Eunice and Ron Shanahan have shared with readers of the Victorian Web this material from their website, Letters from the Past. Click on thumbnails for larger images.

This letter from the past is from A. Scott of Bootle dated 24th February, 1841, addressed to Peter Hodgson Esqr, Queen Street Whitehaven, which is north of Bootle, on the Cumberland coast.

Postal Markings

  1. straightline townstamp BOOTLE.
  2. standard provincial circular twin-arc undated townstamp RAVENGLASS in red of the type in use from 1829. Ravenglass is is a very old-established place in Cumberland. In fact in 1208 King John authorised a Saturday market, and an annual fair on St James’s Day. I don’t know why the postmark was applied, on a letter only passing through this town en-route to Whitehaven, unless it was a transit mark — but as it is undated, I cannot verify that.
  3. faint outline of a red Maltese Cross cancellation. As this type of cancellation was introduced in 1840 to obliterate the stamp so that it could not be used again, there would have been an adhesive stamp on this letter. Probably a previous owner has removed it!

The appeal of the Penny black is irresistible to many collectors, and they are frequently removed from old letters, to be mounted in a stamp collection. However, the letter itself has not been torn or damaged and the contents are still perfectly legible. The really serious collector would not have this letter in a collection, as the 1d black stamp is missing, but I find the contents interesting, and for my collection of town name postmarks it is a wonderful space-filler.

The Letter

I have reproduced the letter as it was written, with unusual abbreviations, (e.g. Xtmas for Christmas), and with the underlining. He also uses the word ‘tenths’, which is usually referred to as ‘tithes'.

Bootle Wednesday Evening 24 February, 1841

My dear Sir,

I was very happy to see by a letter in your hand-writing, which reached me about a week ago; that you were able to put your hand to paper again; for, when I was last in Whitehaven, you was reported to be so seriously ill, that I did not think it right to disturb Mrs. Hodgson by calling, as I had intended.

You sent me a long story to peruse, which, I suppose, will form the Basis of our deliberations, at the next Governors’ meetings — to tell you the truth, I must refresh my memory by a little viva voce [live voice] conversation, before I can pretend to understand all the merits of the case --

To call another cause — if you remember, I told you, before the Xtmas of 1839, that I wd not trouble your London Agent to pay the tenths of Bootle, any more: & accordingly, I transmitted the money, myself, on the Xtmas aforesaid. Having done the same, for this last festival of the nativity, I received for answer that the said tenths had been paid already: & I can only accuse your correspondent of being the disburser, as I know of nobody else, who wd have done so generous an act — If you are writing to him soon, you may tell him not to do so anymore as I can manage the matter with equal (if not greater) economy by a Post-office order.

In the days of Archbishop Grindal, when I was a Trustee of his school, Sainctee Bega, the annual meetings used to occur in Easter Week: — you will, no doubt, advertise me of the day, as I will have to arrange my Vestry-meetings here, so as to suit.

Pray make my kind remembrances to Mrs Hodgson & believe me
yours sincerely,

A. Scott.

Note : this is the only reference in my collection of letters to transferring money by the Post Office, all the others refer to the banking system.

Sainctee Bega (St. Bees) was named for the Irish Princess Bega who was cast ashore in the 7th century after escaping from the Norse on the eve of her wedding to a chieftain. According to legend, the Lord Egremont rashly promised her that she could have as much land as may be covered by snow on a midsummer’s day - and true to Cumbrian weather the snow came and Bega established her nunnery on a three mile stretch of land around the headland. Edmund Grindall, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1575, obtained from Queen Elizabeth permission to found a free grammar school at St. Bees in 1583: today it remains essentially the public school for Cumberland although no longer free. Obviously this is not the same Archbishop Grindal mentioned in my letter of 1841!

Post Office Money Orders

My research for this letter was quite different from my usual sources. Since I could find nothing in them, I put a hopeful query on the Internet for information about Bootle, and the Post Office Orders, and was very surprised at the prompt response.

Tom Jackson of Cumbria, England advised me that the writer of this letter was Alexander Scott, the Rector of Bootle from 1835 to 1848. Bootle is reputed to be the smallest market town in England. In 1841 the population was 696, and the post office was at Mr John Kitchen’s house. Letters were despatched to Whitehaven on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 oclock in the morning. This letter should have been in the Thursday mail.

Hans Karman, postal historian, supplied me with information about the relevant Regulation concerning Money Orders, which was dated 10 August 1840, Section 38.

"and whereas the Postmaster General hath, with the Concurrence of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury, made Regulations by which the Public are enabled to remit small Sums of Money through the Post Office by means of Money Orders; be it enacted, That such Mode of transmitting Money through the Post Office may have Continuance so long as the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury shall see fit:..."

Bob Wellman of Amherst, Massachusetts, replied to give me a mailing address of a collector of British postal orders, Jack Harwood of Florida USA. Jack gave me an astonishing amount of information about the Postal Orders including this :

"The Money Order system was established by a private firm in Great Britain in 1792, and was expensive and not very successful. In about 1836, it was sold to another private firm which lowered the fees and significantly increased the popularity and usage of the system. The GPO noted the success and profitability, and took over the system in 1838. Fees were reduced further, and usage increased further, making the MO system reasonably profitable. The only drawback was the need to send an advice to the paying Post Office before payment could be tendered to the recipient of the order. And that drawback was probably the primary incentive for establishment of the Postal Order System on 1st January 1881."

As a matter of interest we were still using the postal order system when we left England 25 years ago. It was ideal for anyone without a bank account. Nowadays that seems quite unlikely, but 30 to 40 years ago a great majority of working-class people had no money to spare to be put into banks, and used postal orders and money orders to transfer money when necessary. The idea of the Post Office as a service centre appears to have been altered to being a retail shop - maybe someone should write a book about the change of role. But change is a constant fact of life. This research is a case in point. I hesitated about getting onto the Internet for about 12 months, as most publicity I saw emphasised the news and current events which are available. As my interests are in history, I thought there would be nothing available. Wrong! The reference books are not available obviously, but the people who have access to the books are - and are only too happy to share their knowledge and information.

I learned from Jack Harwood that there is a society of Postal Order collectors, with about 70 members world-wide. There seems to be a specialist niche for all parts of the postal system - stamps, postal history, postal stationery, airmails, and even postal orders - no wonder there is always something to interest the collector.


Alan Robertson’s book Great Britain, Post Towns, Post Roads and Postage rates 1635-1839

Shell Book of English Villages

Last modified 28 May 2010