This article was found on Gibbons Stamps Monthly, January 2003, and is very useful for Registered Cover collectors. Enjoy reading!
The Birth of the Registered Letter
Registration of mail within the United Kingdom first took place on 6 January 1841. The events that led to it represent one of the most complex and fascinating stories in the development of British postal services, as Mark Laurence explains
The failure to secure letters containing coins, securities, documents, and valuables by registration enabled the highest level of theft and fraud ever known within the Post Office to exist for many years. What is more, the vested interests of those in power prevented change from taking place. The understanding that 'registration' meant the safe custody and handling of letters, with the carrier accepting the responsibility for their arrival did not exist. In fact, such responsibility was specifically excluded. Registration simply referred to an internal listing or noting of each letter for which no copy or receipt was given.
The need for change was clear and led to an extraordinary conflict between Rowland Hill, Advisor to the Treasury and founder of Uniform Penny Postage, and Colonel Maberly, Secretary of the Post Office, the two most prominent figures of the time, that continued for ten years. The fact that this battle occurred, resulting in the defeat of Hill only a few months after the introduction of Uniform Postage, demonstrates the complete change of mind by the Treasury and Parliament and the fragile position of Hill himself.
Prior to the introduction of registration for inland letters, a number of other systems existed. The principal one being the 'money letter' system operated by the General Post Office. At the same time, a semi-official scheme was provided by the 'Clerks of the Road' and a system of registration was operated by the Foreign Office for in-bound and outgoing foreign letters.
Registration of foreign letters
Typically, the carrying of early mail re-flected the needs of Crown and State. The need for the Foreign Office to know of and control foreign letters resulted in a system of registration being introduced in 1784. An internal ledger of addressee and sender details was maintained, together with the signatures of the UK party involved. In effect, a simple listing was maintained and the letters were stamped with a crown registered' mark on the front by the Foreign Office clerk.
In-bound foreign letters were then forwarded to the Post Office in London for collection, as there was no inland registration system. A charge of five shillings was paid on collection, which covered the delivery from the Foreign Office to the Post Office in London. No receipt or responsibility for any loss or damage was given.
Outward foreign letters were charged an extraordinary fee of one guinea, paid by the UK sender, ensuring that the clerks were not overworked. Virtually all outward registered foreign mail consisted of packets of diamonds sent from London to Amsterdam.
France had a more efficient registration system which provided compensation of up to Â£2 and a registration fee set at double the applicable postage rate for each letter. By July 1836 a postal treaty was negotiated with France who had exerted great pressure for reform and both in-bound and outward registration fees were reduced to 2s.6d. Foreign registration was confined solely to London until July 1836, when Edinburgh adopted it, and finally throughout the UK, with the introduction of registration on 6 January 1841.
First introduced in 1792, money letters were solely for the registration (but again only as an internal listing) of letters containing coin. Clearly coins could be easily detected and stolen whilst in transit, a crime that had risen to an alarming level, usually carried out by employees of the Post Office itself.
In 1788 John Harraden, as Clerk of the Money Book in the Inland Office, submitted a proposal for the protection of all letters of value. Had this been accepted, it would have been the start of inland registration, but it was rejected. From these proposals however came the concept of the 'money letter', for which Harraden was never rewarded.
Each letter containing coinage was automatically registered and endorsed 'money letter' in red ink on the front and delivered without any additional cost. In fact, a double postage charge was levied to cover the cost of an enclosure. The letter was presented to the clerk at the General Post Office or receiver at the receiving house who would enter the address on a letter bill in which the money letters were then wrapped, isolating them from ordinary mail when placed in the letter bag and sent to the General Post Office.
There the money book clerk signed the letter bill as received and listed the letters into a money book, providing each with a number. Writing the address on an official cover, the clerk enclosed the money letter into the cover and passed it to the clerk of the division who entered it on a slip for the division known as the 'waste book' and a letter bill for each town. A bundle consisting of money and other letters was then made for each town and dispatched in the normal way.
