In my current manuscript, the heroine needs to send a letter home. I’ve never written about or researched the British mail system, so I only had a general idea of how the post worked in the Regency. All I knew was that a peer could “frank” a letter, but I had no idea what that meant. In essence, certain peers such as Members of Parliament could have letters delivered for free. A perk, I suppose.
However, my heroine is sending a secret letter. She can’t let her uncle (the peer) know about it or all hell will break loose—as such things do.
And therein lay my dilemma. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to go about sending a letter. Ergo, research.
First, typically the receiver paid the postage fee. How about that? You can send letters to your friends and family, but they have to pay to receive them! Eventually, the Uniform Penny Post was instituted in 1840. At that point, the sender paid a penny to send a letter to any part of England, or the receiver could pay two pence upon receipt.
Well, that was a bit after my heroine’s time, so she would be sending the letter at no cost to herself and expecting the receiver to pay.
But how to send it if she didn’t want her uncle to know about it? Letter boxes? Letter boxes didn’t exist until the 1850s, but she still had a few options to choose from. First, she could take a letter to a Receiving House. This was a version of a post office with clerks and postmen and mail carriers. Presumably they sorted the mail there and sent it out for delivery. (I don’t know for certain, but it seems sensible. And, note, there appears to be a difference between international mail and domestic mail.)
As an alternative, she could drop the letter off at a coffee house, shop or other establishment that collected the post. That establishment would then take the mail to the Receiving House at various times throughout the day. This is what my heroine decided to do.
Last, there was someone called a Bellman. I couldn’t find a lot of information on the Bellman except on the British Postal Museum’s website (a postal treasure trove, I tell you!). According to their site: “The Bellman wore a uniform and walked the streets collecting letters from the public, ringing a bell to attract attention.” I wish I knew more about him. I can see a man going up and down the street, the bell clanging amidst the sounds of horses’ hooves and carriage wheels, shouts of street hawkers and the chatter of shoppers. There’s a story in there somewhere…