Friday, November 16, 2012

Take a letter

I learnt a lot about the British postal service when I was writing COACHMAN.

One obvious reason for this was that my hero George Davenport aspired to drive a Royal Mail coach. Mails were well designed and well maintained, they were supplied with good quality horses and above all they were required to be fast. Other individual coaching routes perhaps exceeded the Post Office's average speed: a commercial stage coach, the Shrewsbury "Wonder," was timetabled to cover the 153 miles between that city and London in 15 and 3/4 hours including meal breaks and changes of horses. Its arrival in St Albans was so punctual that people regulated their watches and clocks by it, and in its latter years its average speed was said to have gone up to 15mph. That exceeded the fastest of the Royal Mail routes, Liverpool to Preston, which was 10.5 mph, and it more than doubled one of Royal Mail's slowest, the Kent route between Canterbury and Deal, which only managed 6 mph; but the sheer scale of the network that carried His (or later, Her) Majesty's Mail across the British Isles has to be admired. A letter posted from London at Monday teatime could be in Glasgow early on Wednesday afternoon.

The Royal Mail was assisted by laws such as the automatic right of way of the Mail coach on the road, its exemption from stopping to pay toll at toll gates, and the outlawing of letter carriage by any other means. The Mails were not just the best-organised and quickest method of transporting letters and parcels across the country: they were a Royal monopoly. While the Mail coachman was employed by the proprietor who supplied the horses, and was not directly responsible for the Mail, the guard was a Royal employee whose duty was to protect and carry the mails forward even when blizzards and floods might stop the coach itself - and these men carried out their duty so conscientiously that some of them died doing it. George, my coachman, was lucky not to encounter such conditions in his brief spell in this work.

Top two Iillustrations by John Sturgess in The Coaching Age

The annual procession of Mail coaches took place in May each year up to 1838, as shown in this drawing on the cover of COACHMAN. The 27 London Mails assembled in Lincoln's Inn Fields. The bang-up teams were provided by the coaching proprietors or lent by wealthy London "whips" and they trotted proudly through the streets of London to the West End of the city. They stopped to salute the Postmaster General in St James's Square, and then the reigning monarch in St James's Palace, before going on a circuit through Hyde Park and coming back into the city via Regent Street and Trafalgar Square. I decided that if George wasn't at that time a Mail coachman, he would be far better able to observe what was going on, and interact with people, which of course he could not have done as a driver on the coach, except at the assembly point.

In their daily work the Mail coaches all left London at the same hour each evening, 8pm, which enabled them to cover the busiest part of their route when the roads were quiet. This meant that the London inns which horsed the Mails were jam-packed with horses and staff up to 7.30pm, which was when the coaches went round the block to be loaded at the General Post Office in St Martins le Grand.

Illustration by Pollard.

They were a popular sight, hence George's admiration of them loading at the Swan with Two Necks. (The name of the inn is a corruption of "Swan with two NICKS" - the beaks of swans on the Thames are marked with notches to indicate ownership, and the two nicks, one either side, denote the Vintners' Company who were, of course, innkeepers!) Mails from provincial cities, however, left at all sorts of times, depending on the distances they had to cover. The Mail from Carlisle to Newcastle, for instance, left at 7 in the morning in company with the Scottish coaches for Edinburgh, Glasgow and Port Patrick, and reached its destination around 1 in the afternoon.

Another aspect of my story that had to be researched was postage itself. George had left Lucy behind in Carlisle when she was ill, which meant he had to keep in touch by letter. In order to put these little snapshots of their lives into the right places, I needed to know how long it would take to send and receive responses. Alan Bates' Directory of Stage Coach Services 1836 was invaluable as my starting point. I began to feel rather like a trainspotter as I flicked forward and back through the pages of Mail coach timetables.