Money letters were regarded as secure and it became common to enclose a farthing in letters in order for them to be included in the system. Despite public demand, the Post Office continually rejected the extension of this service to cover all letters of value claiming it was better to restrict the number of money letters due to the workload involved and resulting delays caused to the general dispatch of the mail. The idea of compensation was similarly rejected.
For nearly 50 years the development of securely registered mail was prevented by the Post Office, with the same reasons being put forward by successive Secretaries and Postmasters General, despite the levels of theft and public demand for damage.
At the same time as Harraden put forward his proposals in 1792, Thomas Gosnell also devised a system for transmitting money by issuing drafts drawn on the deputy postmaster of the post-town where the addressee resided, to be administered from a 'Money Order Office' in London.
The Postmaster General, Lord Walsingham, also rejected Gosnell's system, but agreed to allow the 'Clerks of the Roads' to operate the system as a private venture, establishing a semi-official but quite independent delivery system which commenced on 1 October 1792. The six Clerks of the Road had a monopoly on the handling of newspapers, for which the postmasters acted as their agents, responsible for collecting the postage on the carriage of these newspapers. This money was used as the fund to pay for the money drafts drawn on the postmasters. The money being quite separate to Post Office revenue.
A charge for London drafts of 8d. per Â£1 was made by the Clerks on the sender, the postmaster receiving 2d. of this, and all letters were stamped 'Money Order Office' by the Clerks. Starting off in only a few main towns, the service expanded to cover the whole of the UK.
The misuse of Money Order Office franking for the sending of privileged mail, and the inability to account for monies paid, led in 1832 to a Commission of Enquiry that resulted in the nationalisation of the money order system. At this time Robert Wallace, the radical Member of Parliament for Greenock and a leading postal reformer, referred to the Money Order Office as 'this smug private property concern'.
By 1836 ownership of the Money Order Office was solely in the hands of Matthew Slater and David Stow, who was also Superintendent of the Inland Office within the Post Office. This clearly represented a major conflict of interest, though Stow held out and defended his position until his death in 1837, leaving Slater on his own, and in September 1838 the Money Order Office was transferred to the Post Office. Detailed accounts for the previous five years could still not be produced or the Money Order Office books reconciled and the service had fallen into sharp decline.
The need for reform
The campaign for inland registration had raged from as early as 1788, following the first proposals by Harraden. Indeed, taking the period to the new Post Office Act of 1837, which cleared the way for the reforms promoted by the Mercantile Committee and Robert Wallace, together with Rowland Hill, no other issue had received as much public attention. A Parliamentary investigation of negligence and fraud within the Post Office, carried out in 1837, reported that over 1200 letters were lost each year, but only a few money letters had gone astray.
Lord Lichfield, the Postmaster General, recommended to the Lords of the Treasury on 14 December 1837 that money letters should cease and be replaced by a regular system of registration for all inland letters for a fee of 3d. The Commission of Enquiry having already recommended registration at that time. On 2 May 1838 the Treasury agreed to this, but recommended a 2d. registration fee and that compensation of up to Â£5 should be considered for loss or damage; for the first time recognising the obligation of the Post Office for the safe delivery of registered letters.
Bokenham, the Superintendent of the Inland Office, quickly reported to Lichfield, confirming that the existing money order system forms and documentation could be used, and that only the addition of a form of receipt to be given to the sender was required. Their intention, however, was to limit the use of the service by only allowing letters to be received at the London branches: at Lombard Street until 5.00p.m. and Vere Street, Charing Cross and Borough, and a limited number of Twopenny Post receiving houses outside of a three mile radius of London, until 4p.m.
Remarkably, Lord Lichfield considered 2d. too high a fee and thought it should be set lower than the postal rate at all times. The 2d. fee for the metropolis, which incurred a higher postal rate in any case, was therefore agreed, but either a 1d. or 1.2d. fee should be set for the London local area.
