'The study of postal history through old letters brings life to the world of yesteryear and the nostalgia for the past we all feel'.
Aberystwyth was established as a post-town and the first post office opened in November 1769 when Mary Harris was appointed postmaster at a salary of £4 per annum. Her premises were 'adjoining the St Michael's churchyard wall' for which she paid an annual rent of 12s.6d. It brought for the first time a regular once weekly collection and delivery of letters. The population of the town at this time was about 1,400.
Before the opening of this first post office, any letters written locally that needed to get into 'the post office system' had to find their way to the next nearest post-town, which was Montgomery, some fifty miles away. The letters were carried to and from Montgomery by a 'postboy' who at this time was not an employee of the Post Office and who can best be described as an enterprising, self-employed individual, a horse owner, who had to be honest and, above all, reliable, on pain of spending one month on hard labour in the local House of Correction if he should suffer any other person to ride on the horse or should loiter on the road and wilfully misspend his time, so as to retard the arrival of the mails at the next post-town. It was hoped and requested, for the benefit of public correspondence, that all persons who might observe the postboy offending aforesaid would give notice to the Surveyor of the General Post Office.
Outside the town, the postboy had a catchment area from Llanon in the south, over to Ystrad Meurig, to Devil's Bridge (including Hafod), returning via Tre'r-ddôl and Llandre. He had 45 pick-up and delivery points on his round, usually the clergy and landed gentry. Not only would he be responsible for the carriage of the letters to Montgomery, but he would also carry with him a considerable sum of money for the time, so that he could pay for the letters to be delivered on his return. Before the introduction of uniform penny postage in 1840, postage on letters was paid by the addressee and not the poster. He was reimbursed by the addressee on delivery. His income was derived by charging Id. for each letter he carried to Montgomery together with any gratuity offered on delivery.
The first letter I have seen written locally is one to London dated 13 July 1749 and it shows clearly the route taken. It has a two-line Montgomery mark and is annotated 'Salop post, Montgomery bag'. The postage rate was 4d. and it arrived at its destination on 19 July 1749, taking six days for the journey. The letter writer is staying at Crosswood and describes the local population thus:
We live here very agreeably and I begin to be acquainted with all the Welsh squires in the neighbourhood, which is a species of people quite new to me. The ancient law as at the time of their own kings prevails here and the inhabitants beat one another like hock fish upon the least dispute which the defendant returns at the first opportunity. I go frequently to the little town of Aberystwyth with the parson to get fish and brandy and if tis known as it generally is all the gentlemen of 50 or 60 pounds a year in the neighbourhood do me the honour of their company at the next alehouse where we drink such beer as would poison you.
Another letter dated 16 January 1765 written by John Jones, Mayor of Aberystwyth in that year, shows a clear Montgomery strike. It arrived London on 25 January 1765 having taken nine days, emphasising the infrequency of the posts before the opening of the first office.
The first letter known from Aberystwyth since the opening of the post office is dated 14 February 1774 to Lord Viscount Lisburne at the Admiralty in London. It shows the first two-line Aberystwith [sic.] postmark (fig. 1) and it reached its destination on 18 February, taking only four days, a big improvement since a regular service now existed. The writer has added the postscript: 'Your lordship will excuse the hurry I am in as the postboy waits for me'. The postboy would now be an employee of the Post Office, the postmaster being paid a riding allowance of £53 per annum.
Members of both Houses of Parliament enjoyed free postage and the system was widely abused. Each member was restricted to posting ten free letters a day and to receiving fifteen. They had to be signed and dated on the address side of the correspondence. The Post Office would have liked to abolish the system as the revenue lost was estimated at nearly a million pounds a year. Members would sign huge packets of covers at one time and distribute them among their friends. Servants were known to receive them in lieu of wages, selling them on again in the ordinary way of business.
