The English postal system and early modern communication

People often talk about the transition to modern society in terms of the history of ideas. We can discuss an number of important books and authors. We can talk about Enlightenment thinkers–Diderot, Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Montesquieu, D’Alembert, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Lessing, and others. But we can also look at material factors, such new machines, new forms of transportation, medical innovations, etc.  

Much has been said about the revolutionary power of the printing press. Less frequently discussed are inventions such as the newspaper and the postal service. As I wrote in an earlier post, the first English daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, began publication is 1702. This might be called the beginning of the mass media, at least in England. And these newspapers were transported by postal systems. Adopting the vocabulary of Bruno Latour, we can see the printing press, print text, newspapers, mail, and postal systems as actants. They are links or nodes in networks of communication. They aren’t passive links, thus to term actants. Print text, newspapers, postal systems, etc., produce change or differences, most of which are unanticipated. 

An efficient postal service was important, for example, in the consolidation of Tudor state. According to Ian Cooper (2014),

Communication between central and local government was essential to the success and security of the Tudor state. To implement and enforce their domestic and foreign policies throughout the realm and overseas, successive Tudor monarchs had to cooperate increasingly with the provincial gentry . . . who collectively occupied the multiplicity of offices that were available in local government. Interaction between the centre and the localities inevitably intensified immeasurably during periods of political turmoil. The Elizabethan war with Spain (1585–1604) and the Nine Years War in Ireland (1594–1603) stimulated a particularly high level of contact between central government policymakers situated at the court and local government enforcers residing in tactically important areas such as the south‐west. The privy council ordered local officials to muster and train the county militias, man the beacons, make ready England’s land defences in anticipation of a Spanish invasion attempt, and levy troops for military service in the Netherlands, Brittany and Ireland. An effective government postal service linking the centre and strategically vital areas of the periphery during periods such as these was therefore paramount. Cooper, Ian. “The Speed and Efficiency of the Tudor South‐West’s Royal Post‐Stage Service.” History 99, no. 338 (2014): 754-74.

Anything that facilitates communication affects society, and mail obviously facilitates communication.  Here some notes from the same article:

In 1450 news of the duke of Suffolk’s execution took two days to travel 70 miles from Dover to London; in 1453 news of Prince Edward’s birth took over 24 hours to travel the 55 miles between Westminster and Canterbury; in 1461 and 1484 it took at least six days for news to be conveyed 210 miles between York and London; while the conveyance of messages between Exeter and London during the fifteenth century appears to have customarily taken about four days. Thus, whereas at the end of the fifteenth century government communication between London and Plymouth in less than two days was inconceivable, a century later it was the norm. (Cooper)

Cooper provides evidence that the pre-18th century English postal service was more reliable and efficient than has been supposed. As far as terminology is concerned, a post road was a road with stations for furnishes horses for postriders and mail coaches, and travelers. A post stage, source of the word postage, was one of these stations.

In 1500 if central government wanted to send official correspondence to the provinces it had to do so by way of royal messengers. These couriers, who wore the king’s livery, carried their dispatch directly from the court to its intended addressee via a relay of post-horses, which they hired from stable owners at towns through which the main roads that linked London with the rest of the country ran. (Cooper)

Here is an old definition for the noun post:

Any of a series of men stationed at suitable places along appointed post-roads, the duty of each being to ride with, or forward speedily to the next stage, the monarch’s (and later also other) letters and dispatches, and to provide fresh horses for express messengers riding through. to lay posts: to establish a chain of such riders and horses along a route for the speedy delivery of dispatches. These chains were at first laid only temporarily, when occasion demanded direct communication with a distant point, but eventually they were established permanently along certain routes. From the 17th cent. the men were also known as postmasters , and were the precursors of the postmasters in charge of local post offices. In the 16th and 17th centuries, they usually had also the exclusive privilege of providing ordinary travellers with post-horses, and of conducting the business of a posting establishment (as a posting-house or inn), which was later separated from that of the Post Office. (OED)

According to S. K. Davis, for the average literate person, reliable mail service was not available until the 18th century.

Early eighteenth-century Britain experienced the opening of a pervasive epistolary space. Prior to the turn of the century, each citizen was effectively closed off from everyone outside his small community; writing a letter was a ridiculous waste of effort because there was no effective service to ensure its delivery. But the development of a regular postal service which could provide a swift and consistent service opened up an epistolary space wherein the literate could correspond with those far away, and relationships could thrive despite distance.  

Davis, S. K. (2006). Going postal: Epistolarity in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fiction (Order No. 3217545). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.