Colonel Maberly, who replaced Sir Francis Freeling as Secretary of the Post Office following his death in 1836, set about implementing the registration system and even ordered the new receipt books. All previous objections had, it seems, suddenly been withdrawn, the Inland, Foreign Office and Twopenny Post departments now assisting Maberly.
Their final proposal, made in March 1839, called for the cessation of money letters and for a system of registration for all letters, and not just for those containing coin or articles of value, for which a fee of 2d. on inland letters and 1.2d. on London local post was to be charged. The letter was to be stamped plainly, and the address, plus the number of the letter, entered on the left-hand side of a newly-introduced receipt book, providing the sender with a receipt torn from it, which also had the letter number and address corresponding to that in the book. The receipt was then stamped and both postage and registration fee paid in advance. As for money letters, entry on a letter bill and enclosure in a printed cover was carried out. The use of coloured covers and a distinctive 'Registered 2d Paid' stamp were subsequently proposed.
Having finalised plans for the introduction, to be implemented on 5 July 1839, it was suddenly set aside because of the impending introduction of Uniform Fourpenny Postage, which took place on 5 December 1839, as a result of which by 1 January the money letter system ceased. This meant that the Post Office, had no practicable secure or registered system for the delivery of even coins, other than the vastly expensive Money Order system, despite all of the plans made and public outcry that existed. Lord Lichfield and Col Maberly considered ways of introducing a restricted registration system, by either imposing high fees of 2d. for London and 1s. for general inland post, or by simply restricting the service to London.
Likely complaints on a preference toward London and the overloading and potential delay to the mails were their reasons for rejecting any interim arrangement. Clearly, both held the same outdated attitudes toward registration, also held by Bokenham, as Superintendent of the Inland Office and Smith, as Superintendent of the Twopenny Post Office or London District Post, who both now claimed the need for at least three more clerks each to cope with the increased workload which even the higher fees would generate. A far cry from their recommendations and intended implementation of March 1839, just nine months earlier. Meanwhile, these events led to chaos, the level of theft and loss of letters of value reaching extraordinary levels and resulting in press campaigns and public protests.
Hill turns to registration
Having introduced the Uniform Penny Post, the urgency for an affordable system of registration was Rowland Hill's next priority. As early as 19 November 1839, following a visit to France, he had proposed a plan for the introduction of egistration, entitled 'Report on the Security in the Delivery of Letters as affected by Prepayment'. Unfortunately, the introduction of the Fourpenny Post had prevented him from taking this further.
As a result of the work Hill had done on postal reform, including the campaign he and others such as Robert Wallace had waged as part of the 'Mercantile Committee', which led to the introduction of Uniform Penny Postage, he had made enemies of both Lichfield and Maberly. Hill was not a civil servant but a special advisor to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Francis Baring, and worked from the Treasury. This was a political appointment made by the Whigs who were in power at the time. Perhaps it was to be expected therefore that it seems that he had not been informed about the registration system put forward by Lichfield and Maberly in March 1839 when making his own proposals.
By February 1840 Hill had updated himself and wrote a second lengthy document entitled 'Report on the Registration of Letters', which was sent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 1840. Challenging the vague objections from Maberly and the Post Office to his earlier proposals, Hill used the Tenth Report of the Commissioners as the basis for his attack. This Report had not only recommended a fee of 2d. for any inland letter to be registered, but a Â£5 fine on the Post Office for non-delivery.
This was similar to the French system, which Hill had already investigated during his visit, and similar to those proposed in March 1839, other than the Â£5 fine. One must assume that pressure from both the press and public on the Post Office was the reason for Maberly, Bokenham and Smith to once again change their minds and agree to these recommendations, except for the fine.
The system proposed by Hill in his report to the Treasury initially required the use of a room to act as a registration office at St Martin's le Grand, staffed by a registration clerk of proven integrity, to take delivery of letters to be registered from the public.
The clerk would be responsible for the whole duty of registration, for which adhesive stamps were to be used for the advance payment of the registration fee of 2d. and the raising of a receipt for each letter.
