In this series, we turn to the words of Mr. Charles Dickens which appeared in the March 30, 1850 edition of the publication he edited, Household Words. The following article is chock full of details about how the Post Office operated in Victorian London and also about the mail and other items it processed on a daily basis.

The piece follows the progress of two gentlemen who make a visit to the Post Office and Part Three continues –

The friends were informed that 70,000,000 newspapers pass through all the post-offices every year. Upwards of 80,000,000 newspaper stamps are distributed annually from the Stamp office; but, most of the London papers are conveyed into the country by early trains. On the other hand, frequently the same paper passes through the post several times, which accounts for the small excess of 10,000,000 stamps issued over papers posted. In weight, 187 tons of paper and print pass up and down the ingenious ” lift” every week, and thence to the uttermost corners of the earth—from Blackfriars to Botany Bay, from the Strand to Chusan.

The system of stamping, sorting, and arranging, is precisely similar to that in the District Branch; and, by his recently acquired knowledge of it, the person who posted the coloured letters was able to trace them through every stage, till they were tied up ready to be ” bagged,” and sent away.

In an opposite side of the enormous apartment, a good space and a few officials are devoted to repairing the carelessness of the public, which is, in amount and extent, scarcely credible. Upon an average, 300 letters per day pass through the General Post-office totally unfastened; chiefly in consequence of the use of what stationers are pleased to call ” adhesive” envelopes. Many are virgin ones, without either seal or direction; and not a few contain money. In Sir Francis Freeling’s time, the sum of 5000 pounds in Bank-notes was found in a ” blank.” It was not till after some trouble that the sender was traced, and the cash restored to him. Not long since, an humble post-mistress of an obscure Welsh post-town, unable to decipher the address on a letter, perceived, on examining it, the folds of several Bank-notes protruding from a torn edge of the envelope. She securely re-enclosed it to the secretary of the Post-office in St. Martin’s-le-Grand; who found the contents to be 1500 pounds, and the superscription too much even for the hieroglyphic powers of the “blind clerk.” Eventually the enclosures found their true destination.

It is estimated that there lies, from time to time, in the Dead-Letter-office, undergoing the process of finding owners, some 11,0007. annually, in cash alone. In July, 1847, for instance—only a two months’ accumulation— ,the post-haste of 4658 letters, all containing property, was arrested by the bad superscriptions of the writers. They were consigned—after a searching inquest upon each by that efficient coroner, the ” blind clerk”—to the Post-office Morgue. There were Banknotes of the value of 10107., and money-orders for 4077. 12s. But most of these ill-directed letters contained coin in small sums, amounting to 3107. 9s. 7d. On the 17th of July, 1847, there were lying in the Dead-Letter-office bills of exchange for the immense sum of 40,4107. 5s. 7d.

“I assure you,” said a gentleman high in this department, ” it is scarcely possible to take up a handful of letters without finding one with coin in it, despite the facilities afforded by the money-order system. All this is very distressing to us. The temptation it throws in the way of sorters, carriers, and other humble employes is greater than they ought to be subjected to. Seventy men have been discharged for dishonesty from the District-office alone during the past two years.”

“But the public do use the Money-Order-office extensively?”

This question was startlingly answered by reference to a Parliamentary return, which showed that there were issued in England and Wales alone, during the year which ended on the 5th of January, 1849, 3,468,823 Post-office orders for sums amounting to the enormous aggregate of 6,861,803 pounds.

 It was approaching eight o’clock, and the “Miller and his Men” above stairs were delivering their sacks from the mouth of the ever-revolving mill at an incessant rate. These, filled nearly to choking with newspapers, were dragged to the tables, which the brass label fastened to the corner of each bag marked as its own, to have the letters inserted. Our friends rushed to where they saw “Edinburgh” painted up on the walls, and there they beheld their yellow, green, and red letters in separate packets, though destined for the same place; just as they had come in at first from Fleet-street. The bundles were popped in a trice into the Edinburgh bag, which was sealed and sent away. Exactly the same thing was happening to every bundle of letters, and to every bag on the premises.
The clock now struck eight, and the two visitors looked round in astonishment. Had they been guests at the ball in ” Cinderella,” when that clock struck they would not have been more astonished; for hardly less rapidly did the fancy dresses of the postmen disappear, and the lights grow dim. This is the most striking peculiarity of the extraordinary establishment. Everything is done on military principles to minute time. The drill and subdivision of duties are so perfect that the alternations throughout the day are high pressure and sudden collapse. At five minutes before eight the enormous offices were glaring with light and crowded with men; at ten minutes after eight the glass slipper had fallen off, and there was hardly a light or a living being visible.

“Perhaps, however,” it was remarked, as our friends were leaving the building, ” an invisible individual is now stealthily watching behind the ground glass screen. Only the other day he detected from it a sorter secreting 140 sovereigns.”

It is a deplorable thing that such a place of observation should be necessary; but it is hardly less deplorable—and this should be most earnestly impressed upon the reader—that the public, now possessed of such conveniences for remitting money, by means of Post-office Orders and Registered Letters, should lightly throw temptation in the way of these clerks by enclosing actual coin. No man can say that, plac
ed in such circumstances from day to day, he could be steadfast. Many may hope they would be, and believe it; but none can be sure. It is in the power, however, of-every conscientious and reflecting mind to make quite sure that it has no part in this class of crimes. The prevention for this one great source of misery is made easy to the public hand, and it is the public’s bounden duty to adopt it. They who do not, cannot be blameless.

Such is the substance of information obtained by our friends before they took leave of the mighty heart of the postal system of this country.

The End

2 thoughts on “THE LONDON POST OFFICE 1850 – Part Three”

  1. An interesting series. I was surprised to find the mail service so busy at that time, so I have learnt something. I am also impressed by the efficiency of the service as described by Dickens.

    Just one note: there seems to be something wrote with a couple of the figures, unless the placing of the comma responds to different conventions of notation at this date. I refer to these two figures: 11,0007 and 40,4107. 5s. 7d.

    Numbers are normally divided by commas in groups of three digits (and that is done elsewhere in this text), not four as here. Was this a copying error or are they written like that in the original?

    Also, I am surprised by the dots in sums of money. I have never seen this before. The second of the above figures would normally have been written £404,107 5s 7d, without any dots except possibly a full stop if it were at the end of a sentence. Again, I wonder whether this is a copying error or an oddity in the original.

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