Figure 4 London Edinburgh Royal Mail coach James Pollard 1821

Seasoned postal historians caution the inexperienced, who is unable to explain the route or the rate or markings on a particular cover, against jumping to the conclusion that ‘the post office made a mistake’. At the same time, one cannot rule out the possibility, however slim, of them indeed committing errors. Secondly, the postal historian has to often make peace with the fact that everything about a cover cannot be definitely explained and finality reached.

The cover in discussion will make the above points clear.

The Cover

The front and rear of an extremely interesting entire going from Calcutta to Edinburgh is illustrated as Figure 1 and 2. Datelined 21 May 1834, the letter was sent by the ship Ann (see the words “per ship Ann” which was then deleted and “first ship” mentioned and again “r Ann” mentioned at the bottom) to England.

Figure 1 After Packet Letter
Figure 1: Front of the cover from Calcutta to Edinburgh from May 1834
Figure 2 After Packet Letter
Figure 2: Rear of the cover showing Calcutta and Plymouth handstamps and London and Edinburgh date stamps

Lloyd’s List No. 7008 dated 2 December 1834 shows Ann under Captain Tindall sailing from Calcutta on 20 June (it is likely that this is the date the ship was put to sea at the mouth of the Ganges) and arriving off Margate on 30 November. Since there is no mention of the ship calling at Plymouth, it is quite possible that her mail was landed there by another vessel or pilot boat. From Plymouth the letter went via London to Edinburgh reaching on 1 December 1834. [Thanks are due to Max Smith for his comments to my draft].

After Packet

The first interesting aspect of the letter is the manuscript ‘2/12’ on the rear. This fraction indicates that this is an ‘After Packet’ letter. An ‘After Packet’ consists of letters accepted from the public, on payment of an additional fee, after the expiry of the time limit for normal mails. While the ship on which the letters are to be sent may have left Calcutta, it would not have been put to sea given the distance of more than 80 miles (Figure 3). Such letters could be sent to Kedgeree, either by water or by land, so that it could still be put on board as the ship passed the mouth of the Hooghly river.

Figure 3 Bengal Presidency Map 1831
Figure 3: Map of Bengal Presidency published by Baldwin & Cradock, London (1831). Kedgeree is spelt Kudjeree. The British in India were quite ‘liberal’ with their use of vowels to transcribe local names!

The ‘2’ denotes a weight of between one and two tolas (one tola being about 11.66 gm or 4/10ths of an ounce) and ‘12’ means 12 annas (12 pies = 1 anna and 16 annas = 1 Rupee) postage (which was prepaid). The latter can be bifurcated as ship postage of six annas and inland postage of six annas from Calcutta to Kedgeree; both these rates were set by the Bengal Presidency post office and were effective from 11 April 1832 to 30 September 1837.

Inland Rate

After landing at Plymouth and receiving the INDIA LETTER / PLYMOUTH (Robertson In. 1) handstamp, the letter was sent to London where it arrived 29 November. Plymouth, or more likely London, (see later discussion) marked the letter as due ‘2/2’ or 2 shillings 2 pence (2s2d or 26d) i.e., 1s10d (11d for a letter containing a single sheet of paper under one oz times two) applicable on a double letter for the 215 miles (170-230 miles bucket effective 09 July 1812 to 05 December 1838) from Plymouth to London and 4d India Letter for an item up to 3 oz.

‘2/2’ was deleted in London, or more likely Edinburgh, where the inland rate was recalculated to include the additional distance from London to Edinburgh; hence ‘2/10’ for 2s10d was marked.

London to Edinburgh was 396 miles making the Plymouth-Edinburgh via London mileage 611 miles. This would imply an inland rate of 2s8d (1s4d twice two) which when added to the ‘India Letter’ rate of 4d makes the total postage due 3s. However, London or rather Edinburgh marked ‘2/10’ for 2s10d. Why?

[The distances are given in Alan Robertson’s 1961 book Great Britain: Post Roads, Post Towns, and Postal Rates 1635 to 1839 and reproduced in Colin Tabeart’s Admiralty Mediterranean Steam Packets 1830 to 1857.]

The missing Additional Halfpenny

Another mystery is that the usual additional halfpenny (½d) handstamp cannot be found on this letter. From 09 June 1813 to 04 December 1839, all letters to/from Scotland (excepting a few exempted towns) from/to England or Ireland “carried in or by any Mail Coach or Carriage with more than Two Wheels” (Figure 4) were liable to be charged with an additional halfpenny. This toll or tax, alternatively referred to as Turnpike Tax or Scottish Wheel Tax, was payable per letter or packet. Why was the letter not charged this tax?

