English postal system

The_Post_Office_Microcosm_edited The Post Office as drawn by Augustus Pugin Senior and Thomas Rowlandson for Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808-11). The English Postal System, drawn by Augustus Pugin Senior and Thomas Rowlandson for Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-11)

Letters to and from home were treasured by early immigrants to South Australia.  In 1836 an extensive postal system already existed in Britain, although it was still too costly for most to use. Mail from foreign countries was carried on a separate network of mail vessels, called ‘{tooltip} packets {end-text}A packet was a ship that ran a regular route between two ports and had a government contract to carry the mail, in this case powered by steam rather than sail. The ships also carried passengers and cargo and the mail contract was seen as a mark of their speed and reliability.{end-tooltip}’, but was also carried informally by passengers on most sailing vessels.

The British Postal Service traces its history to Roman times, but the modern history of the mail really began in 1635 when Charles I made his ‘royal mail’ service available to the public for a fee. Oliver Cromwell established the General Post Office in 1657. By the late eighteenth century a network of mail coaches carried the mail between posting towns, initially spaced 10 miles apart to allow for regular changes of horses. A small number of passengers (four at first and then later six) could also travel on the coaches. These were gruelling journeys.  In the 1780s the mail coach journey from London to Edinburgh took 60 hours. Postal rates varied over time, but in 1834 all normal letters delivered within a 12 mile radius of the General Post Office in London cost threepence.  The so-called ‘penny post’, which allowed all letters to be posted for a uniform fee of one penny regardless of distance, was introduced in 1840. This made the postal system accessible to many more people for the first time.

The Post Office also managed a fleet of mail ships, called packet boats. The Duke of York was a former mail packet. Mail packets were restricted in size and were fast-sailing vessels, only lightly armed to encourage captains to avoid engaging in combat, which might endanger the mails. Treaties were made with other nations to create postmarks to indicate that letters or packages had been pre-paid. In the 1830s steam was increasingly replacing sail for mail packets, but sail was still the only option over long distances. There are many references in these sources to captains and passengers using every available opportunity to send letters en route. Each time they called into a port letters were sent, but they were also sent by passing ships when the opportunity arose.

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