Other 'free' letters from Pryse-Pryse (Gogerddan), WE. Powell (Nanteos) and the Duke of Newcastle (Hafod) are known as is one from the Bishop of Bristol to the Vicar of Llanilar. It is worth recording that one unfortunate gentleman, a minister in the Church of England no less, was transported to Australia for seven years for forging the Bishop's 'free' mark worth 10d.!
Whilst on the subject of the local gentry, an enclosure in a letter to Mrs Davies at Cwmcynfelin seems to sum up what most people thought about them:
Gogerddan's lawn, Nanteos' woods and wall,
Penglaise's altitude and Hafod's cost appal,
Alarm, surprise and take poor bumpkins in,
But men of reason ask, pray who's within.
To indicate how the gentry lived at that time, a letter dated 27 March 1810 to WE. Powell Esq. of Nanteos, who was staying at London, informed him that five hundred guineas had that day been placed to his credit (the equivalent of about £200,000 today).
The contents of a letter from Aberystwyth dated 31 December 1801 refer to an agreement with Lewis Davies, mason, for the building of a bridge over the River Aeron at Talsam for £500 to be completed by 1 October 1803 and kept in repair by him for seven years. It is the same bridge which still spans the river at that point.
By 1791 there were three deliveries a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The postage rate to London had increased to 6d. and so had the population of the town to 1750. The time taken to London had now been reduced to only three days.
It would be a great mistake to think that misdirecting mail was a modern phenomenon! They were doing it in 1794. A letter from London to Cardigan (and the usual route was via Gloucester and Carmarthen) had been mis-sent to Aberystwyth and the postmaster had annotated the cover in red ink as such.
In 1801 mileages to London were added to new postmarks. As postage rates depended on distances to London it was a good check that the correct postage was to be collected; Aberystwyth had the unique distinction of being allocated two such mileage marks - 213 miles via Rhayader (fig. 2) and 234 miles via Machynlleth (fig. 3). The postage rate had increased to 8d. in 1802 and increased further to l0d. by 1810.
The first mailcoach reached Aberystwyth in 1807. A coach left the Gogerddan Arms every Tuesday at 4 o'clock in the morning for Shrewsbury and twice a week on Thursdays and Saturdays the Aberystwyth/Ludlow coach set out from the Talbot Inn again at 4am. Both coaches met the London mail at their destinations and all coaches to London were timed to arrive at the same hour so that letters could be delivered all together. An account for a 22 day stay at the Gogerddan Arms during this period amounted to £14 9s. 0d. including breakfast, dinner, tea and supper each day. Wine, negus, ale and porter accounted for almost half the amount.
The Shrewsbury Chronicle of the time has a graphic account of the mailcoach arriving in Aberystwyth:
The mailcoach station in Aberystwyth is the Gogerddan Inn at the top of the Darkgate and it is up this thoroughfare that the coach is driven by the master of the whip and ribbons. Entering the town by way of the Northgate toll, the driver will lash his sleek iron muscled horses into a gallop, past the inn, and suddenly thonging his leaders, smartly turn them round in their own length and steer the coach with uncanny accuracy through the narrow archway leading to the cobbled courtyard of the inn. The feat invariably draws an appreciative group of spectators, at the same time transfixing with horror any stranger who might chance to be among the outside passengers.
In 1812, William Williams was appointed postmaster. He was a prominent citizen, the father of Richard Williams, surgeon, who opened the first dispensary in the town. He moved the post office to Market Street, conveniently next door to the Talbot Inn.
By 1819, the postage rate to London had increased to 11d. but the time taken had been reduced to only two days. The service had progressed by 1824 to such an extent that mails from London arrived daily at 8am and departed at 5pm. A south and north mail was also in operation. The first circular date stamp was issued in 1830 (fig. 4) and mileages were removed altogether when the routes to London had altered frequently with road improvements.
On the 24 November 1824 Mary Williams became postmistress on the death of her father and at Llanbadarn Church on 25 June 1832 she married Josiah Evans, who at that time was 21 years of age and described himself as an agriculturalist! On marriage he was appointed postmaster at a salary of £40 per annum. The population of the town was now 4,128.
