Local Post Rates 1680-1840


In its early days the Post Office network was somewhat patchy, operating only "trunk" routes along important lines of communication, with many towns and villages lacking even an official Receiving House. Even under the postal monopoly, it was always legal for anyone to carry mail where there was no Post Office service, or to employ a "messenger on purpose" for one's own letters. Postal services on this basis filled the gaps, both for purely local letters and for carrying mail to the nearest access point to the General Post.

A similar situation applied to delivery of mail. For many years there was no free delivery to places off the post roads, or to outlying areas of Post Towns (indeed, free delivery to all addresses in the country, however remote, dates from as late as 1897). The non-official carriers who took letters to the General Post would also bring mail back from it for a fee per letter, and many local postmasters charged a fee for delivery outside the central town area.

The first important local post was the private London Penny Post of Dockwra and Murray in 1680-82; this was held to infringe the postal monopoly when brought to court, but it was useful and popular and soon restarted as an official Government Penny Post. It remained the only such post for nearly a century; an Act of 1765 first gave the Post Office legal authority to set up local posts for any town, but few such services were actually created until the early 19th century. Indeed, even Edinburgh had private and semi-official posts for twenty years before gaining an official Penny Post in 1793.

Some larger Penny Posts were divided into a central "town" area and an outlying "country" or "district" area, with letters to or from the latter paying an extra charge. They also handled letters for or from the General Post; in general, such letters had to pay the charges for both the General Post and the local service (if posted in one Penny Post and delivered by another, both pennies were charged). Charges were commonly but not always noted on the letter, especially charges on delivery.

Note that the charges in this case were per letter, not per sheet, subject to a weight limit (e.g. 4oz).

London Penny/Twopenny Post 1682-1840

1832: posted in Gt. Marylebone St receiving house, Westminster (town area), addressed to Holland House, Kensington (country area), sent unpaid 3d charge mark for unpaid rate between town and country areas 1805-1840

This post began as a Government version of Dockwra's private London Penny Post (see below), reopened within three weeks of that being suppressed and run on very similar lines.

Originally prepayment of the 1d rate was compulsory, with the extra penny for country delivery paid to the letter carrier and not marked on letters (hence shown in brackets in the table below). A major reorganisation took place in 1794; the effect on rates was that prepayment became optional, and the extra penny went to the Revenue and appeared on letters. As with the General Post, charges were raised during the Napoleonic Wars, and the service was (logically enough) renamed the "Twopenny Post" when that became the minimum rate in 1801.

The limits of the country area were set at 10 miles from the Chief Office in June 1711, and at 12⅓ miles in November 1833. The limits in practice had somewhat ad hoc elements - so Hampton and Romford were within the "country" area although outside the 12⅓ mile limit. The "town" area was also originally defined by custom, but set at a radius of 3 miles from the GPO in 1831.

Charges on letters also carried by the General Post do not always seem to have followed the statutes. The country delivery charge from 1801-5 should only have been 1d, but in practice 2d was charged; there was no extra charge on GP letters posted in the town area from 1831, although Acts clearly indicated a 2d charge. These charges are shown with asterisks in the table below.

Date Auth. Town to Country to General Post to
Town Country Gen. Post Town Country Gen. Post Town Country
(11 Dec)
London Gazette 1d 1d (+1d) 1d 1d 1d (+1d) 1d free 1d
(28 Mar)
34 Geo 3 c.17 1d 2d 1d 2d 2d 1d free 1d
(5 Apr)
41 Geo 3 c.7 2d 2d 2d 2d 2d 2d free 2d (*)
(12 Mar)
45 Geo 3 c.11 2d 3d 2d 3d 3d 2d free 2d
2d 3d free (*) 3d 3d 2d free 2d
(5 Dec)
London Gazette 1d (pre­paid under ½oz)

2d (other)
1d (pre­paid under ½oz)

3d (other)
free 1d (pre­paid under ½oz)

3d (other)
1d (pre­paid under ½oz)

3d (other)
free free free

Dublin Penny Post 1773-1840

This was the first official Penny Post under the 1765 Act, although there may have been a semi-official penny delivery of local letters before that (the 1711 Act forbade private letter carrying within 6 miles of the office). Like the London version, it was somewhat sui generis among Penny Posts, with distinct charges set in the postal Acts – partly perhaps because it was the first of its type, partly because it came under the Irish Parliament before 1801.

The initial charges were a penny prepaid, plus a penny on delivery unless the letter travelled entirely within the inner City area. Although these were repeated in the 1803 Irish rates Act, the Dublin Penny Post was not specifically mentioned again until 1837; however, the charges in that year's Act (prepayment optional) appear to have been merely confirming the existing practice since about 1810.

Date Auth. Town to Country to General Post to
City Outer Gen. Post City Outer Gen. Post City Outer
(11 Oct)
5 Geo 3 c.25 and 23/24 Geo 3 c.17 (Ir.) 1d 1d (+1d) free 1d (+1d) 1d (+1d) 1d free 1d (paid
in Dublin)
c.1810 (observed) 1d 2d free 2d 2d 1d free 1d
(5 Dec)
London Gazette 1d 1d (pre­paid under ½oz)

2d (other)
free 1d (pre­paid under ½oz)

2d (other)
1d (pre­paid under ½oz)

2d (other)
free free free

"Standard" Penny Posts 1793-1840

1829: from Torquay to Exeter via Newton Abbot, charged 6d single postage (1d Penny Post to Newton Abbot + 5d General Post for 15-20 miles to Exeter). Torquay was a Newton Abbot Penny Post Receiving House from 1812-35, the crude boxed "No 1" receiving house handstamp appears to be a unique type

It took nearly thirty years for the Dublin Penny Post to be followed by others. The earliest were Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, and Edinburgh (1793), Glasgow (1800), and Liverpool (1801). Numerous others were set up from 1808 onwards, although there were still many towns that lacked an official post even after the Uniform Penny Postage reforms of 1840. Prepayment of the charge became optional in 1794 as for the London Penny Post.