Figure 4 London Edinburgh Royal Mail coach James Pollard 1821
Figure 4: ‘The London-Edinburgh Royal Mail coach setting a brisk pace on a summer day’. Painting from 1821 by James Pollard (1755-1838). Photo Courtesy: Christies (

The Curricle between Edinburgh and Morpeth

To understand the issue of the missing additional halfpenny handstamp, I corresponded with Ian Baker and Michael Sanig who have co-authored the recent and definitive book on this subject. Readers are strongly recommended this book (Figure 4) if only to understand how a ‘side show’ of British postal history can have so much written about it, and be so fascinating!

Figure 5 Scottish Additional Halfpenny Mail Tax Baker et al 2017
Figure 5: The definitive work on the Scottish Additional Halfpenny Tax
Figure 6 Curricle by J Jenkins c. 1803
Figure 6: An Edinburgh caricature ‘Storming the curricle in Queens Street’ by J. Jenkins (c. 1803). The mail-carrying curricles may or may not have looked like this one. Photo Courtesy: National Library of Scotland (

The first point to consider is that the letter was likely carried on a curricle (Figure 6).

In 1830, with a view to hasten mails between London and Edinburgh, a curricle, a light two-wheeled carriage, was introduced between Newcastle (actually Morpeth which is 14 miles north) and Edinburgh. Mails carried by the curricle was expected to cover the 92½ miles in 9 hours 13 minutes compared to the 11 hours that the mail coach took to cover the 107 miles; this was on account of the route taken – the curricle going via Wooler and the mail coach taking the eastern coast route via Berwick. I was unable to find any postal map showing the curricle route and have hence adapted a contemporary one (Figure 7).

Figure 7 Morpeth Edinburgh Curricle and Coach
Figure 7: Extract from ‘A Map of England, Wales & Scotland describing all the Direct and principal Cross Roads in Great Britain…’ by William Fadan (1801). From 1830 to 1837, the route between Morpeth (lower right) and Edinburgh (top center) was covered by mail coaches as well as curricles. The towns on the east touched by the mail coach are marked in brown squares while those on the curricle route are circled blue. Map Courtesy:

While mails carried by such two-wheeled carriages were outside the scope of the halfpenny tax, which applied only to carriages with more than two wheels, the Treasury (quite illegally) insisted that the tax nevertheless be charged, “towards defraying the expenses of the plan in question.” Hence this letter was liable to have been charged the additional halfpenny even it was carried by the curricle. That it was not is simply an act of omission on part of the postal authorities.

The ‘2/10’ rate and the Curricle

Now back to the ‘2/10’ rate. There were no marks applied on letters to show whether they went on the curricle or the mail coach. Hence, we cannot be sure whether this letter went via the curricle unless we consider that the ‘2/10’ applied on the letter was marked in Edinburgh.

Figure 8 Mail Coach Routes from Edinburgh
Figure 8: Mail Coach routes extracted from Edinburgh Directory 1835-36 and reproduced in Baker et al (pg. 322). If the letter discussed here took the curricle it would have reached Edinburgh at about 1.23 PM and if it took the mail coach at 2.23 PM.

Why do I say this?

Plymouth to Edinburgh via London taking the curricle route (Figure 8) was 596½ miles (215 + 396 – 107 + 92½). The London clerk, however, would not know which route the letter would take; the route over 600 miles or the one under. He would have surely marked ‘3’ as postage due. Only the Edinburgh clerk would be aware that it was carried by the curricle and hence would apply the correct rate of ‘2/10’ for 500-600 miles (1s3d single) rather than the one for 600-700 miles (1s4d single).

And if ‘2/10’ was marked at Edinburgh, it follows that ‘2/2’ was marked at London and not Plymouth.


Bringing all the analysis together, we conclude that is quite likely that in the case of this letter:

  • The ship Ann did not call at Plymouth and mails were carried onshore by another vessel or a pilot boat
  • Plymouth didn’t mark the initial rate of ‘2/2’; rather it was London
  • The letter was carried by the Morpeth-Edinburgh curricle and not by the mail coach
  • Edinburgh marked the final rate of ‘2/10’ knowing that the letter took the curricle and hence needed to be assessed for the inland rate bucket of 500-600 miles
  • Edinburgh did not apply the additional halfpenny tax erroneously; there was no statute under which this toll could be waived


  • Baker, Ian, David Graham, Michael Sanig, and Bill Shand. The Scottish Additional Halfpenny Mail Tax 1813-1839 & The Welsh Additional Halfpenny Mail Tax 1836-1839. Hamilton, Lanarkshire: The Scottish Postal History Society, 2017.
  • Smith, Max, and Robert Johnson. Express Mail, After Packets, and Late Fees in India Before 1870. Wheathampstead, Herts, UK: Stuart Rossiter Trust, 2007.
  • Tabeart, Colin. Admiralty Mediterranean Steam Packets 1830 to 1857. Limassol, Cyprus: James Bendon Ltd., 2002.

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