The Royal Mail in Victorian England

The bright red postbox: an English icon.

Rare Victorian Postbox, Museum of Lincolnshire Life, Lincoln

Photo by Brian from Lincoln, via Wikimedia Commons

This rare early Victorian example has eight sides and a vertical slot for posting a letter for later collection and transport. All Victorian post boxes displayed the letters VR, for Victoria Regina, and a Crown, for this was, after all, the Royal Mail.

Royal Mail
Begun in 1561 under Henry VIII, the Royal Mail was vital for communication in 19th Century England. Letters zinged across the country, first by Royal Mail Coach (the first one driving between London and Bristol in the late 18th century) then from the 1830s by mail train.

Price of postage
Members of Parliament had, in the 17th century, granted themselves the right to send and receive letters free of charge. Everyone else in Victorian times sent their letters via the Penny Post. An MP’s signature on the front of a letter was highly prized. Forgery was punished by transportation for seven years.

An Independent Woman
In my Victorian romance, An Independent Woman, the heroine Philomena is ordered by the noble Lord Thatcham to send a letter to her (imaginary) uncle in Bristol. At least his rank means she need not pay the postage for her deception!

The Post Office
Philomena visits the village post office, a centre of gossip on the Thatcham Hall estates. My own maiden aunts, Victorian ladies born in the late 19th Century, kept their post office in the pretty Cotswold village of Sibford Gower. They weighed letters using tiny brass weights, and kept a little pot containing a damp sponge on the counter, for moistening postage stamps.

Life in the Post Office
The delightful semi-autobiographical novel, Lark Rise To Candleford by Flora Thompson, records her life in the Cotswolds and a post-mistress’s tasks in the early 20th century.

Child Sweeps and Climbing Boys in Victorian England

Climbing boys, some as young as four or five years of age, scrambled up Victorian chimneys to brush out the soot. Often, terrified, they stuck fast or fell to their deaths. They worked long hours with the smell of soot in their nostrils and the taste of choking dust in their throats and eyes.

Chimney sweeps
drawing by unknown artist via Wikimedia Commons

The boys’ workplace was a tiny, confined space.  Rough bricks scraped their elbows and knees until they were raw or calloused as the boys struggled to climb through the maze of chimneys. Any child too terrified to move was likely to  find a fire lit beneath him to encourage faster climbing.

Many climbing boys died from cancer, while a lucky few ran away, probably becoming vagabonds on the streets.

Victorian parliamentarians, led by Lord Shaftesbury, disapproved of sending small boys up chimneys, but the habit persisted. After all, who else would fit into a space of 22x22cm?

The Chimney Sweeps Act of 1834 and its revision in 1840 decreed that no child under 14 should be cleaning chimneys, but there was little enforcement of the law until a further Act licensed sweeps in 1875.

As the surviving climbing boys grew older, they often became chimney sweeps themselves. The 1834 Act regulated the noise of their street cries, a common annoyance in London. It became illegal to shout “Sweep, sweep.” As one sweep put it, according to the Morning Post of 21 November 1834.  ‘Vell, I never… I vunder vot next ve shall have. Carn’t even now call out “serveep” for van’s livelywood but vot the beak is arter us and nails us for five bob, or a month in kervod.’

In 1873, The Pall Mall Gazette reported that a Gateshead chimney sweep was convicted of the manslaughter of a ‘climbing boy.’ The sentence imposed on the culprit? Just six months imprisonment.

What do you think of that as a punishment?

Further reading:

TES Connect

The Victorian Dictionary

The British Library

Crime and Justice in Victorian London: Unsolved Mysteries

In the four a.m. darkness of a day in July 1858, Eliza Simpson, a married woman of Keate Street in London, shrieked “Murder.” A labourer in the house she occupied, along with her husband, ran to discover Michael Murphy kicking her with his wooden leg.

“If you come near, you black b….., I will serve you the same,” said Murphy.

As Eliza tried to escape down the stairs, her attacker threw her down from one landing to the next. She died a week later from brain injuries.

Covent Garden Flower Women
Photo by John Thomson via Wikimedia Commons

At the time, Eliza was recovering from a black eye, inflicted in unknown circumstances about five weeks earlier. She had drunk three half-pints of porter on the day of the attack and it was claimed that she was “in the habit of drinking.”

A few days after the attack another woman punched her in the face as she smoked a pipe in the local Spitalfields public house, The White Swan. Next day, she died without the benefit of medical help.

The man with a wooden leg, Michael Murphy, was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment for manslaughter.

What was she doing with Murphy at 4 a.m? Was she a prostitute? Where was her husband, and why was she attacked?

The Old Bailey Online answers none of these intriguing questions.

I’d love to know if anyone can tell me any more.

Victorian Crime and Punishment: Policing

These beautiful truncheons were used by the newly-emerging police forces in Victorian times.
Edinburgh police truncheons (19thC)
Photo by Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons.

Crime and punishment in 19th Century England began to take a more systematic form.
The Metropolitan Police Force was set up in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel. The police were known as “bobbies,” and they policed the streets of London.

Paid police forces gradually spread throughout England, but for much of the century a single low-paid or unpaid constable held the responsibility for keeping the peace in a parish.

Throughout the century, punishments remained harsh, with murder punished by hanging. Many lesser offences, including manslaughter, led to deportation of the criminal to Australia or New Zealand.