Historians gain great benefit from this upwelling of the urge to write. Many levels of society had rarely set pen to paper before. In time, the letter became so natural that novels, like Richardson’s Clarissa, were written in the form of correspondence.
What caused this change in society’s means of communication— a change comparable to that caused by the Internet and social media in our own day? These are my own answers.
A Universal Means of Communication
The Post Office was not a Georgian invention, as the postage stamp was a Victorian one. There had been royal postal carriers since the time of Queen Elizabeth I. The rich used messengers or paid coachmen or carriers to take their letters. What changed was the opening up of a regular postal service to anyone with the means to pay the charges involved — initially levied per sheet of paper sent, save via the Penny Post in London.
The earliest organised postal system existed purely for the use of the royal household. In time, those close to the king began to make use of it, but this was always a matter of ‘grace and favour’. Indeed, King Charles I tried to remove the privilege entirely in 1637, alarmed by the potential for conspiracies.
During the Civil War, king and parliament tussled for control of the infant Post Office. In fact, we really owe the existence of a postal service available to all to Oliver Cromwell. He had experienced how essential good communications were to command or government. In 1653, he established a permanent Post Office under a Postmaster General. Two years later, he gave it a monopoly on the transmission of letters. In 1657, he instituted a single General Post Office covering the whole of the British Isles.
Don’t give Cromwell too much credit for foresightedness. His decision owed as much to considerations of cash and security as anything else. The post office generated significant profits for the exchequer. Keeping the mail in government hands also made the interception and investigation of suspect correspondence easier. Indeed, for many years, genuine conspirators were reluctant to use the official mail for precisely that reason.
The Growth of Trade
The new Post Office both facilitated trade and benefited from it. You cannot trade successfully at a distance — especially overseas — without a means for customers, suppliers and financiers to communicate easily.
Britain’s trading activities, and hence its growing empire, took place over huge distances. The European continent may have been our ‘backyard’, but it was never the limit of our commercial ambitions. Nor was it the principal arena for our trade. As the Industrial Revolution made its slow and hesitant way over Britain in the 1700s, the concentration of manufacturing, financial and long-distance transportation it brought could not have existed without the means to communicate reliably. The old Royal Mail of mediaeval days had concentrated on links between London and major cities and centres. Now the network was expanded and broadened, by adding cross-country links of every kind, as well as regular links to overseas ‘hubs’ via the packet ships.
For a time, the means of carrying goods lagged behind. Only when the network of turnpike roads, canals and finally the railways appeared, would delivery become as swift and reliable as placing orders or sending out the mass of correspondence any business generates.
A Growing Involvement in Politics
Just as with today’s ‘Internet revolution’, a major impact of improved person-to-person communication was political. Letters and pamphlets let political ideas and information travel at speeds undreamt of before. Governments could — and did — tamper with letters. They spied internally and internationally. Control of the mail made both easier. It also helped the flow of intelligence between ministers, Britain’s military centre at the Admiralty and field commanders.
Of course, the government was well aware of the risks. Regular, reliable mail facilitated conspiracies and made it hard to suppress unwanted revelations. Wikileaks stands at the head of a long line of letter-writers and pamphleteers, all eager to expose official mistakes, ‘dirty tricks’ and illegal actions to public scrutiny. Then, as now, official bodies did their best to limit or remove such unwanted publicity; then, as now, they usually failed.
The Social Impact
To my mind, the ease of sending and receiving personal letters had its greatest impact of all in the social sphere. The rise of literacy and education was as much a product of improved communications as any abstract belief in the value of learning. Subsistence agriculture and local trading demands no ability to read or write. Operating in a regional or national market economy cannot be done without it.
As the eighteenth century progressed, the urge to become literate spread downwards from the gentry to the middling sort and below. Only the person working solely with his or her hands could ply a trade and remain functionally illiterate. As literacy became the mark of rising above the ‘dregs of society’, many a labourer spent much of his or her scant spare time learning to read and write. As they progressed, they read read aloud to those who were still illiterate. Those without the confidence or ability to compose a suitable letter bought books of letters ready to copy out.
Letters soliciting favours or money from patrons were especially useful in a society dominated more by whom you knew than what you could offer on your own account. Army and naval commissions depended heavily on ‘pull’ (influence), as did many other lucrative appointments and sinecures. Even the clergy in the established church wrote to powerful landowners to ask for better livings or seek support in rising through the church hierarchy. The Rev. Lucius Hibbins pestered the Duke of Newcastle on at least thirty occasions asking for clerical preferment, money or a pension. Sylas Neville, the Norfolk doctor, existed for a large part of his life on handouts obtained by letter-writing. Just about every person of wealth, power or influence had to endure a welter of begging letters, much as we endure cold calling and Internet spam and advertising today.
Maybe the greatest impact of all came upon women of the middling sort. Many were no longer tied all day to domestic chores or needlework. They now had the leisure to read and write letters, and demanded the literacy to do so. By the end of the eighteenth century, untold numbers of women were writing to friends and family, sending and receiving love letters — and even composing classic works of English literature. Once that genie was out of the bottle, as the saying goes, there was no way it could ever be put back in.
Letter-writing seems so obvious to us that it’s far too easy to take it for granted. We pride ourselves on the impact of technological advance of electronic communications in our own day. Let us not miss the fact that, to a great extent, it has all happened before.
- The Newest and most Compleat Polite Familiar Letter-writer, by John Tavernier (1760), contained advice on everything from the paper to the used to the form of address ‘to persons of distinction’. The New and Complete British Letter-writer; or young Secretary’s Instructor in Polite Modern Letter-writing, by David Fordyce (editions from c.1751 onwards to 1790), included ‘The Petitioner’s Instructor’. This had templates for everything from pleading for mercy when under sentence of death to being admitted to local almshouses in old age. ↩
William Savage writes historical fiction set in eighteenth-century Norfolk in the years between 1760 and 1800. This was a period of turmoil — constant wars, the revolutions in America and France and finally the titanic, 22-year struggle with Napoleon. The series featuring Dr Adam Bascom, a young gentleman-physician caught up in the beginning of the Napoleonic wars, takes place in a variety of locations near to the North Norfolk coast. The Ashmole Foxe series is located in Norwich. Mr Foxe is something of a dandy, a bookseller and, unknown to most around him, quickly involved in dealing with anything likely to upset the peace or economic security of his beloved city. You can check out both series here.
Another fascinating article. I never thought about the fact that postal services had not always existed. So I wonder: as you said, the “novel of letters”, which was the earliest form of novel, rose directly from this increase in real-life letter writing. So could one say that the establishment of a postal service also, in a sense, caused the establishment of the literary form of the novel?
Certainly the epistolary novel arose out of a real change in people’s ways of contacting one another and sharing their thoughts. The same impulse to commit ideas and feelings to paper fuelled the increase in the keeping of diaries. And where would historians be without the many eighteenth-century diarists?
Very interesting article. Thanks.
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