The receipt having the address details clearly entered and stamped with the registration office datestamp and given to the sender. The letter was also to be struck with the datestamp and then sorted by the Clerk into a box for each town. A listing was then to be made in a registration book
by town and name of addressee, the street names being omitted. This list was then to be copied and cut into separate lists for each town and stamped with the datestamp. All the letters for each town were to be put into a cover inscribed 'Registered Letters' and addressed to the postmaster for each town and again datestamped.
Finally, the clerk was to pass the town covers to the inland postage clerks for each area, who were to sign for the receipt for each cover into the clerk's registration book. The covers were then to be entered on to the existing inland letter bills listing and put into mailbags for each town. On delivery to each town, the local postmaster was to check the registered letters against the list and sign and return the letter bill.The recipients signed preprinted delivery forms discharging the Post Office's obligation.
Inward letters to London were treated the same way, in that the registration clerk was to provide the receipt for covers received, sort the letters for delivery and arrange for delivery forms to be signed as if a local postmaster. It was accepted that London branch offices and receiving houses could also take in registered letters, enclosing them into one cover and forwarding them to the registration clerk for processing.
Colonel Maberly defeats Hill
The Treasury duly presented Hill's proposals to the Post Office. Maberly was outraged, regarding Hill's plan as deficient, impracticable and even a personal slight. Based on previous experiences between the two, this reaction must have been expected. Again Maberly changed his mind on the level of fee to be set, writing to Lichfield on 8 August 1840, stating that the low 2d. fee proposed by Hill would seriously jeopardize the whole postal service.
It would, he suggested, vastly increase numbers of registered letters, overloading the system and delaying the mail. It was as if time had stood still. Maberly now insisted that any trial of Hill's system should involve a fee of at least 1s., making registration prohibitively expensive, representing an average working man's pay for a day's work. Needless to say, both Smith and Bokenham supported Maberly and Lichfield was certainly not going to override them in favour of Hill. So it was that within nine months from the introduction of Penny Postage, regarded by the public as a major reform, Hill now faced defeat at the hands of those who controlled the Post Office over the establishment of an affordable system for the registration of letters within the UK.
On 17 October 1840 proposals from the Post Office were sent to the Treasury for approval. They reflected Maberly's wishes, setting a 1s. registration fee for all inland letters, ignoring any difference between local and general mail. This fee was also to be paid in cash and not stamps as Hill had wanted, on the basis that the fee was not postage. A reduction in the poundage on money orders was also to be considered as a way of further limiting the demand for registration. To avoid possible delays to the mail, all registration had to be completed half an hour before the post office closed.
The registration of letters
A printed Instruction No. 21 dated December 1840 was issued by the command of Maberly as Secretary to all postmasters, sub deputies and receivers, introducing the first system of registration within the UK to become effective from 6 January 1841 and applicable to all letters without distinction.
The system described by this Instruction makes use of a receipt book and the issuing of a receipt. It also includes handling instructions for foreign outbound letters through France and confirms that the money letter system had then ceased. Compensation or responsibility for the safe delivery of letters had also been ignored. Registration was, in fact, further delayed, following the issue of these instructions, as the necessary forms and documentation were not distributed until mid-January. As a result, the earliest known registered letter is a stampless pre-paid cover dated 15 January and the earliest stamped cover is dated 20 January and bears a 1d. black.
Rowland Hill's position remained a precarious one. By the end of 1840 the Treasury recognised that the penny postage rate had been set too low and a previously strong source of revenue had become a burden. When the Whigs were defeated in the General Election of 1841 he believed the Tories would increase the letter rate to 2d., despite his insistence that gross Post Office revenue would return to pre-penny post levels. This in fact took over 30 years to happen, demonstrating how high postage rates had been.
Whilst Hill was eventually dismissed in September 1842, he returned as Secretary to the Postmaster General in 1846, when the reformed Whigs came back to power as the Liberals. For a further eight years Hill and Maberly continued their open conflict, which Hill eventually won, ending what is certainly the most notorious personal battle in the history of the Post Office.
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