The fourth Duke of Newcastle bought the Hafod estate in 1832 for £70,000 from the Johnes family and in a series of 'free' letters he refers to the improvements to the harbour at Aberystwyth 'to the material benefit of the public at large'. He headed a list of subscribers to pay for the improvements with a donation of £500.
It was during this period that penny posts to villages within the post-town area were established. Aberystwyth seems to have gone one better and established a free post for local letters to James Hughes, a local solicitor who lived at Glanrheidol. He had become friendly with Josiah Evans the postmaster, so he arranged that no postage fee was to be collected from his friend. There are several examples showing no postal markings on letters to James Hughes. They regularly socialised at the St David's Club where James Hughes was one of the committee members. Enclosed in a note from the postmaster to his friend are the conditions of a mail coach to run from Aberystwyth to Newtown and 'Mr E will be happy to furnish Mr H with every information he possibly can respecting the contract'.
From reports of the Select Committee on Postage and parliamentary papers relating to the Post Office, mail posted at Aberystwyth during the week commencing 29 January 1838 comprised 755 items of which 122 were free or privileged letters. There were 844 letters delivered during the same period. The income of Josiah Evans, postmaster is given as:
|Fees on late letters||3.0.0|
|'Perks' on delivery of letters in the town and beyond the fixed boundary||7.0|
|Gratuities from private bags,Christmas boxes, etc.||2.2.0|
|Profits on money orders||2.0.0|
|Less office rent||5.0.0|
To emphasise the high cost of postage at this time, in a letter from Cardigan to Aberystwyth (postage rate 9d.) the writer says 'I thought it unnecessary to put you to 9d postage so that I send you this by the carrier'. In a further letter from Newcastle Emlyn to Aberystwyth (postage rate 8d.) the writer says 'Thomas Griffiths ought to have paid the postage of this letter which I beg you will get from him, otherwise I shall be the loser'. It is worth remembering that the average rate of pay for a farm labourer or miner was from 8d. to 1s. per day.
One of the most gratifying things about collecting postal history is that until about 1850 not only do you have the postal markings, but also the contents of the letter, since envelopes were not brought into use until 1845. Once in a while a classic piece of social history is revealed and a letter from Aberystwyth dated 25 August 1838 illustrates the point. There were no local newspapers serving Aberystwyth at the time so the following is probably the only description of the event recorded:
The town was last night lighted with gas and there was a public dinner at the Lion in commemoration of the event at which the mayor presided. About thirty five sat down to dinner, the lukewarm and feeble opponents not doing themselves the honour. At eight o'clock Mr John lighted the first lamp at the Town Hall from a platform erected for the occasion and then a procession was formed (preceded by a band of music) who walked to see the effect of the lights but owing to the clearness of the evening and the gas being mixed with the atmospheric air, the light was not so bright as may be expected. All passed off without any rows and remarkably well.
An inconspicuous cover from Lampeter dated 11 June 1840, prepaid 1d., to James Hughes, the solicitor, reveals for the first time that all is not well at the Post Office at Aberystwyth, where the postmaster appeared to have mislaid or lost a money order for five pounds payable to Joseph Downie and he was requested that there might be no further delay in the payment of the order. During this period one report stated that Josiah Evans had become addicted to spirituous liquor - taking it at first on doctor's advice!
The General Post Office were now becoming concerned about the affairs of the postmaster as he seems to have got himself into financial difficulties, so much so that they insisted that he put up two sureties in the sum of £500. He had no difficulty in getting his friend the solicitor to stand and Mr Hughes, who also represented the Earl of Lisburne, somehow persuaded him also to stand as surety.
