The Post Office
The story of the Post Office goes back long before the G.P.O. was situated either here or at Lombard Street. The original Post Office was off Eastcheap. p. 29When it was there, the course of post between London and Edinburgh took three days. The first regular service was established in 1635, when Charles the First, to end the inefficiency of the communications between the two capitals, inaugurated “a running post or two, to run night and day, between Edinburgh and London, to go thither and come back again in six days.” We may suppose that this did not work very well, for in 1649 we find the city of London establishing a post of its own with a regular staff of runners and postmasters between London and the North.
But with the Restoration came the establishment of the General Post Office and an instantaneous decline in the efficiency of the post, six days instead of three being taken for the single journey to or from Edinburgh. This roused the towns on the way to indignant protests, and the post was accelerated to “three and a half or four days,” the acceleration being slower than the original time.
But however keenly the intermediate towns may have felt this, it could not have mattered much to Edinburgh, whose mail-bag was very scanty. One day in 1745, we are told, the mail brought only one letter, for the British Linen Company; and on another day in the same year only one was despatched to London, for Sir William Pulteney, the banker.
In 1750 things were no better, but eight years later an Edinburgh merchant, George Chalmers, procured an improvement. Before 1758 the Great North Mail set out three times a week and took eighty-seven hours in going north, and not fewer than one hundred and thirty-one from Edinburgh to London. This last itinerary was lengthened so greatly in time on account of stoppages made at Berwick and at Newcastle, ranging from three hours at one to twenty-four at the other. These delays Chalmers, in corresponding with the officials, proved to be quite needless. He also induced them to avoid the old and longer route through Thorne and York and to take the alternative road by Boroughbridge, p. 30thus shortening the journey by twelve miles. The times were then fixed at eighty-two hours for the northward-bound mail, and eighty-five for the south. For his services the Government made Chalmers a grant of £600. Some years afterwards he induced the Post Office to run the mails six days a week.
But a greater than Chalmers was at hand in Palmer, the organiser of the mail-coach service. Palmer accomplished, according to De Quincey, “two things very hard to do on our little planet, the earth, however cheap they may be held by eccentric people in comets: he had invented mail-coaches, and he had married the daughter of a duke. He was therefore just twice as great a man as Galileo, who did certainly invent (or, which is the same thing, discover) the satellites of Jupiter, those very next things extant to mail-coaches in the two capital pretensions of speed and keeping time; but, on the other hand, who did not marry the daughter of a duke.” Palmer married, in point of fact, Lady Madeline Gordon, daughter of the Duke of Richmond, but De Quincey does not lay the stress he should have done on his having fought his postal scheme to success against the obstinacy and red-tapeism of the Post Office officials, itself an enterprise sufficient to daunt any but the stoutest heart. Government officials have a wonderful power of passive resistance and an insensibility to argument and proof which might be envied by a lamp-post. It was thought a brilliant rejoinder when one of these Post Office dunderheads replied to Palmer’s scheme for supplanting the slow and uncertain post-boys by fast coaches with the observation that there was no reason why the post should be the swiftest conveyance in England! No doubt this witty gentleman resigned in an access of mortification when Palmer actually succeeded in being appointed Controller-General of the Post Office, with a salary of £1,500 a year and a two and a-half per cent. commission on a rise of the income above the £240,000 at which it stood when he was placed at the head of affairs. The first mail-coach was put upon p. 31the Bath Road on the 8th of August 1784, and its success was so great and immediate that the chief towns of the kingdom presently began to petition for similar facilities to be accorded them. York was the first successful applicant, and a mail was put on the road between London, York, and Edinburgh in October of the same year, taking three nights and two days to perform the journey. This was not a very remarkable rate of speed, to be sure, but the times were not so hurried then. A greater speed was attained when the roads began to be reorganised by Telford and Macadam. Macadam’s method of metalling the existing roads and Telford’s reconstruction of steep and winding highways produced great results. To Macadam was due the greater speeds attained at last on the mail route between London and Edinburgh; for, although Telford’s improved road was begun in 1824, it was never completed owing to the introduction of railways. Government had, in fact, by this time recognised the necessity of good roads, and, fresh from the reorganisation of the mail route between London and Holyhead, had determined on an improved communication between England and Scotland. This road, already referred to, was to be straight and as flat as engineering science could contrive it, and a portion—that between Edinburgh and Morpeth—was constructed about 1824, going by way of Soutra Hill, Lauderdale, Coldstream, and Wooler. The route between London and Morpeth was also surveyed and authorised, and portions between London and York actually begun, when the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 convinced the authorities that the days of the road were numbered.
But although it was long apparent that a change was impending, coaches were not entirely run off the Great North Road for another twenty years, and Post Office surveyors were still busy expediting the mails over short cuts and roads of more favourable gradients. Thus in 1832 we find the Scotch mail p. 32going by way of Selby. Here is the official time-bill for that year:—
London dep. 8.00 P.M.
