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.