[This letter has been graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web by Eunice and Ron Shanahan from their website, Letters from the Past. Click on thumbnails for larger images/]

This letter is interesting because of the reference to the London coaching inn The Swan with two necks. The letter was addressed to Charles Upton, from Jermyn Street No.38 in London dated Novr the 5th, 1798. There are only two postmarks postal marks

  • the circular London evening duty double ring with the day 5 in the centre, NO for the month at the top and 98 for the year at the bottom. This type of postmark was in use from 1795 to 1799 .
  • the manuscript charge mark of 7 (7 pence). From 1796 to 180 this was the cost for a single letter being carried a distance of between 100 and 150 miles, and Derby was 126 miles from London . The paper is a heavy woven type with the watermark RUSSELL & CO 1797.
  • The letter begins

    Dear Sir,

    I sent your bill and my Bills on the late Mr. Broadhurst in a parcel to the Swan with Two Necks in Lad Lane last night to go by this mornings coach to Derby so that you will receive them tomorrow evening.

    beginning of letter

    The Mails were reliable and unless there were exceptional weather conditions, kept to their time schedules. Many Mails were so punctual that country clocks were set by their daily arrival. The commercial users of the mail knew the mail coach services, and we have other letters like this one, which show that the writers knew when the letters would be received.

    During the mail coach era, there were many coaching inns in London in competition with one another. The Swan with Two Necks, became the largest. Of the 28 mail coaches which left London every evening, half were horsed at this inn.

    As a matter of interest, it has been suggested that the name of this coaching Inn was originally the Swan with Two Nicks, this being one of the identifying marks made on the bill of a swan to mark ownership in the annual ceremony of 'Swan-Upping' on the River Thames. I found this information from this marvellous website on the internet .

    [Swan-upping] dates from medieval times, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans at a time when swans were considered an important food source for banquets and feasts. Today, the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked Mute swans in open water, but the Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Vintners' and Dyers' Companies, who were both granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century. Nowadays, the swans are counted and marked, but rarely eaten except perhaps occasionally at State Banquets.

    The Queen's Swan Marker and Swan Uppers, accompanied by the Swan Uppers of the Vintners' and Dyers' livery companies use six traditional Thames rowing skiffs in their five day journey upstream as far as Abingdon. By tradition, scarlet uniforms are worn by The Queen's Swan Marker and Swan Uppers, and each boat flies their appropriate flags and pennants.

    There is a record of all these identifying marks with illustrations, and this one showing two marks or 'nicks', one on either side at the top of the swan's bill, belonged to the Vintner's Company. If the story is true, it would not have made such a good Inn-sign as that of a swan with two necks.

    The inn has been the subject of two products by the British Post Office. The first was issued 31st July 1984 — a se-tenant strip of 5 x 16p stamps marking the bi-centenary of the first mail coach run from Bath & Bristol to London. The stamps were designed by K. Bassford and S. Paine, and engraved by C. Slania. This is one of the PHQ cards of that set showing the Swan with Two Necks. Ten years later they issued a 50p booklet of stamps with a cover design showing famous Coaching Inns.

    booklet cover

    The Swan with Two Necks, issued 25th January 1994, was number 1 in a series of 4, and contained 2x 25p stamps, the illustration was by Andrew Davidson, and printed by Harrisons & Sons Limited.

    So now to continue with the letter, which was written by S. Harman, and addressed to Charles Upton, Derby. From other letters we have seen, it seems Mr. Upton was a solicitor. Having explained in the first paragraph that he was despatching the bills, he continues with the main subject — note his abbreviations:

    Mr. Myreek the Soltr [Solicitor] for Martindale's Assignees called upon me today to say, that Mr Wyatt the purchaser of the Estate at Cookham had been disappointed in receiving money that he was in expectation of at the time he made his purchase; but that he would compleat the same immediately, if the Exrs [Executors] of Mr. Broadhurst would suffer 4000 of the 6000 mortgage to continue upon the Estate, and in that case he would pay off the Interest now due & 2000. I promised him that I would communicate this proposal to you, and send him your answer.

    This seems to be a fair amount of money to be paid out for an estate 200 years ago, so presumably it would have been a parcel of land with a house etc.

    He ends with an intriguing sentence:

    Harmon signature

    Since writing the above I have received your letter of the 3 inst, and have the pleasure to tell you, that contrary to the opinions of the faculty, all my children are recovered.
    I am, Dr. Sir,

    Your most obt.(obedient) Servant
    S. Harmon.

    The signature is completed with a flourish of his quill pen. Considering that the letter is more than 200 years old, it is very well preserved, very easy to read, and is probably as relevant today as when it was written.

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    24 May 2010