If I Were A Heroine In Need Of Posting A Letter…

"British Free Frank 1840s" by British Post Office, 1840 - British Post Office, 1840The Free Franking PrivilegePhoto image obtained/rendered by Gwillhickers. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“British Free Frank 1840s” by British Post Office, 1840 – British Post Office, 1840The Free Franking PrivilegePhoto image obtained/rendered by Gwillhickers. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

UPP_POreg_handbill_1840jan7
“UPP POreg handbill 1840jan7” by User:Ww2censor – Own work (self scan). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Victorian_Letter_Box_-_geograph.org.uk_-_978901
Victorian Letter Box, The Postbox in Queen Street is a listed Building. Copyright Gordon Griffiths and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence – via Wikimedia Commons

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…

Alyssa Alexander
Despite being a native Michigander, Alyssa Alexander is pretty certain she belongs somewhere sunny. And tropical. Where drinks are served with little paper umbrellas. But until she moves to those white sandy beaches, she survives the cold Michigan winters by penning romance novels that always include a bit of adventure. She lives with her own set of heroes, aka an ever-patient husband who doesn’t mind using a laundry basket for a closet, and a small boy who wears a knight in a shining armor costume for such tasks as scrubbing potatoes. Alyssa’s debut release, THE SMUGGLER WORE SILK, was awarded 4.5 Stars and Top Pick, nominated for 2014 Best First Historical by the Romantic Times and Best First Book in the Romance Writers of America RITA contest. Her second book, IN BED WITH A SPY, released in December 2014 from Berkley, and received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly and 4.5 Stars and Top Pick from Romantic times. She has been called a “talented newcomer” and “a rising star you won’t want to miss.”
You can find Alyssa at all the usual places! Please stop by and say hello! And you can always reach her by email at alyssa@alyssa-alexander.com.
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Despite being a native Michigander, Alyssa Alexander is pretty certain she belongs somewhere sunny. And tropical. Where drinks are served with little paper umbrellas. But until she moves to those white sandy beaches, she survives the cold Michigan winters by penning romance novels that always include a bit of adventure. She lives with her own set of heroes, aka an ever-patient husband who doesn’t mind using a laundry basket for a closet, and a small boy who wears a knight in a shining armor costume for such tasks as scrubbing potatoes. Alyssa’s debut release, THE SMUGGLER WORE SILK, was awarded 4.5 Stars and Top Pick, nominated for 2014 Best First Historical by the Romantic Times and Best First Book in the Romance Writers of America RITA contest. Her second book, IN BED WITH A SPY, released in December 2014 from Berkley, and received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly and 4.5 Stars and Top Pick from Romantic times. She has been called a “talented newcomer” and “a rising star you won’t want to miss.” You can find Alyssa at all the usual places! Please stop by and say hello! And you can always reach her by email at alyssa@alyssa-alexander.com.

9 Responses

  1. An interesting dilemma. I was surprised when I first heard that the recipient had to pay for letters. Imagine if they’d had junk mail back then!

    • I believe the receiver could also refuse a letter if they chose not to pay the postage. It makes me wonder how many letters went unread!

  2. Barbara Monajem

    Research brings up all sorts of great info. I have a half-written Regency mystery where one of the clues is which London office handled the letter. I hope the existence of the bellman won’t prove to cause a glitch…

    I also hope your heroine’s letter gets where it’s supposed to. 😉 (I tend to think of all the reasons something might NOT get to its destination.)

  3. Didn’t they have the hired help (butler, maid) deliver them personally to the person in question.

    • Hi Diane! Thanks for stopping by! Yes, the upper class would have a footman or other servant deliver messages if the receiver lived close. The lower classes, of course, would have to rely on the post. In this particular case, though, my heroine was a lady, but the letter was going from London to Yorkshire. A little far for the footman to deliver!

  4. Research is one of the joys of writing historicals. I love to uncover fascinating historical facts, I’d never look for otherwise.

  5. Great job on the research. Isn’t it wild how something we take for granted was so complicated!

  6. fascinating!