The Way We Were: The history of ‘snail mail’

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CITY historian JOHN TAYLOR takes another walk down memory lane...

APPARENTLY, something called ‘e-mail’ is now all the rage – some sort of electronic messaging – but since it involves computers it’s probably best left well alone.

And not least since the comprehension of any new technology is about as likely of any success as a sponsored silence at a ladies’ coffee morning.

In fact I had quite enough trauma upgrading from a quill to a fountain pen, so personally I’m just going to stick to posting a letter.

In fact in our region we still have a few legacies from a time when the British postal system was the envy of the world, and, as at Battlesden, Aspley Guise, Loughton, and Filgrave, these remain in the form of Victorian post boxes, which, introduced in 1852, bear the monogram ‘V.R.’

Derived from organisations of king’s messengers, post offices were known as early as the 13th century, and although the provision of relays of horses was the main duty of the postmaster, they soon began to supplement their income by providing for public correspondence.

At first the post was often carried by a mounted post boy, with a heavy load of mail on his back, but horses pulling light vehicles were eventually introduced. Yet these remained vulnerable to the attentions of highwaymen, and mention of ‘the Fenny Stratford road’ as a haunt of highwaymen was even made in the film the Wicked Lady.

In 1635 regular rates for public correspondence were introduced, and following the success in 1680 of a ‘penny post,’ in London, the concept was extended to many provincial towns, with a state post office opened at Little Brickhill in 1687. Postage rates were regulated by mileage in 1709, and with the need to improve the nation’s roads ‘turnpike trusts’ were set up, whereby road users were charged tolls to finance the continued upkeep of each stretch.

In fact in 1739 an Act of Parliament was passed ‘for amending the Highway between Hockliffe and Stony Stratford,’ and it was probably in 1785 that over this length ran the first mail coach to operate along the Watling Street. As a feature of the mail service, ‘Post horses’ could be hired to travellers, and innkeepers providing this service were entitled to call their inn a ‘posting house.’

Unsurprisingly the trade brought by the commercial stage coaches, as also by the mail coaches – which were allowed to carry four passengers – ensured great prosperity for inns at Fenny Stratford and Stony Stratford, and at the latter the best known are probably the Cock and the Bull.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution came not only the need for an effective road system, for the transportation of goods, but also a proper postal system, to provide for the administrative demands of business, and thus to supersede the local penny rates in the towns, and the expensive system of carrying letters between towns, in 1840 Rowland Hill introduced a uniform rate of postage throughout Britain.

As for the roads, following improved surfacing techniques the turnpikes of Watling Street were abolished in 1868, with responsibility vested in the local parish. Then upon their creation in 1888 the county councils assumed responsibility.

Inevitably, horse drawn vehicles would become a relic of the past, and it was William Bowler, of Simpson, who would drive the last horse drawn mail coach from Bletchley to Newport Pagnell in 1916. But in the postal service of the 21st century electronic highways are now available.

So I guess we’ll have to get used to this whiz kid ‘e mail,’ and give it the stamp of approval. Although I doubt if I’ll ever get it licked.