It’s in the post

In the truly wonderful novel The Woman in White, written by Wilkie Collins and published in 1859, the heroine Miss Halcombe posts a letter from Yorkshire to London on June 17th, and has the reply in her hands on June 18th. I was reminded of this when, last week, I received a letter in Aberdeen on April 27th that had been posted in Yorkshire on April 4th. Not everything gets better with the passage of time.

In fact Collins wrote The Women in White less than 20 years after the postal service in its modern sense got under way. This came with the inauguration of the ‘penny post’ on this day (May 1) in 1840, thereby for the first time putting the mail within reach of most people. Prior to that date, the mail was what we would now describe as a courier service performed at the sender’s request but paid for by the recipient. Sir Rowland Hill’s pre-payment system using the ‘penny black‘ adhesive stamp changed everything, including the opportunity for Marian Halcombe to seek urgent help from London in the novel. In fairness, the penny black was not really Roland Hill’s idea; he is thought to have been inspired by an idea put forward by Scotsman James Chalmers in 1838. Though if we are to be precise, the first proposal for postage stamps was made in Austria in 1835 by the Slovenian civil servant Lovrenc Košir.

The postal service revolutionised communications. Writing and receiving letters was now open to pretty much everyone, and this became part of the post-industrialisation mobility of the general population.

But now, in the 21st century, everything has changed again. Email has made communicating with someone anywhere in the world an instant business, and even formal business documentation can now often be exchanged electronically. Can the mail service survive this revolution? Perhaps not. I still remember the excitement of the daily (actually, twice-daily in cities) mail delivery, but nowadays it is increasingly rare that the post serves up anything of much interest. Just occasionally I see a hand-written envelope, and at such moments I still think that, maybe, there will always be some demand for this service. Perhaps. But  if that is to be so, delivering something on April 27 that was posted first class over three weeks earlier will not do.

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4 Comments on “It’s in the post”

  1. jfryar Says:

    Recently there was a story picked up by a number of papers in the UK. A quick search to find the story gave me the Daily Mail version:

    In essesence the story is about a radio presenter who wanted to know the location of local postboxes and was told by the Royal Mail that such information would undermine their commercial value. That this is seen as ‘commericially sensitive’ information only highlights the problems with snail-mail systems in a world of broadband communications.

  2. Vincent Says:

    All the same though your late letter is not the usual. And for what it’s worth you’ll have a letter from Easter Is or South Georgia dropping on your mat as quickly as one from Exeter or south Galway, quicker probably if I’m honest.
    On the main point, we will end up with a commercial Corps of Queen’s Messengers providing a legally sealed service for stuff deemed to sensitive or important. And true handwriting might go the way of insular script while we skype and type whatever plebeian communications we engage in.

    • Indeed – I (mid-40s) recently had a letter sent to me by an 18-year-old with the comment ‘this is the first letter I’ve ever sent, so I hope it works’… astonishing. If young people struggle to send a letter, then the postal service really will become something that just eccentric old people use at substantial expense.

  3. cormac Says:

    When I moved to Waterford, I found the postal service to and from Dublin very efficient and reliable; surprisingly so, given our infrastructure.
    However, post to the US is a shock – it takes months (literally) for packages sent by regular airmail to arrive from Ireland, I can’t understand it.

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