As part of my story A Gentleman’s Folly letters are exchanged between several characters in various locations. This led me to my next piece of research, all about letters in the 18th century. Today, letters are usually emails or texts. They can be read almost instantly and replied to or acted on. In the 18th century, no such luck. One of my characters arrives at her destination before her letter saying she will accept an invitation to come and stay. It happened.
In the year 1754 when my story is set, there was no postal service as we might understand it. Letters were written on square paper, folded and sealed with wax, an address was written. This was delivered to a central post master or mistress, in perhaps the milliners shop or the bakers shop and post boys collected the letters and took them on for delivery. The cost was paid according to distance travelled and usually paid by the recipient, which is why poor Katherine in my story is so relieved her letter from Sir Francis is pre-paid.
The post boys travelled in all weathers and conditions along routes designated as post roads. These roads were meant to be kept clear and open but as no one was very sure who had to do the clearing, it didn’t always work that way, especially when weather conditions were harsh. The post boys changed horses regularly, usually at coaching inns. All this incurred expense so sending a letter outside of London, where a penny post system operated in the city and suburbs, proved costly. Sadly, not all post boys were efficient or trustworthy and they had a poor reputation. Something they may have earned by stopping off for a beer more often than they should. They also had to face the dangers of Highwaymen and these dangers increased as the century went on and mail coaches were introduced as ever more mail and parcels needed delivery.
By mid 18th century with the introduction of turnpike roads with their toll systems as in the one below, and other general improvements to road surfaces, the post system improved too.
The investors behind the turnpike roads didn’t actually benefit from the tolls which were used to pay gatekeepers and for the upkeep of the road itself. Their benefits came from better business links and swifter communications for their trade or industry.
This image is a little out of the period and dates These are the toll charges on one to
to about 1830.
Letters began to whizz around the country. With the introduction of cross roads where new roads linked existing post roads, a device of the entrepreneur Ralph Allen, it took a mere two to three days for a letter to get from London to Bath. This was as long as the roads were good and the weather clement. Letter writers simply had to trust their letters arrived and arrangements would be honoured.
All a very far cry from today where my friend will send me a text telling me her train has just pulled into the station.