There is nothing that tends more to the increase of Trade and Business than a Speedy, Cheap, and safe way of Intelligence,
much being obstructed and more retarded in all Places where that is wanting.
For as Money, like the Blood in Natural Bodies, gives Life to Trade by its Circulation;
so Correspondence like the Vital Spirits, gives it Sense and Motion:
and the more that these abound in any Place, the more doth that Place increase in Riches, Strength, and Vigour.(*)
The London Penny Post was a shortlived private postal service that ran between the 27th March 1680 and the 23rd November 1682 which nonetheless had a considerable impact on the development of the British Postal Service.
The man credited with the creation of the London Penny Post was one William Dockwra, a searcher at the customs-house, who put much effort into promoting this "New and Useful Invention, commonly term’d the PENNY POST", by means of handbills, pamphlets, and advertisements in such periodicals as the Mercurius Civicus which promised the "speedy and safe Conveyance of Letters and packquets under a pound weight, to all parts of the Cities of London and Westminster, and the suburbs thereof" and that messengers would call for letters at "all Coffee-Houses in the High Roads and Streets following". This was something of an innovation for the time since, although the nation had become accustomed to the existence of the General Post Office, which had been established for the purpose of conveying letters across the country, however its activities were restricted to the delivery of letters from one town and another and there was no provision for a postal service within any town or city.
The London Penny Post duly opened for business on the 27th March 1680. The head office was at Dockwra's own home in Lime Street, there were seven sorting and district offices, and between four and five hundred receiving-houses and wall-boxes. There were hourly collections, with up to ten deliveries a day being made in the city centre, and at least six a day in the suburbs. Although some of what were then mere "outlying villages" such as Hackney and Islington, had to be content with a mere four daily deliveries. And in contrast to the service provided by the GPO, the London Penny Post insisted on prepayment and used a triangular hand stamp featuring a fleur-de-lis motif and the words "L/PENNY POST PAID", and even promised £10 compensation for late delivery or loss of the item in question without any additional fee.
It seems however that William Dockwra was not the sole instigator of the London Penny Post; rather it was a "joint enterprise" with one Robert Murray, a clerk in the excise office. Indeed Robert Murray was to describe himself as "the inventor and first proposer" of the Penny Post, but as it turned out the Privy Council issued a warrant for his arrest on the 25th May 1680 on suspicion of distributing certain "seditious materials", specifically an Appeal from the Country, a pamphlet that supported the Duke of Monmouth's claim to the throne in preference to that of the Duke of York. Murray was therefore arrested, and by the time he was later released it appears that Dockwra had taken control of the business, and so Murray started a rival post of his own. (Indeed it has been suggested that it was Murray's post that first used the triangular stamp and that Dockwra then simply copied the idea.)
However William Dockwra was already known as an 'interloper', which is to say that he was engaged in the African slave trade in defiance of the monopoly granted to the Royal African Company, and as it so happened that the London Penny Post was similarly a business began in defiance of the postal monopoly conferred upon the General Post Office. What was more, in 1663 the profits of the General Post Office had been assigned to the aforementioned Duke of York, and thus on the 23rd November 1682 the Duke won a judgement against Dockwra in the court of the King's Bench, and the London Penny Post was brought to an end. It is nevertheless doubtful whether the Duke of York suffered any financial loss as a result of Dockwra's Penny Post; quite the reverse in fact, since it did not compete with any service provided by the General Post Office, and if anything likely fed business to the GPO.
What was more to the point was that the London Penny Post had been launched right in the middle of was known as the Exclusion Crisis, when certain opposition politicians, who soon came to bear the name of Whig, campaigned to have the Duke of York excluded from the succession to the Crown on the grounds that he was a Roman Catholic. The principal opposition Whig leader, one Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury had close ties with the instigators of the Penny Post and some have gone so far as to characterise the London Penny Post as a "Whig-backed service" as it "spread unlicensed news" in an effort to "thwart Government censorship". A pro-government newspaper, the Heraclitis Ridens, complained in its edition of the 1st March 1681 that "there was never anything so favourable to the carrying on and managing Intrigue", and once the crown had survived the Exclusion Crisis, the powers that be felt that it was the time to take actions against this purveyor of sedition.
It was nevertheless clear that the London Penny Post had been a commercial success and had demonstrated that there was a demand for a local postal service within London, and so on the 11th December 1682, the GPO launched its own London District Post, a quite separate and distinct operation from the 'General Post', which simply carried on the London Penny Post under a different name. The Duke of York did eventually succeed to the throne as James II, although he was later removed from the throne as a result of the Glorious Revolution, and following the accession of the reliably Protestant William and Mary, William Dockwra was granted a pension of £500 in 1690 "in consideration of his good service" in establishing the Penny Post. In 1697 he was even appointed as comptroller of the now official 'penny post', although he eventually fell out with his superiors and was later dismissed in June 1700. It wasn't until 1765 that a further Act of Parliament enabled other towns and cities to set up their own local penny posts, and even then only a few large cities such as Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester did so. The rest of the nation had to wait until the arrival of the Uniform Penny Post on the 10th of January 1840.
(* William Dockwra, from his pamphlet A Penny Well Bestowed, or to give it's full title, A Penny Well Bestowed, Or a Brief Account of the New Design contrived for the great increase of Trade, and Ease of Correspondence, to the great Advantage of the Inhabitants of all sorts, by Conveying of LETTERS or PACQUETS under a Pound Weight, to and from all parts within the Cities of London and Westminster; and the Out Parishes within the Weekly Bills of Mortality, For One Penny.
- Susan E. Whyman, Postal Censorship in England 1635-1844
- Patrick Joyce, Postal communication and the making of the British technostate, Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change Working Paper, July 2008
- Dockwra’s Penny Post, March 2004
- Provincial Penny Posts
- Joan Day, ‘Dockwra , William (bap. 1635?, d. 1716)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008
- Natasha Glaisyer, ‘Murray, Robert (bap. 1633, d. 1725?)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004