Postal services up to 1794

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Postal services up to 1794


Early mail was carried in packets, sealed with the King's seal

The first official post office was established in Jersey by the British Post Office in 1794, but it was to be another three years before postal deliveries to homes and business premises were introduced, and these were only within a very limited area of St Helier.

The first Jersey postmark on record

Letters within the island

In the second half of the 19th century, particularly once railway services had been introduced between St Helier and St Aubin and Gorey, and the introduction of the penny post brought the postal service within reach of the majority of islanders, letters and postcards became a very important means of communication. Services were faster and more reliable then than they are today and it was not at all uncommon for a message to be written and posted in the morning to arrange a rendezvous for the same evening with someone living on the other side of the island.

But before 1794 the sending of letters within the island was virtually unknown; written communications could only be passed to a friend or family member to be delivered personally to the recipient. And any correspondence outside of the island would also have to be entrusted to someone travelling to England or France.

English postal service

An embryo postal service was in operation in England as early as the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century, when messengers known as 'posts' were employed to deliver official correspondence for the Sovereign throughout the country. The Royal Mail traces its history back to 1516, when Henry VIII established a "Master of the Posts", a post which eventually evolved into the office of the Postmaster General. Indeed, in the 13th century, in the reign of King John officials styled nuncii and cursores were employed to convey state documents on the king's behalf. Letters from Jersey to England are on record as early as the 15th century.

As the network developed it became easier for Channel Island residents to tap into the system by handing letters to the captains of ships plying between the islands and England's south coast, and eventually unofficial post offices were established in Jersey, where letters could be left to be sent to England on the next available boat. The charge for this service was one penny for the postmaster and a further penny for the ship's captain. The letters were usually sent to Southampton and the official charge for the onward journey to the letter's destination was paid by the recipient.

An 18th century mail coach

Official service

This private postal service was referred to by Christopher Saveland, a Post Office Surveyor who was sent to Jersey by the Postmaster General who began to consider bringing the Channel Islands into the British postal system in 1792. He wrote:

"The merchants of Jersey and Guernsey have an almost constant intercourse with France by Market Boats to and from Jersey, by which, the conveyance to Southampton being so very irregular and uncertain, they send their Letters for Spain, Portugal and other parts of the Continent, and which are said to be very considerable ... the intercourse with the Continent by the mode I have described ios better and more regular than by Southampton in its present state."

The demand for a postal service was clearly already substantial, because a survey conducted by the Postmaster at Southampton in November 1791 identified 2,296 letters addressed to Jersey and Guernsey during four weeks, or some 30,000 in a full year. It is assumed that there was a similar flow of correspondence in the opposite direction. And all this despite the service being slow and irregular, subject to delays in periods of bad weather and even more in times of war with France.

Governor's pressure

There appears to have been no move by either the island's merchants or the States to press for an official postal service, but the Governor at the time, General Conway urged the British Government on several occasions to introduce one. He wrote on 15 July 1793 to Henry Dundas, Under Secretary of State in the Home Department:

"I beg leave to add a word on the head of the Paquet boat, on which I have so often troubled you; the interruption of our communication with Jersey is frequently of five or six weeks, which besides the inconvenience to Government is very distressful to the Inhabitants, the Commercial particularly".
A mail packet of the type used between Weymouth and the Channel Islands

Mr Dundas had already urged the Post Office to introduce some sort of service to the Channel Islands, but it did not think it would be profitable and was reluctant to do so unless ordered to do so by the Government. This it did in early 1794, although not before the argument over which English port should be used for the service had been resolved in favour of Weymouth, although all island communication had hitherto been with Southampton or Portsmouth. Although there were logistical reasons to support Weymouth, it is thought that it was chosen mainly because it was very much a fashionable town, patronised by King George III.

An Act of Parliament on 28 March 1794 fixed postage rates and authorised the Postmaster General to set up post offices in the islands. No doubt conscious of the fact that it was only 13 years since French invaders had been defeated in the Battle of Jersey, the Admiralty was informed that postal packets would be crossing the Channel to and from the islands and asked that "His Majesty's Cruizers may be directed to keep as far as may be an Eye on the Packet Boats to prevent their being taken by the Enemy".

The packets were privately owned and operated according to a contract with the Postmaster General, which met some of the operational costs, the balance and any profit coming from carrying passengers.

An early postmark

Dover packets

Two Dover packets, the Rover and Royal Charlotte were transferred to Weymouth, war having again caused the suspension of the Dover to Calais service and the first official mail crossed to the islands on 13 February 1795. It had originated at the Lombard Street General Post Office in London and was carried by mail coaches via Kensington, Brentford, Hounslow, Staines, Egham, Bagshot, Frimley Bridge, Farnham, Alton, Alresford, Winchester, Romsey, Ringwood, Palmer's Ford, Poole, Lytchet Minster, Wareham and Melcombe Regis to its destination in Weymouth.

Christopher Saveland travelled on the first packet and confirmed the appointment in Guernsey as Postmaster of Mrs Ann Watson, who had already acted unofficially in the role for 15 years. The appointment of Jersey of Charles William Le Geyt was much less anticipated, not least by Mr Le Geyt himself. Saveland arrived at his house with a batch of mail and informed Mr Le Geyt that he had been appointed Postmaster on the recommendation of Evan Nepean, Under Secretary of State for War.

Mr Le Geyt, a 60-year-old retired Army officer, was happy to accept the position.

A mail packet off Elizabeth Castle
A very rare surviving letter sent from Jersey to England in 1699

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