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Post (Office)

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DVD Smith
1270163.  Tue Jan 09, 2018 4:44 pm Reply with quote

The 1864 edition of The Stamp Collector’s Magazine gives a bit of insight into what the UK postal system looked like 150 years ago. If you lived in London, your local post box would have two holes in it – one labelled “London and twelve miles around” for local post, and the other labelled “Inland and colonial mails” for post travelling anywhere else. So before you even post your letter, you had to know in advance whether or not your letter’s destination was within 12 miles of London! (Which would be tricky if you were sending a letter to, say, Potters Bar, for example, which is 13 miles from London.) [1] Luckily the Post Office printed a map to help you choose the correct slot.

This segregated 12-mile radius for London (centred on Charing Cross) made sense in the mid-19th century, since of the 470 million letters sent through the UK postal system in 1856, 100 million were delivered in London alone, [2] with deliveries being made in central London 12 times every day. [3] In fact, for much of the 1800s the UK sent more letters than any other country on earth; in 1858, more letters were being delivered in Manchester than in the whole of Russia. [4]

It took the public a while to grasp the workings of the postal system though, and street addresses in particular – a sampling of a single day’s letters in July 1843 counted 3,557 undelivered letters which featured the intended recipient’s name with the address written simply as “London”. It took until the 1880s for the number of letters returned due to unclear addresses to noticeably decline. [5]

One of the most skilled jobs in a Victorian post office was that of the “blind man”. Since a significant portion of the UK population was illiterate or semi-literate in the 1800s (literacy was 53% in 1820, rising to 76% in 1870 [6]), a lot of addresses were mis-spelled, or written phonetically. The “blind men” were tasked with deciphering these addresses, which they did through a combination of searching in directories, problem-solving and simple guesswork. They would have to decipher such riddles as “East Linton” (Islington), “Ip ark corner” (Hyde Park Corner), “Kinteston” (Kentish Town), and “Duk hor wellenton” (Duke of Wellington). The “blind men” would also have to deal with young children sending letters with pictures drawn on them, and vague addresses like “My Uncle Jon, in London”, “Luke St, next door to the ocean”, "3 Crosbsbry Row For The Female whith the Infant up Bromley Stairs”, and ”Mikell Goodliff at St Nouts, Printis to a Shoo Maker Mis his name not known, Mrs Cooper is grandmother to the Lad”. The “blind men” would only resort to opening the letters once they had exhausted all other options. [7]

“Blind men” were also employed in the newspaper department of the post office, for when newspapers got separated from their addresses. Their job here was to match the newspaper with the address, and guess which newspaper the recipient would be most likely to read. This was a job done with due care, as, to quote Stamp Collector’s Magazine, “no disappointment is so bitter to the country resident as to miss his weekly budget of news and reading…or to tear open the cover and find a Tory organ, which he hates, in place of a Whig organ, which he loves”. [8]


Last edited by DVD Smith on Wed Jan 10, 2018 6:01 am; edited 7 times in total

 
DVD Smith
1270164.  Tue Jan 09, 2018 4:47 pm Reply with quote

Ancient Greece didn’t have any kind of postal service as we know it, but they did have inventive ways of sending messages in secret. The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, tells the tale of Histaiaeus, who sent out a message to recruit a man named Aristagoras for his forthcoming rebellion against Persia. To do this, he shaved the head of one of his slaves, tattooed the message on the slave’s scalp, waited for the hair to grow back and then sent the slave off to Aristagoras with instructions to shave his head. Aristagoras got the message and joined the rebellion. Rabbits were also similarly shaved and written on to conceal messages among the fur. [1][2] (This practice is known as steganography – from the Greek for “covered writing”.) During the Siege of Poditaea, one Greek commander was receiving secret messages from outside via paper tied to arrows that were shot over the wall. This worked a treat – right up until one of the arrows hit a bystander, and then the gig was up. [3]

In Sparta, they used a device known as a scytale (rhymes with Italy) to communicate in code – one of the earliest known coding devices. To make a scytale requires two wooden cylinders of equal size and shape, with one being given to each party. When you want to send a message, you wind a long thin strip of parchment around the cylinder, leaving no gaps, and then you write your message along the length of the cylinder so that each letter is on a different section of the strip. You then remove the parchment, which when unwound looks like a random jumble of letters, and send it to your correspondent, who is the only one who can decode the message because they have the corresponding correctly-sized cylinder that they can then wrap the parchment around. We have records of the use of a Scytale in 404 BC, when one was used to alert Sparta to a traitor in their midst during the war against Athens. [4][5]

 
crissdee
1270169.  Tue Jan 09, 2018 5:51 pm Reply with quote

I have (in storge atm unfortunately) a book called "Letters From Hell" which is mainly about the letters received which claimed to be from the Whitechapel murderer. It opens however with a run down of the Victorian postal service, covering most of those first two paragraphs. It included the surprising detail that someone in London could write and post a letter to someone in Birmingham and, as long as he got it in the first postal collection, his correspondent would have it by end of business that evening!

 
monzac
1270174.  Tue Jan 09, 2018 6:18 pm Reply with quote

Yes, that is something that's always fascinated me when reading Victorian novels. A journey of not many miles would require overnight stops, but letters over the same distance could change hands within the day.

 
tetsabb
1270181.  Tue Jan 09, 2018 10:16 pm Reply with quote

DVD Smith wrote
Quote:
If you lived in London, your local post box would have two holes in it – one labelled “London and twelve miles around” for local post, and the other labelled “Inland and colonial mails”


But what happened if you wanted to send something to, heaven forfend, France? You don't seem to be covered.
And is this what the Brexiteers want us to return to?

 
DVD Smith
1270200.  Wed Jan 10, 2018 6:05 am Reply with quote

tetsabb wrote:
DVD Smith wrote
Quote:
If you lived in London, your local post box would have two holes in it – one labelled “London and twelve miles around” for local post, and the other labelled “Inland and colonial mails”


But what happened if you wanted to send something to, heaven forfend, France? You don't seem to be covered.
And is this what the Brexiteers want us to return to?


Well I imagine the letters would be sent under "colonial mails", since at the height of the British Empire they would probably have seen France as a potential future colony. ;) After all, all they need is a flag.

 
suze
1270256.  Wed Jan 10, 2018 12:51 pm Reply with quote

Before the establishment of the Universal Postal Union in 1874, did the Royal Mail actually carry mail to France?

I'm not certain on this point and I don't have the time right now, but didn't you have to make your own arrangements with a commercial carrier if you wanted to send a letter to some place outwith Empire?

 
tetsabb
1270287.  Wed Jan 10, 2018 3:35 pm Reply with quote

But why would a British gentleman wish to send anything to France?

 

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