On 11 November of the same year, the bailiff called round to the post office and Josiah Evans' furniture and effects were distrained and deposited in the yard of the Talbot Inn next door, to be disposed of as the law directs unless payment was forthcoming within five days. He owed £10 to his landlord, a Mr James Rees, for rent up to 12 May. This represented two years in arrear. He must have received the bailiff with some displeasure for he tried to destroy the inventory of the goods seized but somehow it was fortunately recovered and pasted back together on a blank Post Office form.
Josiah Evans was dismissed on 24 March 1841 and escorted to Cardigan Jail as a debtor. The Post Office weren't slow for they wrote the very next day to ask James Hughes, one of the sureties, to put himself into communication with the officer in charge of the Post Office at Aberystwyth in order that arrangements may be made for the discharge of an estimated debt of £129.13s.l0d. due from him from the late postmaster.
Poor Josiah Evans writing to his friend the solicitor from jail was anxious to appear before the Commissioners in order to obtain his discharge and did not expect opposition from any quarter. He trusted that the 'book debts' would be covered by arrangements made by his wife prior to her leaving Aberystwyth. He reckoned without the perseverance of the Postmaster General who wrote to inform James Hughes that the amount owed had been increased to 'about £200' and requested that immediate measures be taken for its repayment in order that the account with his department might be closed.
In July of the same year the Accountant General of the Post Office reported that the amount of £277.8s.3d. was due to his department from the late postmaster still remained unpaid and begged to refer to the previous letters on the subject. In November, in a letter to the Earl of Lisburne, marked immediate, the Post Office had the honour to inform him that by the books of the department the aforementioned sum, for which his lordship was surety still remained unpaid and requested that arrangements be made for immediate payment in order that his account might be closed. Two weeks later the Post Office regretted writing to his Lordship as it was found upon further enquiries that his Lordship had withdrawn his responsibility as surety.
James Hughes must have taken heart from this news for he wrote asking to be released from his responsibilities under the bond to the Crown and in reply the Post Office said it was out of the question. He asked for a reasonable time to make arrangements for paying the debt and he was allowed 'say a month from this date' which was 9 March 1842. Twelve months had now elapsed since Josiah Evans' dismissal and James Hughes had again written to the Postmaster General on the subject of the balance due and was informed that the first applications were based upon 'estimate'. It was further stated that his Lordship (the Postmaster General) wished it to be distinctly understood that, although he could not but feel for the situation, he was not authorised to make any abatement whatever in the amount due under the bond.
The former Postmaster still languished in Cardigan Jail as it was the custom not to release a debtor until all that was owing had been repaid. It came as a surprise then that out of the blue he seems to have paid £50 on his own account to reduce the debt though it is not known where he obtained the money. In June the Post Office transmitted to James Hughes, at his request, a statement of the accounts of the former Postmaster, noting that there was not the slightest reason to doubt their accuracy. On 30 November the Post Office in a further letter to James Hughes stated that unless a communication on the subject of the debt was received by return of post it would be placed in the hands of the solicitor to the department.
In February 1843, almost two years since the dismissal of the postmaster, James Hughes was still playing delaying tactics. The Post Office wrote to him to say that unless a very satisfactory letter was received 'by Monday next' respecting the debt, the solicitor would be instructed to take proceedings for the recovery of the amount due. Unfortunately, further correspondence on the subject has not come to light and it is assumed that eventually the debt was repaid as James Hughes continued in practice in the town as a distinguished solicitor for many years. Let us not forget Josiah Evans, who one hopes was eventually released from jail for in a letter to his former friend, he assured him of his best exertions to repay him in full as speedily as possible!
The one person who could have given us the answer would have been Susannah James, who died on 3 January 1846, aged 60 years, and whose gravestone in St Michael's churchyard bears the inscription 'for 40 years in the post office department of this town'. Also her son who died aged 35 in 1855, who is described as a letter carrier 'for 15 years in the post office of this town'.
