes, there were chickens, a few. Lots of eggs. The roof would be loaded with bags of oranges and other produce. We got held up for two hours by some clown who decided to bring down two buckets of marijuana on the bus. Everybody was frisked except me — La Gringa.

cartYou can’t get everything in your local catchment area. In England, they got tin from Cornwall, salt from Wordcestershire, lead from Derbyshire, and iron from Sussex, among other necessary goods. These were sold at big fairs, like Stourbridge Fair near Cambridge. Daniel Defoe described the huge variety of merchandise, with stalls including “goldsmiths, toyshops, brasiers, turners, milliners, haberdashers, hatters, mercers, drapers, pewterers, china-warehouses, and in a word all trades that can be named in London.”

If you wanted something from one of those fairs, but didn’t want to attend the noisy jamble yourself, you would commission a local carrier to act as a broker. Or just pay the local merchant’s markup and buy it in town.

The universities and the Inns of Court had residents from all over the country with a constant need to communicate. Their needs were met by special carriers licensed by the universities. The chancellors exercised jurisdiction over the academic community through their courts and gradually their authority extended to those who provided goods and services. That must have been a profitable little monopoly.

Carriers had some protection under the Common Law. The Statute of Westminster had laid down that in the event of theft, and the culprit not being found, the onus for restitution was to be put upon the hundred in which the theft took place. When a fire occurred while a carrier stayed overnight at an inn, the innkeeper was responsible for any loss. Apart from theft and fire, the carrier’s liability had always been accepted.

Carts were the favored mode of transport. Pack horses had to be unloaded every night. And carts could be pulled by cheaper oxen, but then you’d only get 1-2 mph. Still, an ox can plug along all day long on forage a horse would whinny at in disgust.

The Tudor Post

The first Master of the Post was Brian Tuke, Treasurer of Henry VIII’s Chamber. Thomas Randolph was Master of the Post from 4 May 1567 to 8 June 1590 (my period of interest.) Randolph’s title was “Master of the messengers and runners, commonly called the Queen’s posts, as well within the kingdom of England as in parts beyond the seas in the Queen’s dominions.” His wage was L66 13s. 4d., payable for life. (A gentleman’s income ran from £50 – £150 per annum.)


One of the Master’s tasks was to sort and read letters sent to the king or queen. Posts handled money as well as letters and parcels. Under Tuke’s direction all the towns in England were commanded to hold post horses and provide guides in readiness for the arrival of royal messengers or those with authorization from the Council.

Guides were important in a world without road maps or even way-marking. When you got to the top of a hill or came around a bend, you might catch sight of a distinctive spire or tower that would tell you where you were. Otherwise, you’d need a guide. I once did a ramble in Kent with a group of London ramblers. We spent a good five minutes standing about while three expert ramblers consulted their GPS devices and the maps on their phones, trying to figure out which way to go. And we were standing by the side of a road!

Costs of providing horses were to be met by the town rather than the Council. Authorized messengers were to pay at rates set by the Council. The intention was to have post horses available at distance of 10-12 miles with guides available to show the way and bring back the traveller’s horse.

This was only for the king or queen’s mail, mind you. Everyone else had to fend for themselves. In 1571, the Mayor of London had eight valets or yeomen available to take his mail in addition to their other duties. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, kept a stable of over 60 mounts, ready to dispatch couriers anywhere in England or on the Continent.

street urchins
Karl Witkoswki (1860-1910) Street Urchins.

Every wealthy household had a variety of male employees, variously termed footmen, valets, yeomen, or retainers. Educated retainers could carry verbal messages or read a written one. You wouldn’t want a scruffy pot boy delivering your letters, but anyone could carry a piece of paper across town.

Beale notes that late Elizabethan London must have been full of men carrying messages: employees of the courts, staff of sheriffs, of the mayor, and others from households of the Recorder and the Chamberlain, principal officers of the city. Not to mention all those boys in tidy outfits running notes from one house to another.

I’m certain Francis Bacon sent a servant to carry notes to other residents of Gray’s Inn, rather than stir from his desk to walk across the yard. Literate people, spending much of the day sitting at a desk with ink and paper ready to hand, would send messages as unthinkingly and nearly as frequently as we pick up a phone.

