We Get Stacks and Stacks of Letters…The Expense of Mail During the Regency Period

imagesOn the Perry Como Show, the chorus customarily sang: “Letters, we get letters. We get stacks and stacks of letters.” However, during the Regency Period, the mail was expensive. MPs were the only ones who had a “free” ride for the mail delivery. Until 1840, MPs could “frank” their own letters.

In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Edmund tells Fanny to have a friend or relative who was an MP to frank the letter for her and, therefore, save the Price family from the cost of the letter. “As your uncle will frank it, it will cost William nothing.”

Postage was based on the number of miles the letter traveled from point A to point B. Recipients paid, rather than the sender of the letter. These were the going rates for a single page: fourpence for the first fifteen miles, eightpence for eighty miles, etc., etc., up to seventeen pence for a letter covering seven hundred miles. Additional pages increased the price accordingly.

crossed-letter To save on the expense of sending a letter, people developed their own form of “Tweeting.” Abbreviations saved space. Often the writer would “cross” the letter, which meant turning the letter at right angles and writing between the previously written words.

A “two penny post,” which was developed for mail delivery within London proper, was separate from the General Post Office, which dealt with the national mail. There were designated shops for dropping off the mail. As with the writing of the letter, abbreviations were used as part of the address/directions to speed the delivery: “W” for the West End; “N” for north of the Old City, etc.

After 1840, a person could send a letter anywhere in England for the cost of one penny. Railroads sped the delivery system and made the mail service more economical. Also, before 1840 envelopes were generally not used. In Jane Austen’s stories, her characters use a wafer to seal the letters. A wafer was small disk made of flour and gum. A person would lick the wafer and stick it to the folded sheet of writing to form the envelope. Those of the upper class used seals. It was melted and applied to the letter. Commonly, red seals were used for business and other colors for social correspondence. Black was a sign of death and mourning.

wax seal

wax seal

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, customs and tradiitons, Great Britain, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, political stance, Pride and Prejudice, real life tales, Regency era, Regency personalities, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to We Get Stacks and Stacks of Letters…The Expense of Mail During the Regency Period

  1. suzan says:

    I still love getting letters. smiles…great info. Even tho’ the show is based on a later date (I’m pretty sure since I didn’t look it up) kind of reminds me of “Larkrise to Candleford”. I think your curiosity would be killing you if you couldn’t afford to pay for the letter and just had to not accept it upon delivery. Same with a telegram.

  2. Yes, Suzan, “Larkrise” is Victorian period. I am too curious not to accept the letter, but I can understand how some were sorry to send back the deliveries. Limited incomes could not afford such expense.

  3. suzan says:

    thanks, I haven’t watched it for so long that just the basics stick in my mind. smiles. yes, that limited income thing would have been very scary. Most of us picture loving to live in the past with the lovely clothing, servants, etc. but someone has to be at the bottom of the pile and I’m figuring it would have been me. lol so I try to see it from both sides. (I don’t play piano, know other languages, have a special heritage, sew screens, or know the language of the fan – not many accomplishments for a lady – so I’m thinking hauling around bath water etc. doesn’t sound too dreamy) Thanks Regina for the info and clarification since I didn’t want to take the time to look for it.

  4. Suzan, I always wonder whether I could have survived in “the good old days.” I am very fair skinned, and I wonder about such things as sunburns, mosquito bites, no air conditioning, no indoor plumbing, etc. LOL!

  5. Anji says:

    Thanks for this, Regina. Nowadays we rely so much on “instant” communications via email, text, mobile phone and social media. We probably forget that only two hundred years ago communication and travel were so much more difficult and so much slower. Even once the Penny Post and rail transport came in, I expect several days would elapse for post that had to travel long distances.

    When it comes to what is sometimes called “snail mail”, I don’t know about the US, but here we can send a First Class letter and most of the time it should reach it’s destination the next day. Second Class takes a day or two longer.

