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Ship Letters

By Julian H Jones

Click: to see Portsmouth Ship Letter on entire dated 1775 The 1711 Act of Queen Anne regularised the handling of incoming mail to Britain by ship. It allowed the Post Office to claim from recipients the 1d (one penny) per letter gratuity paid to ships' masters for unloading their mail at the first opportunity on reaching British shores. The recipient of the letter was also required to pay the inland postal charge between the port of landing and the letter's destination. Prior to 1765 the inland rate was simple: 3d for less than 80 miles from London and 4d for more than 80 miles. Click to see Entire sent from Maryland to Edinburgh in 1783  However, from 1765 the inland rates became more complicated and soon hand stamps were in use at the busier ports to confirm the port and distance rate due. Early uses of ship letter marks include Liverpool (1757), Londonderry (1762), Dover (1765), London (1766), Deal and Falmouth (1767).

Click to see Entire sent from Liverpool to Baltimore via New York in 1784 Click to see Entire sent from Liverpool to Portsmouth, NH, in 1799 The British ship letter system was used in the British Colonies and inherited by the United States, including the rate progression by number of sheets in the letter. The hand stamps themselves took on a variety of styles, starting with a straight line name of the port and progressing through a number of boxed, oval and circular styles as well as the simple SHIP in conjunction with another postmark.

Click to see entire sent from New York via Liverpool to London in 1817 Click to see Entire sent from Philadelphia, via New York and Portsmouth, to London 1826 Prior to the mid 19th century mail was carried either by government packet or the much more frequent private trading ships. Click to see entire sent from New Orleans via New York and Bristol to London on board 'Great Western' in June 1840 Letters carried by these merchant ships are termed 'Ship Letters' and include those carried on the early pioneer steamships which often competed with the government contract packet ships.

Click to see Entire sent from Warrington via Liverpool and New York to Philadelphia, May 1841 The sender in Britain could pay for transmission of their letter from an inland location to the port and ship of their choice. Typically the cost to send mail abroad by ship was less than that of the packet. Ship letter marks were also applied to outbound ship letters to indicate proper payment of the fees. Prior to the negotiation of postal treaties it was still not possible to pay the inland postage of the receiving country.

In the 1840's the British Post Office concluded contracts with first Cunard and then the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. to carry mail across the North Atlantic. Similar contracts were established with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co for mails to India. These, and similar to Africa and Australia, were considered to be packet services which attracted different hand stamps, particularly those in regard to the postal treaty with the USA.

Click: to see Consignee's letter from Liverpool to Philadelphia in 1863 However, letters continued to be carried on ships not under government contract, but were mostly Bills of Lading concerned with items of cargo being carried on the ship. However, use of ship letter marks continued into the 20th century.

A prime example of that is the Birmingham Ship Letter.

Inevitably letters posted to a passenger or crew member on board a ship simply missed the sailing! As many transatlantic steamers called at Queenstown, southern Ireland, the post office there held an array of Too Late Ship Sailed marks.



Robertson Revisited, Colin Tabeart, 1997 edition, James Bendon Ltd, Limassol, Cyprus
United States Incoming Steamship Mail, 1847-1875, 2nd Edition, Theron J Wierenga, US Philatelic Classics Society, Inc.
United Kingdom Letter Rates, Inland and Overseas, 1635 to 1900, Colin Tabeart, Second Edition 2003, HH Sales Limited, Bradford

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