The British postal service can trace its origins to 1516 when Henry VIII established a ‘Master of Posts,’ a precursor to the office of the Postmaster General.
The Postmaster General was a member of government who was responsible for maintaining the postal system and, after the Telegraph Act of 1868, electric telegraphs. He was supported by local postmasters who were located in towns and cities throughout England and ran local postal services. In turn, they were then supported by subpostmasters and subpostmistresses, who would offer some post office services alongside other work such as running a shop or other businesses. Early post offices were usually set up in people’s houses or other commercial properties. Chichester did not have a custom built post office until the late 19th century.
The first Postmaster of Chichester, John Lucas, was appointed in 1769, with an annual salary of £42.
Between 1783 and 1800 the Postmaster of Chichester was William Carlton, who worked from his premises in East Street. Upon his death, his wife, Elizabeth, was given permission take on the role after arguing that she had worked with her husband and was familiar with the tasks and routines of postal work. She resigned from the position in 1812 stating ‘overwork’ as her reason, although there had been some suspicion regarding fraudulent activities at the post office under her management .
In June, 1816, John Angell became Postmaster and worked from a premises in South Street. In 1824 John’s son, William, was convicted of stealing a letter from the post office which contained £100 and was sentenced to seven years’ transportation. He was caught after spending some of the bank notes and later confessed to his father.
At the end of 18th and beginning of the 19th century, post was sent using Royal Mail coaches along the main postal routes. As Chichester was not directly served by Royal Mail coaches (which ran to Portsmouth and Brighton from London) post to towns and villages was instead delivered by private mail coaches or post boys.
Legend has it that between 1830 and 1850, mail was conveyed between Chichester and Arundel in a cart drawn by four large dogs; this was made illegal in 1856. The transportation of mail at this time was hazardous and robberies were frequent. One attempted robbery of a dog-drawn mail cart took place in 1830. Taking place in Arundel Woods, the letter carrier stopped to give an elderly woman a lift in the mail carriage, despite knowing this was against the rules. A little into the journey, the mail carrier saw a gun beneath the clothing of his passenger and realised that it was, in fact, a highwayman in disguise. Luckily, he was able to remove the would-be robber from the carriage and arrived at his destination without injury.
Due to crimes such as these, mail coaches often carried a guard. In Chichester, a man named Luke Kent served as the first guard of the Chichester mail coach. His job was to protect the post from attempts to steal it, record journey times and warn other road- users when the coach was approaching. Mail guards were armed to deter robbery attempts from highwaymen. It was reported on his death in 1803 that he left a sum of money in his will to the mail coach on condition that on future journeys the horn would be sounded as they passed his grave in Havant.
Next week’s article will look at the Post Office from the 1830s to the modern day.
Compiled using ‘The Postal History of Chichester, 1635 – 1900’ by Brigadier G.A. Viner
Compiled by Amanda Rogan, learning officer at the Novium Museum