Mail to the Georgian fleet

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    Malcolm Lewis

      Many Royal Navy ships in the 17th, 18th centuries and early in the 19th century spent much time away from England. HMS Victory was away for two years in the Mediterranean just prior to Trafalgar. Senior officers sent and received dispatches from the Admiralty and seemingly private correspondence from families and loved ones. Dispatch vessels and transports presumably carried such letters.
      I am interested to know whether there was any formal organisation to send and receive regular mail for men on the lower deck? Long periods of separation must have posed many problems with discipline on board and social problems at home.
      Many thanks

      Sam Willis

        Hi Malcolm,

        This may help – it is one of the best recent works on lower deck letters. If it is not in the book I can put you in touch with the author, Helen Watt.

        ‘Letters of seamen below the rank of commissioned officer which tell us a great deal about shipboard life and about seamen’s attitudes.
        Letters of seamen below the rank of commissioned officer are rare, both in original form and in print. This edited collection of 255 letters, written by seamen in the British Navy and their correspondents between 1793 and 1815, gives voice to a group of men whose lives and thoughts are otherwise mostly unknown. The letters are extremely valuable for the insights which they give into aspects of life below decks and the subjects close to the writers’ hearts: money matters, ties with home and homesickness. They also provide eye-witness accounts of events during a tumultuous and important period of British and European history. One group of letters, included as a separate section, comprises the letters of seamen and their family and friends which were intercepted by the authorities during the mutinies of 1797. These letters shed a great deal of light on the extraordinary events of that year and of seamen’s attitudes to the mutinies. The editors’ introductory material, besides highlighting what the letters tell us about seamen’s lives and attitudes, also discusses the extent of literacy amongst seamen, setting this into its wider contemporary popular context. The letters are supported by a substantial editorial apparatus and two detailed appendices containing biographies of seamen and information on select ships which took part in the mutinies of 1797.’


        Malcolm Lewis

          Thanks Sam for the reference. Helen Watts book sounds excellent but a bit pricy. I’ll see if I can get from a public library.
          Would you expect that letters from seamen were censored by officers before being sent home? The Navy was sensitive about possible mutinous rumblings in the Fleet – Jack Nastyface and all that.
          The English postal system was in its infancy so sending and receiving mail from seaman must have been difficult and expensive.


            Hello Malcolm,

            I don’t know about censorship, but I have seen the Greenhalgh letters in the Museum Library at Portsmouth, and each one was countersigned by an officer; so presumably they were checked to ensure no information was relayed home which could have assisted the enemy, or be otherwise “unhelpful”.



              A little additional information on this topic.

              Post Office regulations were complicated, and before Rowland Hill introduced the idea of charging letters by weight in the 1840s, postal services were based on the principle of charging by the sheet. Private letters were written on one side then folded and sealed in such a manner that the address could be written on the outside face. The result was that the writing was often miniscule (or indeed had a second message written confusingly across the first) to get as much as possible onto a single sheet. Postage was also expensive. It cost 3 pence to send a single sheet up to fifteen miles, more for greater distances, and 6 pence for double sheets. Foreign letters were even more expensive. To send a single sheet letter in 1811 by Packet to Sweden was 2/4d and to Brazil 3/5d.

              There was a remarkable exception in that people in London and a few other populous towns could send a letter within the city limits for one penny. In 1795, this penny post privilege was extended by Act 35 George III Cap. 53 to letters sent to and received by NCOs, Petty Officers, seamen and private soldiers when on active service. Commanding officers were however required to countersigned the cover and give the name of the ship to confirm that they were legitimate. Outward letters were handed in to the post office and the penny had to be paid in advance. In 1806, it also became necessary for the seaman’s name and ship to appear on the cover of home bound letters. This penny post concession obviously pleased the men and their wives but worried the officers who were convinced – in 1795 at any rate on the cusp of the great mutinies – that letters might contain seditious material rather than family greetings. However it was only in 1813 that it was laid down that the content of such letters had to be restricted to ‘their own private Concerns only.’ in 1813, the concession was extended to men serving in all of HM dominions as long as there was a Packet Boat service.

              The 1795 act contained a number of clause which applied to MPs, peers and other distinguished persons and these specified a weight limit for ‘letters and packets’ of 1 oz. In the clauses referring to seamen however the word ‘single letters’ is used and there is no mention of any weight limit. Presumably the ‘single sheet’ system was assumed to be operating.

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