Someday, someone (not me) needs to write a coffee table book called “The Boy,” about those ubiquitous, yet anonymous, figures in history who carried this and that from here to there through the ages until education was made compulsory (1880 in UK; 1918 for all the states in the US.) Girls stayed at home, of course, both to learn their role in life at their mother’s skirts and to protect them from sexual predation. Boys ran free, at least some of the time. Why not let them run with a letter and earn themselves a penny or two?

A few odd notes

signpostThe Tudor post could be absurdly slow. It once took 10 hours to deliver a letter from Lord Burghley at Cecil House in the Strand to Hampton Court – about 12.5 miles.

There were post stations throughout Europe, mostly better on the Continent than in England, often maintained by merchants and bankers.

You needed a local passport and often a guide.

In times of plague the courier required a health certificate, otherwise he might be stuck in a pest house for 40 days.

A courier’s journey to/from Blois, when the French Court was there, was rated at about L15 and to the Low Countries about L5, of which the courier might take between 30% and 50% in profit.

A letter sent through the town or the merchant’s posts might cost as little as 1s.

There was a man in Flushing (Vlissingen) in 1594 named Jacques Jelly. I kid you not.

Organization of a National Postal Service

In 1635 Charles I made the Royal Post available to the general public. Recipients paid the postage. The monopoly was farmed out to Thomas Witherings. That means he reaped the profits from the service. The Tudors and Stuarts were keen on monopolies as a way to pay public servants without dipping into the Crown resources. Thrifty, if shifty.

From here up to the eighteenth, the history of the post is mostly about who got their gloved hands on that monopoly next time it came up for grabs. Routes were better developed, better marked, with coaching inns dotted across the land at appropriate intervals.

Then Ralph Allen, the Postmaster of Bath, signed contracts with the post office to expand delivery. He organized mail coaches, the first of which ran from London to Bristol in 1784. Coaches were replaced by trains in a mere fifty years. The first mail train ran in 1830. Finally, you could get a letter delivered at faster than four miles an hour!

The Victorian Postal Service

Wikipedia says, “The Uniform Penny Post was introduced on 10 January 1840 whereby a single rate for delivery anywhere in Great Britain and Ireland was prepaid by the sender.” That’s an advancement. Can you imagine having to pay for junk mail? Insult to injury.

And here’s a little perk for the inventor: Since Britain invented the prepaid postage stamp, British stamps are not required to have the name of the country on them.


“By the late 19th century, there were between six and twelve mail deliveries per day in London.” (Wikipedia). I don’t pop into Facebook that often! People scribbled little notes and sent the boy (or the girl – the maid) down to the post box. You could have a whole giant multi-party spat in one day without ever laying eyes on your opponents.

Oh, and yes, they did have spam; at least, telegraph spam. During 1875, one furniture company simultaneously telegraphed messages to 5,000 households at 8:00 pm, to tell them 20,000 beds were available for sale.” 8:00 pm!

I can’t remember where I read this now, but apparently mail delivery was so frequent and so satisfactory, that Londoners weren’t terribly interested in the telephone when it first became available.pillar box Americans adopted it as fast as they could. 

Still, they found things to complain about, if only in mockery.

“Many a man thinks it too great a tax upon his time and patience to put the penny stamp on the envelope; the Postmaster-General steps in and saves him the trouble. He manufactures envelopes with the Queen’s head printed on them, and he sells them a penny a piece, so that you have the envelope gratis. They are gummed, too, and do not want sealing. You have nothing to do but to write your letter, put it into the envelope, and post it at the receiving-house over the way or round the corner. These are some of the sly tricks on which the Post Office thrives so that, with its ex­penditure exceeding one million sterling, it manages to hand over a large sum of surplus receipts to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.” Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853. (From Dictionary of Victorian London, cited below.)


Beale, Philip. 1998. A History of the Post in England from the Romans to the Stuarts. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Jackson, Peter. “Victorian London – Communications – Post – Postal System,” A Dictionary of Victorian London. Accessed 12 Nov, 2016.

Sweet, Matthew. 2001. Inventing the Victorians. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Wikipedia, “The Royal Mail,” Accessed 12 Nov. 2016.

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