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Postal History Collection

Provincial Penny Posts

The early mail service in the United Kingdom catered basically for delivering and receiving letters only to and from the Post or Sub-Post Towns. If you lived outside the post town in one of the neighbouring hamlets, no door-to-door mail service was available unless alternative private arrangements had been made to deliver your letters. This service was usually made with the Postmaster (known as the Deputy) of your local post town at an extra fee – normally one penny.

London, Edinburgh

By the third quarter of the 17th century, the General Post was working well, mail being distributed between Post Towns via the Chief Office in London with a fair degree of reliability. But to send letters within London, or any other city, was impossible. No local post existed.

25 January 1680/81. An original Dockwra handstamp on a letter addressed to 'S[i]r William Holcroft at the signe of the Crowne in ffanchurch Street, neer Lumbard Street end'. The initial 'P' in the handstamp indicates that this letter was handled by the St. Paul's Office.
In 1680 William Dockwra, a London merchant, saw this as an opportunity and with a group of associates established a London Penny Post. Dockwra’s post was efficiently run and a great boon to Londoners, particularly those who had businesses that benefitted from good communication. Dockwra’s penny post accepted letters and packets up to a pound in weight and delivery was guaranteed within four hours – a big advantage to the London trader. Its huge success was soon apparent to the Post Office but they were quick to point out that they held a monopoly of the post. In late 1682, they suppressed the Dockwra penny post but immediately re-established it as their own, continuing it almost without change for the next hundred years.

Nearly a century later, in 1773, a local private penny post was established in Edinburgh by a man named Peter Williamson. Like the London penny post of 1682, Williamson’s post was also suppressed, then taken over by the Post Office in 1793. Francis Freeling, new to Post Office headquarters, visited Edinburgh during this period and was responsible for organising the takeover.

The London, and in particular, the Edinburgh Penny Post were influential in establishing the pattern for the Provincial English Penny Posts that followed.

Provincial Penny Posts

In an Act of Parliament of 1765 provision was made for setting up local penny posts to deliver letters to the surrounding neighbourhood of cities or towns. In the following years, only a handful of large cities such as Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester established local penny posts; and these not until the year 1793. One of the problems experienced was the reluctance of the Post Office to proceed with the establishment of any post unless they believed there was no financial risk.

5th Clause Post. 28 Jan 1830. A letter to Sturminster showing the Wincanton /5'Cl:Post handstamp, type BCC.52. The boxed No.2 RH stamp was applied in Castle Cary where the letter was handed in.

The first positive move towards the expansion of penny posts came at the beginning of the 19th century. In April 1801 all postage rates were increased by Act of Parliament. The 5th and 8th clauses of this Act were important and made possible the local penny posts that were to follow. The 5th Clause allowed the Postmaster General to collect and deliver letters to and from towns and villages surrounding a Post Town at such charges as were agreed with the inhabitants, whilst the 8th Clause allowed the individuals within a village (or the whole of the inhabitants) to indemnify the Post Office against financial losses. The most prominent person, (the one who lived in the big house), was often the one to give this guarantee. After all, he probably gained most from a local post.

Many of the early local posts established under the 1801 Act were known as 5th Clause Posts, having their own designated handstamps. Unfortunately, it was found that the local charge (usually a penny) could not be made on free letters or newspapers as before. As a result, from 1808 there was a move from 5th Clause posts to Penny Posts to counteract this anomaly, and from that time the local penny posts grew rapidly till the advent of Uniform Penny Postage in January 1840 rendered them obsolete.

Penny Post Handstamps

12 June 1811. An early Romford/Penny Post handstamp together with a handstruck '1', which at this date was normally applied adjacent to the penny post stamp. June 1811 is when the Romford Penny Post was established and this example must be very close to the first day of use. 15 June 1816. BPMA type 42/1 MAIDSTONE/Penny Post handstamp on a letter addressed to Bourton on the Water. The boxed RH No.2 shows that the letter was handed in at Sutton Langley. Aug 1839. BPMA type 47/5 West Moulsey/Penny Post handstamp on a 'free' letter sent to London.

In England and Wales, there were five basic types of named penny post handstamp in use between 1811 and 1840 when they were superseded by the new stamps of the Uniform Penny Post. In practice, they continued in use until well into the 1850s albeit they had little use except as town or village namestamps.

Handstamps with a few exceptions were standardised throughout England and Wales and when a new penny post was established, the Office was sent the stamp that was currently being produced and issued from the Chief Office. The 5 basic types of stamp and the years that they were issued are as follows:-

Type of handstamp.
BPMA ref No.
Period of issue from
Chief Office.

Standard handstamp
issued by Chief Office.

42/11811-1823example of BPMA 42/1 Penny Post
45/21823-1827example of BPMA 45/2 Penny Post
44/31827-1834example of BPMA 44/3 Penny Post
43/41834-1837example of BPMA 43/4 Penny Post
47/51837-1840+example of BPMA 45/2 Penny Post

The pdf links below are searchable tables listing relevant items in the Postal History Collection. They have been arranged in alphabetical order of town (Provincial Penny Post table) and 5th Clause town (5th Clause table).

Use the search box to enter your search term. The first instance will then be highlighted in the table.

Download link

Provincial Penny Postage (PDF, 1.2 MB)

5th Clause (PDF, 61 KB)

Table Glossary

Sources used:

Numbering system: 42/1, 43/4, 44/3, 45/2, 47/5

These are BPMA numbers combining two different cataloguing systems: 42/ etc from the British County Catalogue by Willcocks & Jay; and /1 etc from Oxley “The English Provincial Local Posts”.

Other numbers:

Auck. – Auckland, Bruce “Postal Markings of Scotland to 1840” 2nd edition. Edited by Ron Stables

Meredith – Meredith, R.W. “Old Irish Postage Stamps and Franks”

Oxley – Oxley, G.F. “The English Provincial Local Posts 1765-1840”

W & J – Willcocks & Jay “The Postal History of Great Britain and Ireland”


BM Bishop mark

cds circular date stamp

circ. circular

CX Charing Cross

d.s datestamp

h/s handstamp

H/S handstruck

MX Maltese Cross

ms. manuscript

mm mileage mark

oct. octagonal

pl. plate

PP Penny Post

rect rectangular

RH Receiving House

sl. straight line

TP Twopenny Post

udc undated circle

UPP Uniform Penny Post