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1800 Victorian

The Penny Post and After

A problem still remained: postage – its great expense and the method of charging. Postage was charged by distance and the number of sheets in a letter.

One cause of the expense was the governments view of postage as a tax to be raided.

Then there was the cost of the Free Frank – the privilege allowing Members of Parliament to send free mail if it bore their 'Frank' – their signature. The Frank was greatly abused. MP's sold it to businesses and franked the mail of their supporters and families. The public had to bear the cost of this.

Reform of these abuses was long advocated by businessmen, teachers and supporters of democracy. Rowland Hill brought many of their wishes to fruition in 1840 with his system of uniform penny postage. Franking was ended, and our modern system of postage was introduced. Letters were charged by weight at a flat rate, regardless of distance. Under Hill's system the sender paid: in the past it had usually been the recipient.

Penny Black

Methods of indicating pre payment had to be found, the most popular and convenient proved to be the adhesive postage stamp. The first of these was the famous Penny Black, which officially came in to use on 6th May 1840.


Thomas Moore Musgrave was postmaster of Bath from 1833 until his death in 1854. He was the first person in the world ever to send a stamp. The famous May 2nd Penny Black, was posted from Bath on a letter a few days before stamps were officially allowed. This first Penny Black was sold for £55,000 in 1990.

Payment in advance meant that the postman – or Letter Carrier as he was called then – no longer had to collect payment for postage from each recipient. As a result , slots began to be fitted to the fronts of doors.

Early Post Box

Early post boxes, such as the one on the left, were soon replaced by boxes with small covers over the opening to stop letters getting wet from the rain



Victorian Post Office

Victorian Post Office

The town post office was a very busy place in 1840. The day would start early when the coach dropped off mail to be sorted and delivered. People would come into the Office and pay for letters or to buy stamps. Pensions would also be paid from the Post Office to old sailors and soldiers.

All writing would be done using a quill. The money drawer had three wooden bowl shaped hollows, one held gold, sovereigns and half sovereigns, one held silver, florins, half crowns, shilling sixpence, three penny pieces, and grouts, and the third hollow held copper, pennies, half piece and farthings.


Victorian Cat

It would be a busy time of day for the postmaster as all the accounts of the money received and salaries paid would be entered in ledgers. The cat held an important position as a member of staff in keeping down the rats and mice. So much so that the cost of its food was sanctioned by Post Office HQ.

All post office workers had to sign a declaration before a magistrate to 'promise and declare that I will not open and delay…….anything sent by post', they also had to promise secrecy concerning the contents of the post. An assistant or leader had to pay £40 to be taught the job. Whereas the head postmasters pay was £450, this was enough for his wife to afford a servant, and for his children to be educated. In contrast to this a letter carrier would only receive four shillings a week, this would include working seven days a week, as well as preparing the mail bags on Sundays.

Victorian Stamp Machine

Victorian stamp perforating machine. This extremely rare machine is the only known Victorian perforating machine still to exist in the UK. It is operated like an old treadle sewing machine. Each time the foot pedal is lowered, a row of needles punches through the centre of the paper laid on the table. It was recently used to perforate the novelist Terry Pratchett's Discworld stamps for his book 'Going Postal'.

A Notice to the Public about the use of Stamps read as follows:

"In those cases where Adhesive Stamps are used, it is requested that they may be placed upon the right hand corner on the upper side. Should this direction not be attended to, from the rapidity with which the duty must be performed, Letters which bear Stamps will frequently be taxed, while the parties receiving them will be put to much trouble in obtaining a return of the Postage improperly charged. In all cases of complaint, whether of overcharge or of any other irregularity, the Cover of the Letters musty invariably be kept and sent to the Post Office, as affording the only means of investigating the complaint. By Command."

Money Values in 1840

  • A 4lb. Loaf cost 3d
  • 1 pint of beer cost 2d
  • 1 pint of milk cost 1d
    A stamp cost 1d for any distance.


  • Postmaster (Bristol) earned £450 a year
  • Clerks earned £100 a year
  • Sorters earned 16 shillings a week
  • Letter Carriers earned 6 shillings a week
  • Mail coach guard earned 10 shillings with tips

After 1840, many more people began to exchange letters and other countries introduced stamps. This increase brought the price down as well as increasing the postal revenue. See - 'How to cut a traditional Victorian quill' Reading and writing became more fashionable, and a trade in writing (and implements) grew – decorated envelopes, pretty ink wells, paper knives, and stamp boxes all appeared for sale.

Victorian Desk

A Victorian school desk, where children learned to write. Notice the holes in the desks front where an ink well would sit.

The early ink made from oak gall and vinegar, was replaced by a lamp black mixture. Different firms experimented with various chemicals, and steel nibs replaced quills.

The idea of using envelopes became popular. Until the reforms of 1840, putting a letter inside an envelope meant paying higher postage, as the envelope counted as an extra sheet. Letters before had simply been folded over, sealed, and the address written on the back.

Christmas cards were used for the first time in 1843, cheap postage and the use of envelopes, made these cards popular.

The golden age of the lover's valentine also began in the 1840's Many of these valentines used embossed paper and lace. Before 1840, the high cost of postage caused poorer lovers to leave their valentine at a sweethearts door. See our archives section for examples of the delicate and valuable cards that we have in the museum.


The Overseas Pennny Post

In 1846 a campaign for Ocean Penny postage was launched by Elihu Burritt, an American philanthropist and sage. His numerous pamphlets claimed that cheap postage would 'link all nations in trade and peace' Empire Penny Post was championed in the 1890's by John Henniker Heaton, a leading Conservative M.P. As a young man making his fortune in Australia, he had known what it was like to be too short of money to write home

Elihu Burritt

Elihu Burritt, campaigner for Ocean Penny Postage.

John Henniker Heaton

John Henniker Heaton, originator of Imperial penny postage.

These campaigners claimed that cheap overseas postage would bring about such an increase in mail that the Post Office would make money. This was the same argument that had been used so successfully by Rowland Hill in the campaign for cheap inland postage. Officials in the GPO –including Hill – were not convinced. They could point to the great expense of shipping and delivery but their hands were forced in 1898 when Canada initiated a Penny Post to Britain. A few years later the other Dominions joined, and in 1908 a penny post to the United States was introduced. These posts were a boon to emigrant families.

In 1875 a Postal Union Convention was signed between 22 countries, mostly European but including the United States and Egypt. Standard rates were agreed between participating countries, and mail was allowed to go between them unrestricted. Thus the foundations were laid for the Universal Postal Union, the agency now responsible for our international postal arrangements.