12½ Waltham Cross arr. 9.25 ,,
22 Ware ,, 10.26 ,,
35½ Buckland ,, 11.52 ,,
45½ Arrington ,, 12.57 A.M.
60 Huntingdon ,, 2.30 ,,
65¼ Alconbury Hill ,, 3.03 ,,
72¼ Stilton ,, 3.45 ,,
87 Stamford ,, 5.15 ,,
95 Stretton ,, 6.03 ,,
108½ Grantham arr. 7.23 ,,
dep. 8.03 ,,
115½ Long Bennington arr. 8.53 ,,
122¼ Newark ,, 9.30 ,,
132¾ Scarthing Moor ,, 10.34 ,,
145½ Barnby Moor ,, 11.49 ,,
155¼ Rossington Bridge ,, 12.47 P.M.
159½ Doncaster ,, 1.12 ,,
166¼ Askerne ,, 1.55 ,,
179¾ Selby ,, 3.21 ,,
194 York arr. 4.54 ,,
dep. 5.34 ,,
207¼ Easingwold arr. 6.54 ,,
218 Thirsk ,, 7.58 ,,
227 Northallerton ,, 8.52 ,,
243 Darlington ,, 10.28 ,,
261½ Durham ,, 12.23 ,,
276 Newcastle-on-Tyne arr. 1.50 ,,
dep. 1.53 ,,
290½ Morpeth arr. 3.22 ,,
300½ Felton ,, 4.23 ,,
309¾ Alnwick ,, 5.17 ,,
324½ Belford arr. 6.47 ,,
dep. 7.17 ,,
329¾ Berwick-on-Tweed arr. 8.47 ,,
353½ Houndswood ,, 10.09 ,,
369¼ Dunbar ,, 11.41 ,,
380¼ Haddington ,, 12.45 P.M.
397¼ Edinburgh ,, 2.23 ,,
Time—42 hours 23 minutes
p. 33The “up” mail was timed considerably slower, 45 hours 39 minutes.
The punctuality of the mails was so great that the Glasgow and the Edinburgh mails, which went by Shoreditch and Islington respectively, and took different routes as far as Alconbury Hill, where their roads met, could always be depended upon to keep the official interval of four minutes which divided them at that point. Their route was identical between Alconbury Hill and Doncaster, where the Glasgow mail branched off to the left to Ferrybridge and Greta Bridge.
This was the ne plus ultra of Post Office enterprise on the Great North Road, and closes an era.
We have seen with what extraordinary speed letters were carried in the time of Charles the First between London and Edinburgh; but how did folk travel? They rode horseback, from kings, to nobles, and down to merchants; princesses, madam, or my lady riding pillion. Private carriages—“coaches,” they were called—had been introduced in 1553, when Queen Mary rode in one, as a novelty, from London to Westminster, drawn by six horses. In 1556 Sir Thomas Hoby had one of these strange machines, and just because the fact is expressly mentioned we see how rare they were. In fact, they went out of use altogether for a time, and were reintroduced by William Boonen, Queen Elizabeth’s Dutch coachman, in 1564. On this occasion they came into better favour, and their numbers must have greatly increased, for a Bill “to restrain their excessive use” was introduced to Parliament, and rejected, in 1601. But both their make and the fearful condition of the roads forbade them being used in the country. Moreover, they had only shutters in place of windows, the first “glass coach” being that used by the Duke of York in 1661.
Section 1 Menu
The Age of Coaching
Introducing a world of horse-drawn public transport
Beginning to End
How long did the Great Age of Coaching Last?
Coaches to All Parts
The world of coach travel - surprisingly familiar; just slower and wetter.
A list of destinations which is remarkably familiar to the modern day traveller.
What was it like to travel by coach on a winter’s day. Come on the first stage of a journey from London to Stamford.
Driving a Mail Coach
Mail coaches were the high speed elite. What was it like to drive them?
Two Short Videos
Although we have no films from the time, modern producers have imagined coach travel for us.
Comparing rail and coach travel in 1888!
Things didn’t always go smoothly and this amusing incident took place on the Great North Road.
A recollection of life in London before taxi cabs, policemen and even electricity.
The northern coaches all stopped here to pick up passengers. The scene was amazing.
One of the many hazards that could be encountered was flood water. This is near St Neots.
A description of the London termini from which coaches ran
A list of London coaching inns and where you could travel to from each.
Tales of the Road: This section tells what was it like to travel by stage coach in the mid 1800s.
Travel in England is inseparably connected to the state of our roads. This section looks at the history of British roads.
Wheeled transport evolved over many years. This section looks at how coaches developed.
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