    I do have a question for you. Jane Austen and Austenesque authors such as yourself, sometimes mention sending letters by express. Would this have been one letter carried by a succession of horse riders in a relay from sender to it’s destination? How much would that have cost? Presumably it depended on distance, and who paid for it?

    Like Suzan, I expect that in Regency times, I would have been one of those lugging around the buckets of hot water etc rather than one of the gentry. My background is definitely blue collar though we have risen in the ranks over the years to white collar/professional. I’m a pharmacist, so I guess I would be the local apothecary and my husband is a retired solicitor so I guess, in a way, that makes me Mrs Phillips!

  6. Anji, post boys (who wore scarlet livery) rode from post (office) to post (office) to deliver the mail. Those who rode an “express” carried the letter/missive from sender to receiver, without stopping at the posts. Because they did not have to stop and wait for the postmaster/postmistress to remove the letters from the satchel, which belonged to his/her area, the express could make better time. Of course, even an express was slow my today’s standards. The roads were deplorable and the average express rider only covered 4-5 miles per hour. The riders could change or an express might involve one rider and a series of horses. After 50 miles on one horse, the need to change animals would be great.

  7. Anji says:

    What fascinating stuff! I guess I’ve wrongly assumed that “express” was an awful lot faster than it was. One does tend to forget that roads then did not have the hard, virtually impermeable surfaces that we’re all used to. These days, a small pothole in the surface is cause for great complaint until it’s fixed. Two hundred and more years ago, from what I’ve read before and especially just now on Vic’s blog, great swathes of the country could be virtually cut off from each other due to the state of the roads in bad weather.

    Thanks again!

    • Anji, in my last book in the Realm series, my main character meets John Loudon McAdam. John Loudon McAdam (21 September 1756 – 26 November 1836) was a Scottish engineer and road-builder. He invented a new process, “macadamisation”, for building roads with a smooth hard surface that would be more durable and less muddy than soil-based tracks.

      McAdam became a trustee of the Ayrshire Turnpike in 1783 and became increasingly involved with day-to-day road construction over the next 10 years. In 1802 he moved to Bristol, England and he became general surveyor for the Bristol Corporation in 1804. He put forward his ideas in evidence to Parliamentary enquiries in 1810, 1819 and 1823. In two treatises written in 1816 and 1819 (Remarks on the Present System of Road-Making and Practical Essay on the Scientific Repair and Preservation of Roads) he argued roads needed to be raised above the surrounding ground and constructed from layered rocks and gravel in a systematic manner.

      McAdam had also been appointed surveyor to the Bristol Turnpike Trust in 1816, where he decided to remake the roads under his care with crushed stone bound with gravel on a firm base of large stones. A camber, making the road slightly convex, ensured rainwater rapidly drained off the road rather than penetrate and damage the road’s foundations. This construction method, the greatest advance in road construction since Roman times, became known as “macadamisation”, or, more simply, “macadam”.

      The macadam method spread very quickly across the world. The first macadam road in North America, the National Road, was completed in the 1830s and most of the main roads in Europe were subject to the McAdam process by the end of the nineteenth century.

      Although McAdam was paid £5,000 for his Bristol Turnpike Trust work and made “Surveyor-General of Metropolitan Roads” in 1820, professional jealousy cut a £5,000 grant for expenses from the Parliament of the United Kingdom to £2,000 in 1827. His efficient road-building and management work had revealed the corruption and abuse of road tolls by unscrupulous Turnpike Trusts, many of which were run at a deliberate loss despite high toll receipts.

      Modern road construction still reflects McAdam’s influence. Of subsequent improvements, the most significant was the introduction of tar (originally coal tar) to bind the road surface’s stones together – “tarmac” (for Tar Macadam) – followed later by the use of hot-laid tarred aggregate or tar-sprayed chippings to create better road metalling. More recently, oil-based asphalt laid on reinforced concrete has become a major road surface, but its use of granite or limestone chippings still recalls McAdam’s innovation.

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