1787 (30 April) entire letter from Lurgan to Crumlin, Co Dublin – only three examples of this Horseshoe marking known

1787 (30 April) entire letter from Lurgan, carried privately to Dublin and put into the mails there, with a very fine strike of the extremely rare Dublin “Horseshoe” Dockwra type “PENNY POST / 12 / PAID” very slightly overstruck by a fine “d/1” and with “M 2 M” (March 2nd. Morning) alongside; light vertical filing fold and some minor perimeter faults. Fine and with interesting contents dealing with the improvement of lands and bog drainage to prepare for turf cutting.


A very rare entire, only three examples of this Horseshoe marking known.

Specialised Great Britain Stamps and Postal History

Spinks, London (Wednesday 14th May 2014)

Lot # 7, estimate £4,000 to £5,000

William Dockwra (c. 1635–1716) was an English merchant who along with his partner Robert Murray pioneered the first Penny Post in London in 1680.  In last quarter of the 17th C. London there was no official postal system for mail delivery within the city of London and its suburbs.  Delivery of mail was in the control of the Royal Court, or private messengers and it wasn’t very efficient.  In those early days, postal rates were calculated according to the distances travelled and the number of sheets that comprised a letter.  Only businesses and the wealthy could afford to send letters due to the high cost.  Others simply had to entrust their letters to friends and family members, or ask people traveling to another town to serve as a messenger – this is what happened to the letter above, i.e. it was carried from Lurgan to Dublin and posted there.

William Dockwra created a mail delivery system that only cost a penny per letter and this happened a full 160 years before Sir Roland Hill’s great postal reform of 1839 and the famous penny black and two penny blue stamps of 1840.  On 1st April 1680, when Dockwra established the first penny post, it only served the City of London and the surrounding area to a distance of ten miles. The service worked on the basis that the one penny postage was paid when the letter was accepted (a key element of Rowland Hill’s 1839 reforms of the British postal system).

Dockwra’s London Penny Post proved so successful that it was copied all over Great Britain and Ireland. There was no stamp, just an easily identifiable cancel that indicated postage had been paid and there was no further charge(s) due.  With its cheap, flat rates of postage and frequent deliveries it was a remarkable precursor of the postal systems of today – hence William Dockwra is viewed as the father of modern posts by postal historians.  Letters with Dockwra’s post paid cancel are very sought after by collectors and postal historians.

Despite much opposition from porters and messengers (whose livelihood was affected by the service) and the Church of England (a powerful force at the time), Dockwra obtained a patent for his service.  His nemesis proved to be The Post Office and, since all profits from the government operated General Post Office had been granted to the King’s brother (the Duke of York), Dockwra was required to surrender his patent and even had to pay £100 in compensation.

When, in 1688, the Duke of York (by then King James II) was expelled from England, Dockwra’s future looked brighter

  • 1690 – Dockwra granted a 7-year pension of £500 p.a. – a substantial sum in those days.
  • 1697 – Dockwra appointed as comptroller of the penny post and the Post Office monopoly was broken
  • 1700 – Dockwra dismissed from his position after an investigation into his conduct of the business
      • complaints that he had moved the central office from Cornhill to a less convenient location
      • complaints that he had opened and detained correspondence

The Penny-Post was quickly adopted in other cities and towns, like Dublin, Edinburgh and Manchester.  Revenues steadily increased, and by 1727 the London District Post was so well regarded that Daniel Defoe praised it for not charging for “a single Piece of Paper, as in the General Post-Office, but [sending] any Packet under a Pound weight . . . at the same price.”  A variety of postmarks were used but they were all variations of Dockwra’s original marks below – showing that postage had been paid, the amount paid, and the date/time the letter or package was dispatched.

dockwra_postal_markingsThe employment of extra letter increased the number of deliveries, so that the system became even more efficient. From the 1770s the numbering of houses began, and by 1805 this system became mandatory in London Streets, making it even easier for letter carriers to deliver mail.  In contrast to the Penny-Post, letters that went out via the General Post Office still charged recipients for distance travelled and the number of sheets used.

To help finance the war against Napoleon,

  • the London Penny-Post was increased to two pence in 1801,
  • and in 1805 the amount was raised to three pence.

The beginning of uniform penny postage in 1840 made sending mail affordable to all for the first time.  In 1837, English schoolmaster, Rowland Hill, wrote a pamphlet, Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability, which was privately circulated. In that year, he also invented the postage stamp, which necessitated the use of an envelope and the rest, as they say … is history!

Further reading:

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