On the 5th of July, 1839, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made his usual financial statement, and it proved to contain an announcement which marks a new era in our social history. The Finance Minister announced his intention to propose a resolution declaring " that it is expedient to reduce the postage on letters to one uniform rate of one penny charged upon every letter of a weight to be hereafter fixed by law; parliamentary privileges of franking being abolished and official franking strictly regulated; this House pledging itself at the same time to make good any deficiency of revenue which may be occasioned by such an alteration in the rates of the existing duties." This was the official announcement of the introduction of the penny postage system. The rates of postage up to that time had varied according to distance, and according to the weight, or the size, or even the shape of a letter. The London post was a special and separate branch of the whole postal system, and the charge made for letters delivered in the metropolis was on quite a different scale from that which prevailed throughout the provinces and the country. The average postal rate on every ordinary letter throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was about sixpence or a little more; but this must only be taken as the average rate. A letter from London to Brighton, for example, cost eightpence; from London to Aberdeen, one shilling and threepence halfpenny; from London to Belfast, one shilling and fourpence; the average of sixpence or something more, was only to be obtained by taking account of the letters sent across short distances in the country, and of the postal intercommunication of London itself. For even in those days of Doctor Johnson to which we have more than once referred, there was a penny post in the metropolis.
Not only did additional weight greatly augment the postage on the letter, but if a letter were written on more than one sheet of paper it had to pay on a much higher scale of charge than one that was written on a single sheet. Then the franking system, as it was called, was a monstrous abuse of the public purse and the public patience. The franking system consisted of the privilege given to Members of Parliament and Ministers of the Crown. A Member of Parliament had the privilege of franking letters to a certain extent, but there were some limits to his power; a Member of the Government had the right of franking without any limits at all. The very meaning of the word "franking," in that sense, is out of date and hardly understood in our time. It meant that the privileged person had only to write his name on the outside of a letter in order to have it sent free through the post. Let it not be imagined that he had this liberal power only with regard to letters written by himself. He had but to scrawl his name on the outside of anybody's letter, and the missive was bound to go free of charge to any address within the limits of Great Britain and Ireland. The meaning of this was that a certain class of privileged person - the very class who least needed a bounty at the public expense - had the right of sending the letters of themselves and of their friends through the post for nothing. Naturally the poorer a man was the less likely he was to have acquaintances among Members of Parliament and Ministers of the Crown; and as the cost of transmission of letters had to be made up to the Post Office Department somehow, the poor had imposed on them the duty of paying a heavier postal rate in order that the letters of Members of Parliament and Ministers of the Crown might be sent free of charge. This would seem to us now a principle of postal arrangement only suited for one of Mr. W. S. Gilbert's comic pieces; but it was accepted as a matter of course and patiently submitted to by the public in the days before postal reform had set in.
One consequence of the heavy tax upon unprivileged letters was to set in motion a new and peculiar system of smuggling. We all have read of Will Watch the bold smuggler in the once popular ballad; and we used to read, or most of us used to read the story of the smugglers in Fenimore Cooper's novel "The Waterwitch"; and we can remember when the smuggling of brandy and tobacco went freely on, and the smuggling of lace and diamonds is not even yet altogether unknown to the authorities of the New York Custom House. But it would not readily occur to an ordinary reader at the present day, to understand what was meant by the smuggling of letters. This version of the trade of Will Watch and "The Waterwitch" was, however, perfectly familiar to England up to the early days of Queen Victoria's reign. Secret organisations sprung up all over these countries, for the unlawful conveyance of letters at rates lower than those levied by the Government and the Post Office authorities. The owners of almost every sort of public conveyance are believed to have lent themselves to this traffic; and it is difficult now for us to find it in our hearts to condemn them too sternly for such unlawful practice. But it was not merely to avoid paying the heavy postage rate that these ingenious and illicit devices were made use of to cheat the Post Office authorities. It has been mentioned already that there was a heavy extra charge on a letter which contained more than one sheet of paper; and the Postal officials were constantly in the habit of breaking the seals of letters and opening them, in order to find out whether or not they ought to be charged upon the higher rate. The owners of great business houses were naturally very reluctant to have their letters opened and read for such a purpose; and they were naturally unwilling also to pay what seemed to be an unreasonable rate of postage. Therefore, it appears to have been clearly established by evidence that several of the greatest commercial firms in London and Manchester and, of course, in other cities and towns as well, were in the habit of having the great bulk of their correspondence conveyed by the smuggling system.