AT the November meeting of the Andover History and Archaeology Society Roger Harris, presenting ‘The Post before Royal Mail’, began by explaining that up to 1840 no envelopes were used.

Instead the letter sheet was folded and sealed. Secondly, it was the recipient who paid the postage costs, based on the postal mileage and number of sheets of the letter. Andover to London was assessed as 68 miles in 1787, revised to 66 miles from 1802.

Before 1579 there was literally only royal mail, the king’s correspondence carried on approved routes. Through north Hampshire the route from London ran via Hartfordbridge (near Hartley Wintney), through Basingstoke, Whitchurch and Andover to the west.

The first known Andover postmaster, appointed on 1 Oct 1579, was John Smith. A postmaster was usually an inn-holder with stabling. Post-boys, who might be as young as 12-years-old or in their 70s, took the mail from one postmaster to the next by horse, a post bag on his back, blowing a horn on entering a town and every third of a mile on the road. As they visited inns along the way, post-boys also gossiped. Enterprising inn-keepers reported the stories, hence newspapers called The Courier or Messenger, and Evening Post. The occupation was hazardous, with atrocious roads and danger from highwaymen. But the first recorded postal robbery in 1650 netted just 11d.

Postage rates started from 2d in 1635, when a labourer was getting 8d a day, so the post was out of reach for ordinary people.

By 1786 post-boys gave way to the mail coach. Delivery was now faster and safer, protected by an armed post-guard. A standard coach took four inside passengers with the driver in front and guard behind. Often six more travelled seated on the roof, making the coach unstable. It was a great sight in London to see the mail coaches all leaving at 8.00pm. There was pride in travelling to the timetable, though the heavy snow of 1836 engulfed a coach near Andover and it arrived in Exeter 12 hours late.

MPs did not pay postage, leading to abuse of the system. The Christchurch MP’s daughter, Anne Sturges-Bourne, got her father to sign her frequent letters (now in Hampshire Record Office) to close friend Marianne Dyson to avoid postage costs.

From 1830, the railways began carrying mail and road mail coaches were all but gone within 25 years. In 1837, Rowland Hill, concerned to expand services to the poor, published proposals for postal reform. The initial 4d universal post was soon moderated under Hill’s pressure to 1d and within a few months the first 1d black adhesive labels issued. Initially a red frank was used but since it could be washed out, the stamp was changed to red with black franking.

By way of a coda to his very entertaining talk, Roger showed an envelope posted in 1847 in London for Overton (Whitchurch, Hants) stamped with 16 franks of false deliveries to other Overtons and Whitchurches before delivery to the correct address.