A Brief look


A brief summary of the history of the postal system in Britain. Taken from the excellent book "Collect British Postmarks" 

Henry I: (1100. 1135) Appointed messengers to carry Government letters. Later, messengers were appointed by Barons, Church dignitaries and others.
Henry III:  (1216 - 1272) Provided uniforms for the King's Messengers
Edward I: (1272 -1307) Instituted fixed places (posting houses) where horses were available for the carriage of letters
Edward II: (1307- 1327) The first manuscript postal markings appeared on covers.: "haste, post haste"
Henry III: (1509- 1547) Appointed Brian Tuke as "Master of Posts"
Elizabeth I: (1558- 1603) Appointed Thomas Randolph as "Chief Postmaster" for the Inland & Foreign mail
Charles I: (1625 -1649) Appointed Thomas Witherings as "Chief Postmaster". He set up the nucleus of the modern system with regular post roads, post houses, Staff and fixed rates.
Charles II: The General Post Office in England was created by Oliver Cromwell in 1657. With the  restoration of the Monarchy In 1660, Charles II gave Henry Bishop the task of delivering the post. Bishop paid the sum of 21,500 per annum (The first franchise?). To check on delays in his postal system, Bishop introduced the World's first Postal Handstamp in 1661. This wooden handstamp was a bisected circle with the Month shown at the top and the day underneath.  About 1713 this sequence was reversed. The Bishop mark can be found in varying sizes. The Postal charge at the time was normally written in ink on the letters (manuscript). 

Most early letters where folded and sealed. Sometimes with wax impressed with the family crest. The address was written on the outside (as below). Sometimes the address was very brief. indeed. No Postcode/Zip codes used here! I have one letter in my collection posted in 1877 just addressed "Mrs Caswell, Binfield".

I have referred to the marks here as postmarks, as the term "cancel" or "canceller" refers to the  method of canceling adhesive postage stamps with a postmark so they can not be used again.




Binfield is a parish of Bracknell.  This letter has a Bishopmark for 14th Sept. The earlier Bishopmarks where the other way round with the day underneath. These postmarks where applied in London, where nearly all post went though  The postage rate was 3d which is added in  manuscript on the front. ("3" in pen). 




In 1652 the "Franking System" started.  Members of Parliament and some other nobility got given the privilege FREE of post  The sender had to sign his name on the front of the letter. The postmaster would stamp the letter with the red free stamp to indicate it's free delivery status. This much abused system had it's rules  tightened over the years and finally abolished with the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840  

Later collectors of autographs cut the fronts off these letters and stuck them in their albums! There are lots of these fronts on the market,  they are called "Free Frank Fronts". 

"Frank" is the name now used to describe post in the UK that has been pre paid, normally applied by a "Franking Machine", and still in RED. 

The letter illustrated was posted free by the Earl Limerick in Bracknell to Dublin 



The first of the new style "Town postmarks" appeared in 1789. 

THE PERIOD 1789- 1809

During this period most of the large towns of England used an arced Town name postmark. The small village of Bracknell had only receiving house status, but this postmark can be found on letters posted from Bracknell. It is not known whether this postmark was of local origin. A letter has been seen with this postmark as late as 1807. The two I have are dated 1802 & 1803

The post rate to London at the time was 5d this letter acquired a double charge. manuscript 10d

THE PERIOD 1809 - 1813
This Period brought the OFFICIAL straight town postmark with the mileage mark added underneath. Thirty Two miles is the mileage from  London to Bracknell  via Windsor. The mileage was always calculated from London, because most letters went to London first for delivery onwards.

Windsor (6 miles away) was where the mail coach dropped the post for Bracknell off on it's journey from London to the west.. The Bracknell Postmaster had to go everyday to Windsor to exchange the mail.  Probably by foot. 


THE PERIOD 1814 - 1832
In 1814 the straight town postmark with the mileage mark changed too 31 miles underneath.

At this time Bracknell's status as a just a  receiving house came to a close. The mail was now included  on the Staines/Wokingham ride via Virginia Water. This route is only 31 miles form London hence the change of mileage from 32. No more walks through highwaymen riddled forests to pick the mail up.

A new postmistress was employed in 1814 as well. 

This postmark was repaired many times during it's life.

The additional coded red postmark is one of the styles that was used between 1799 - 1839. The letter at the top of the red postmark is the time in code, hence the name "coded postmark"..


THE PERIOD 1832 - 1839
The straight line Postmark was replaced by a UNDATED circle in Black. The colour changed to Red/Orange about 1937. The outlying Sub Post Offices also had their own postmarks in this style.

THE PERIOD from 1939
A new postmark appeared with the date included.  I have seen this mark in Red/Orange, Black and a dark Blue.  These postmarks remained after the introduction of stamps and where used mostly as receiving marks.

The postal rates changed frequently until the Uniform penny post came into being in Jan 1840 & The world's first postage stamp appeared in May that year.

Sometimes, various OTHER MARKS where applied to letters. .  See also Receiving marks

DON'T BE BASHFUL! If something is wrong or would like to add to this information. Please let me know.
 Copyright F.MARDLE 1999. 2000. 2001. 2002  All rights reserved. Published by Collectnews