The uniform penny post was introduced on 6 May 1840. It meant that for the first time postage of only one penny to anywhere within Great Britain was to be paid by the poster and saw the introduction of adhesive postage stamps. Just as we say now that some new innovation is the best thing since sliced bread, so in 1840 they were saying that the uniform penny post was the best thing since the invention of the wheel. It brought letter writing to the mass of the population for the first time and the working classes could afford to write and more importantly to receive letters. It was the brainchild of Rowland Hill who himself stated in 1841 that 'the postman after 1840 made long rounds through humble districts where, heretofore, his knock was rarely heard'.
The quarterly accounts of the Aberystwyth Post Office for March 1841 show no postage received and £2.l.0s.9d. in postage stamps in stock. This represents 609 penny black stamps, but where they have disappeared to is indeed a mystery. Only 5 covers from Aberystwyth bearing these stamps are known to exist. The postmaster seems to have had a built-in resistance to their use although he had ample stocks. These new adhesive stamps were introduced only as an alternative to show postage had been paid so he still preferred the old system of annotating the cover 'paid ld.'. A new postmark had to be devised to cancel the stamps and this was known as the Maltese Cross (fig. 5). It was always accompanied by the circular datestamp which was applied to the reverse. The circular datestamp issued in 1830 had become faulty and the changeable dates had broken altogether in June 1841 and a 'skeleton' or 'traveller' postmark was used for one week only (fig. 6) until a replacement was supplied on 26 June (fig.7). Only one example of this skeleton mark is known.
Tolls had been introduced in 1769 to pay for road improvements and a lady visitor to Aberystwyth in 1837 wrote:
...we arrived here yesterday and shall not leave till tomorrow that we may allow the horse a days rest. The turnpikes here are higher than in England, so many new expensive roads made within a few years. The turnpikes all come to about thirty shillings a day.
The old coach road from Cheltenham to Aberystwyth ran through Rhayader and then on through a mountainous district for thirty miles via Devil's Bridge. This was virtually impracticable as the mail coach line. The Aberystwyth Trust affected a great improvement in 1812 by constructing an upper road through Ponterwyd to the base of Plynlymon where it joined an old parish road from Devil's Bridge to Llangurig and Llanidloes. The existing road from Rhayader to Llanidloes was merely a narrow lane. So in 1829 a Llangurig Trust was formed to build an entirely new road up the valley of the Wye from Llangurig to Rhayader. Thereby the route from the Midlands across the Plynlymon range to Cardigan Bay was immensely improved. Rhayader became an important road junction. On 25 September 1844 at the Llangurig end of the new road which now formed part of the route from Cheltenham to Aberystwyth, the gate was pulled down with all the pomp and paraphernalia of Rebecca.
In 1842 a Richard Dunlop, late guard of the Cheltenham and Aberystwyth mailcoach, wrote that, having commenced business as a fishmonger, he 'respectfully solicits the encouragement of those gentlemen who so kindly favoured him with their patronage during the seven years he performed the duties of guard, having a wife and seven children to support sincerely hopes by the encouragement of his friends and strict attention to those orders with which he may be favoured to merit a still larger share of public patronage'.
The contents of a letter of 1841 refer to the valuations of 1 Laura Place as £700 to £750 with the furniture valued at £500 and of 2 Laura Place valued at £600 with the furniture at £400. Number 2 is of lesser dimensions having no stabling attached. A further letter from Lampeter (via Tregaron) to Aberystwyth refers to a teapot 'out of which my mother drank when she was taken ill'. The poor lady died the next day and suspicion fell on one Elizabeth Jones who sought aid to hide the teapot and 'it is yet in the same place without being removed'. The writer wished to consult the coroner to send proper officers to examine the pot.
