The Postman Always Rings

January 28, 2018 at 9:43 am (history, london's landscape, World of Two Teens) (, , )

In the *first* of a series of posts (not necessarily all in a row), culling useful information about the World of Two Teens in the Time of Austen, is a short tidbit on the English Postal System.

So many times the Smiths and Goslings query each other:

  • When did you mail this letter? I received it only today.
  • How long did my letter take to reach you?
  • Should I use the route X rather than Y? Is it faster?
  • This letter took three days to reach me – why?
  • When did you post it?
  • I find, Today is not a post day.
  • The Postman is here, I must finish.

It, of course, is obvious that letters can travel through the hands of relatives – servants – as enclosures – via the family solicitor or banker, etc. etc. Some are franked; others hand-delivered next door or even inside the same house! Imagine yourself without your email…. “Why isn’t so-and-so answering me?” Things have not changed, it’s just the manner of the communication that differs.

(As well, the “historical” trail left behind! I Pity anyone studying the early 21st century 200 years from now…)

The Smiths and Goslings were as eager for news, as happy with a bit of a gossipy chat, as anxious about travelling loved-ones, as YOU are today. I was counting last night, and given the period from 1770s through the 1940s (stray letters at the beginning and the end, in a bell-curve fashion), and even discounting for wrappers alone or free-fronts (ie, NO letter inside) and for those copied from books, I have transcribed over two thousand letters. A *major* feat; though perhaps on par with finding them in the first place! The life stories that roll across the amassed pages is astounding. No wonder it’s taken ten years to come to grips with it all – and to see the materials for myself, when they are scattered from England to Italy, from Canada and the U.S. to Australia.

If I read a letter a day, EVERY day, it would take SIX-and-a-half YEARS to go through them, and that wouldn’t be counting any that are still out there, in someone’s closet or shoebox. And that doesn’t count the family diaries.

bright star_letter

So, what did I find? A schedule for the London Two-Penny Post in the year 1835, information among the printed matter at the front of “The Commercial LedgerAnnual Memorandum Book, used as a daily diary:


There are Six Collections and Deliveries of the Letters in Town, daily, (Sundays excepted), and there are Two Dispatches from, and Three Deliveries at, most Places in the Country, within the Limits of this Office.

The Hours by which Letters should be put into the Receiving Houses in town, for each Delivery, are as follow [sic]:

For Delivery in TOWN.
Over Night by 8 for the First
Morning ……… 8 …………. Second
                         10 ………… Third
                         12 ………… Fourth
Afternoon ……. 2 …………. Fifth
                          5 ………….. Sixth

For Delivery in the COUNTRY.
The preceding Even. by 5 for the First.
Morning ……………………… 8 …………… Second
Afternoon ……………………. 2 …………… Third.

But Letters, whether for Town or Country, may be put in at either of the Two Principal Offices an Hour later for each Dispatch.

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August 29, 2010 at 9:12 pm (a day in the life, books, research) (, , , , , )

Time and again I am reminded how true-to-life Jane Austen’s prose are; as well, how the Smiths and Goslings reflect the same sensibility and milieu as Austen’s best-loved characters.

Early in the weekend (for I have done a LOT of reading), I encountered this paragraph and just had to smile: Mamma Smith, Emma and little Eliza all immediately sprang to mind:

“As dinner was not to be ready in less than two hours from their arrival, Elinor determined to employ the interval in writing to her mother, and sat down for that purpose. In a few moments Marianne did the same. ‘I am writing home, Marianne,’ said Elinor; ‘had not you better defer your letter for a day or two?’
‘I am not going to write to my mother,’ replied Marianne hastily…. Elinor said no more; it immediately struck her that she must then be writing to Willoughby.”

I don’t know if it is just the idea of passing along the same information, or giving different people the chance to write, or just reducing the cost to the recipient: but in Austen we have remarks about the UNusual: two letters written and received by ONE person:

“What a fine fellow Charles [their youngest brother] is, to deceive us into writing him two letters at Cork! I admire his ingenuity extremely, especially as he is so great a gainer by it.” [Austen letters, p. 6]

Here was a more typical outcome (like the passage in S&S) of too many willing letter-writers:

“my writing to you prevents Eliz:th writing to Harriot” [Austen letters, p. 108]

Jane is in residence with the Austen/Knights, while Cassandra is at Godnestone with Elizabeth Austen’s sister Harriot Brydges.

And here is a favorite passage in a letter from Mamma to Emma, 1825:

“Eliza has just been grumbling at me for writing this letter, I tell her Spencer will not think hers the less valuable; I had concealed it from her because she was so unwilling to write.”

Emma and Spencer were travelling with Charles, and young Eliza had drawn Spencer for a correspondent, yet wasn’t sitting down to do her duty! In a less amusing vein, comes this same thought in a letter to Augusta following Drummond’s untimely death (1832):

“I pity him [Spencer] deeply for no longer having any Brother; the three were so united … [Maria’s] first youth has been much clouded by sorrow. Fanny is rather less drooping, & she eats & sleeps better. Maria & Eliza wished to write to you, but I would not give up the turn to day to any body.”

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