I also needed to know how much Lucy would have to pay for her letter from Carlisle to London. In 1838 postage was still priced by distance and by number of sheets of paper, so even though I didn't have an example available I was able to calculate that one sheet cost 11 pence to travel that distance. In an era when the coach guard was paid ten shillings and sixpence for a week's work, it's clear that sending a letter over a long distance was not something that every person could have done, which we now expect almost as a right.

My grandmother owned old letters which had been written at that period of time, so even as a child I knew that there had been an age in which you either cut your letter short or you "crossed" the lines. Crossing meant writing on the same sheet of paper a second or even a third time, with the direction of the 2nd or 3rd set of lines being at 90 or 45 degrees from the first set. The Penny Post that was then being planned must have been a great improvement on this system.

My grandmother had a seal ring and several sticks of sealing wax. I never discovered how old they were but I do remember that they were bright red, hard and brittle.

During the re-writes of COACHMAN I discovered an antiques web site with Victorian seals for sale and I'm afraid lust overcame me. With the excuse that it was my birthday I splashed out and bought myself one. Its handle is delicately turned mother of pearl, with pierced silver mountings that hold the amethyst stone that forms the seal. I felt it must belong on a lady's desk, but even so when it arrived I couldn't believe how tiny it was. The jeweller must have gone half blind carving the black-letter "M" into its flat surface.

Well, I had to have a go with it, didn't I? I bought some sticks of sealing wax: two red and one gold, both of which would have been used in Victorian times, though a lady might have preferred the gold, or rose or some other colour, to the red.

That's when I discovered that modern sealing wax is softer and more flexible than the old wax I remember. The sticks I bought have a wick in the middle. Even when it's lit it is not very easy to use. There's an edge of danger in lighting a stick of wax in the midst of your correspondence and computer equipment, and a great deal of dexterity involved in handling the dripping wax. You have to get the blob to fall in the correct place on your document and then set the seal (right way round) onto the blob at just the right moment when it's beginning to set but has not yet hardened. It's difficult to get the M the right way up by ceiling-mounted electric light, but when I did it by candlelight it was very easy to see because the light is closer to desk level. Sealing a folded piece of paper to create a postable, private letter is tricky, but here's a photo to prove I did it. Complete with blobs that went astray in the process! Turning the corners under into a point like the flap of an envelope means you only need to seal it once.

And I'm still finding little round red test seals with an M stamped on them, hiding in my desk tray. I'm too fond of them to throw them away.


Victorian Historical Novel - COACHMAN -

"K M Peyton meets Malcolm MacDonald."

Good-looking and ambitious George Davenport travels to London with his bride Lucy, determined to make the most of his skill in driving a four-in-hand of horses. It’s 1838. Queen Victoria is crowned, and England is at peace, but it isn't a good time to be a coachman.

As George finds employment with William Chaplin, the “Napoleon of coaching”, the first railways are about to open across the country. Their competition will kill off the road-coaching trade. George loves both his work and his wife, so he has a lot to come to terms with… even before the boss’s daughter starts to stalk him.

Bates, A (compiler), 1969, Directory of Stage Coach Services 1836
Beaufort, Duke of, 1890, Driving.
Cross, Thomas, Autobiography of a Stage Coachman.
Dixon, H.H., 1895, Saddle and Sirloin.
Harper, Charles G., Stage Coach and Mail in Days of Yore
Harris, Stanley, 1885, The Coaching Age.
Mountfield, The Coaching Age
British Postal Museum and Archive
Vintners' Hall - Swan upping


Unknown said...

This is an interesting article, the photo with the candle is beautiful.
Thank you for sharing this view of the way it was.
~Larry Rhoades, Lancaster, California

Pauline Conolly said...

Oh, this piece was fascinating Sue. The very term 'sealing wax' is full of portent! I yearn to own a sealing ring. Thank you!

Sue Millard said...

IT was fun to experiment, and I was pleased with the way the photo turned out - I thought I might have some camera shake from the slow shutter speed. But I took one with flash and it was flat and boring!

Unknown said...

Very interesting. Thinking about distances in 1830's England is so different from 2010's California.