By 1842 next day delivery from Aberystwyth to London was the norm, which nowadays seems quite astonishing, especially since it was 22 years before the railway reached Aberystwyth. The Post Office moved to Pier Street in 1842 and the newly opened Belle Vue Hotel was appointed a coaching inn. There was some rivalry between the Belle Vue and the long established Gogerddan Arms. The Gogerddan ran the mail coach to Shrewsbury and as the profits from the operation came from passenger fares it was jealously guarded. When the Belle Vue defiantly put a competitor on the road it signalled the start of a cut price war that was carried to suicidal lengths. The Belle Vue lowered its fare on the Shrewsbury route so the 55 Gogerddan had to follow suit. Lower and lower went the fares until the incredulous passengers were being taken to Shrewsbury for only 2s.6d. When the Belle Vue hinted that a free breakfast would be thrown in for good measure, the Gogerddan Arms threw in the towel. With the road all to itself the Belle Vue promptly raised the fare to the original 24s.
In 1852, 'The Snowdon Tourist', a coach leaving the Belle Vue for Dolgellau, arrived in Machynlleth in time to meet the Shrewsbury mail and an account from the same period notes that the mail coaches were advertised to connect with the railways. The seven day stay including full board and liquid refreshments came to £9.3s.1d. for two people.
After a life of only 4 years the Maltese Cross obliterator was superseded by a system which served to identify the office of posting. Aberystwyth was allocated numeral obliterator no. 2 purely on alphabetical grounds (fig. 8). The office datestamp continued to be used on the reverse.
The writer of a local letter of 1844 offered 'cows or sheep' in exchange to clear a debt of £13 and arranged a meeting to 'talk over the matter'. The contents of a letter of 1845 refers to the proposed Manchester/Milford railway to terminate 'at or near Mary Street' in the township of Aberystwyth, in the parish of Llanbadam Fawr - also a branch line from Mary Street and terminating at the harbour.
For a variety of reasons, adhesive stamps were still only reluctantly used and more often than not letters were still being annotated in manuscript to show that postage had been paid. To overcome this tedious practice Aberystwyth was allocated one of the most distinctive 'paid l d.' marks and is known as the Aberystwyth shield (fig. 9) All letters from 1 January 1853 had to be prepaid by adhesive postage stamps. Envelopes were introduced in 1845 and postal stationery envelopes were commonly used in Aberystwyth during this first year. A local letter of 1846 refers to an offer of £25 for a property in the town. The writer states 'it is worth no more as it is a shame to the town'.
The railways had for some time played a vital role in the carriage of mail and had seen the demise of the mail coach, which is probably why Richard Dunlop had the foresight to seek alternative employment. On 23 April 1849 a meeting was held at Aberystwyth where a strong party were exhorting themselves to remove the mail from the Cann Office and Machynlleth line to Newtown and Llanidloes and then directly on to Aberystwyth. Residents of Towyn and Machynlleth wrote to the Earl of Powys expressing alarm and imploring that he use his influence to prevent the success of the application. His lordship acquainted the Postmaster General of the situation and after looking into the matter the secretary of the Post Office informed him that preparations were being made for placing the London night mails on the new line of railway from Stafford to Shrewsbury and that when that measure was carried out the towns on the line of the Shrewbury and Aberystwyth and of the Welshpool and Newtown mail coaches would obtain the full benefit of the acceleration.
It had been customary since adhesive stamps were introduced in 1840 to obliterate the stamps and apply the office datestamp to the reverse of the letter. This was a time consuming practice, hence the introduction of the 'double stamp' or 'duplex' cancellation (fig. 10) combining the obliterating and date component. The duplex was issued in 1863 and remained in use until 1910. The population of the town had increased to 7,000 by 1861.
The last legitimate mail coach to run on the roads in the United Kingdom was from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth in 1862 and the guard on this run was one John Rea. He was aged 37 and came from Worcester but settled in Aberystwyth having been made redundant. The Western Mail of the time wrote that he was to be seen in the jolliest of humours, boring the younger gneration with his tales of life on the road in 'the good old days' on any day or night of the week in the snuggest of all snug little parlours at the White Horse Hotel of which respectable establishment he was the respected proprietor. Although now renamed The Varsity the building fortunately retains the original exterior decor to remind us of the last guard to run on the last mailcoach on the roads of the United Kingdom.