A General Post letter put into or delivered by a Penny Post was liable to their charges, added to all other rates payable. The penny on letters put into a Penny Post to be forwarded by the General Post had to be prepaid before 1811 (in most places); after that, the charge could be left unpaid and collected on delivery, as were penny charges for delivery in a Penny Post. This can make rates confusing, especially as charges were not always marked separately on the letters.

Outer Areas and "Illegal Twopenny Posts": Larger posts could be divided into separate inner town and outer district areas, as with London and Dublin, with the same charging principle of an extra penny required for the outer area, and there were also a number of examples of crossover between contiguous Penny Posts that charged 2d (1d for each post), when they would otherwise have had to charge a 4d General Post rate to a nearby town. The Post Office turned a blind eye to both of these, and indeed some appear to have been officially authorised. However, the former arguably, and the latter definitely, had never been legally authorised by Act of Parliament. Following a legal challenge which judged them illegal, the postmasters were informed that they should cease. The exact date varied by town, but the process appears to have been complete by early January. (However, in 1838 a new General Post rate of 2d was introduced for journeys of less than eight miles or one post stage, which had much the same effect.)

Date Auth. Town District To/from General Post
5 Geo 3 c.25 1d 1d (prepaid)
+ 1d (on delivery)
(28 Mar)
34 Geo 3 c.17 1d 2d 1d
(24 Dec)
34 Geo 3 c.17 1d 1d 1d
(5 Dec)
London Gazette 1d 1d free

Unofficial London and Edinburgh Local Posts 1680-1793

There were local services in and around the capital cities before the official posts were set up. Examples from the two London posts are major rarities and their charges are briefly mentioned here merely for the record, but items from the Edinburgh services are seen reasonably often.

(1) Dockwra and Murray's London Penny Post

For a useful summary of the history of this post see this Wikipedia article; for a detailed historical treatment see T. Todd, William Dockwra and the rest of the Undertakers; The Story of the London Penny Post. Only about 20 items are known, mostly in archives.

Rates: 1d prepaid for letters and packets up to 1lb weight; 1d extra for letters delivered house-to-house in the (then) towns of Hackney, Islington, South Newington, or Lambeth; 2d extra prepaid on packets for onward transmission by coach or carrier; any compulsory prepayment on letters for onward transmission by the Post Office.

(2) The Halfpenny Carriage

This post was organised by Charles Povey in direct opposition to the London Penny Post, and charged ½d per item. It operated from October 1709 to about May 1710 before being legally suppressed. It may have provided the motivation for the formal inclusion of a reference to the official London Penny Post in the 1711 Act. Only one item is known, in an archive.

(3) The Unofficial Edinburgh Penny Posts

There were actually three of these "Penny Delivery" services in operation prior to the commencement of the official Post Office Edinburgh Penny Post on 5th July 1793, which for some twenty years prior to that were operating simultaneously.

City delivery, from late 1600s: Probably simply a delivery of local letters with the town delivery of the General Post in central Edinburgh, as a service by the postmaster. Rate 1d (or 1s Scots) per item – charge and/or a Bishop Mark may or may not be shown on the letter.

Peter Williamson's Penny Post, from 1773 (Dec): This post appears to have been a purely local service in Edinburgh and Leith with no connections to the Post Office system; it was run by Peter Williamson, a colourful character who also published a street directory (one of the world's first). Rate 1d for up to 1lb weight, not shown on letters but postmarks read "paid" or "unpaid".

District Post, from c.1775: This was a "sideline" run by a number of Post Office officials and covered Edinburgh, Leith, Dalkeith, Musselburgh, and Prestonpans. Some letters show village handstamps, which continued in use in the official Penny Post from 1793. Rate 1d per item, shown on the letter.

Other Local Posts

1811: from Morpeth (Northumberland) to Torquay (Devonshire) via London, charged 2s 2d double sheet rate for 400-500 miles (292 Morpeth to London, approx 170 London to Torquay). Torquay had a Fifth Clause Post at a charge of 1d per letter from 1808-12, paid on delivery, and a straight-line handstamp (reading just "TORQUAY") was used on outward mail – but neither applied to a letter collected from the office

The fifth clause of the Postage Act 1801 (41 Geo 3 c.7) gave the Post Office authority for an additional type of local post – one where the rates were agreed with the local inhabitants rather than set by Act of Parliament. Originally this only applied to the sending and delivery of General Post letters, but the Postage Act 1806 (46 Geo 3 c.92) allowed local letters to be sent under the same rule.

Many hundreds of these "Fifth Clause Posts" were set up from time to time throughout the country, although they were often later converted into Penny Posts (especially where they proved profitable?). They can be hard to identify without detailed local postal history knowledge, as few such posts had a handstamp that described them as a Fifth Clause Post.

Charges: these were set on a case by case basis according to local conditions, and hence varied. Moreover, they were not always shown on letters, especially General Post letters. No nationwide tabulation of these rates is known to me, although it would be an interesting project if anyone cared to take it on!