Early in the 18th Century, the post office had its own vessels and also vessels under contract, carrying mail between England and the Continent and Ireland.
Vessels under post office control were called "packet boats" and letters carried on them were called "packet letters." Letters carried on privately owned ships under no agreement for the carriage of mail were termed "ship letters," and the captains of the vessels carrying them were paid a small sum for their trouble when they handed them in to the postmaster at their first port of arrival in England, where the letter would receive the date stamp of that port
The Ship Letter Act of 1799 gave the post office power to use private ships for the conveyance of letters at half the usual packet rates and a Ship Letter Office was set up at the London Chief Office and remained there until 1847.
A "step" frame was generally adopted on these markings and they usually had the smaller portion at the top but are also known reversed -- as in this Figure 1 "SHIP LETTER COWES" example, dated inside the cover on November 16, 1833. The London receiving mark shows it arrived on February. 10, 1834. Unfortunately this example is a cover only and gives no indication of its origin.
A number of English ports began using the two-lined unframed type of marking in the late 1760's, and Figure 2 bears the abbreviated form of "letter," "LONDON SHIP LRE." Addressed simply "John Pringle of Haining Esq. London," it was carried, as shown by the manuscript in the bottom left corner, "By the Camilla - Captain Hutt." Though undated the piece must be from the period 1773-1787, as the Bishop Mark on the reverse is the 20mm. Circle type in use between those years. It is one page only of the letter and part of the letter reads "Inclosed please receive my first Bill of this date on Mefs Maitland for £300 Sterlg in your favor Sir ..."
Circular marks were also used and this example, Fig 2a, dated No 7 1812 was in use from 1807 - 1822. Single circle with Ship letter/crown/date/London in black ink. In the bottom left corner is the manuscript "Pr Baring Extra Mar 30. 1812"
It is only a part letter, which is unfortunate as what is readable, is very interesting.
In 1815, a service to India and the Cape was begun and mails were carried by warships, private ships and those of the East India Company. Special marks were used from 1815 to the early 1840's. Figure 3 shows an entire letter from Cape Town, March 27, 1829, addressed to Daventry which was received on June 22. It bears the boxed "INDIA LETTER GRAVESEND" mark.
Figure 4 is an interesting front. From Calcutta December 8, 1833, and addressed to London, it arrived on May 2,d 1834, and was redirected to Edinburgh May 3, where it was received on May 5. Showing the framed "INDIA LETTER PORTSMOUTH" marking it has additional markings of boxed "POSTAGE TO LONDON NOT PAID" and the London additional-halfpenny mark with the variety "fraction bar reversed." The fraction bar usually slopes down from right to left, in this variety it slopes down from left to right.
From the 1820's to late 1850 London used "Crown," unframed and dated stamps with London at the bottom. Various types of Crowns were used, differing in shape and size. Figure 5 shows an entire letter dated March 26 with an early type unframed "POST PAID SHIP LR LONDON 29 MR 29 1832." The cover also has a "PAID AT EDINBR" stamp and a breakdown of charges, "Inld Ptg, Ship Do. Transfd. Do." on the reverse.
The letter is an example of a "crossed" letter (this was a way of keeping down the cost of postage and involved writing on the page in the normal way and, when full, the page was then turned and the letter continued across the previous writing, thus halving the number of pages needed.).
Note:- Crossed letters can make the reader cross eyed ...
Two different Liverpool marks are shown in Figure 6 - Unframed "stepped" "LIVERPOOL SHIP LRE" and Figure 7 framed "stepped" "SHIP LETTER LIVERPOOL."
An entire letter from Macau to London is shown in Figure 8. This is dated January 20, 1844, and was received in London June 12. Framed, stepped "DEAL SHIP LETTER" mark and manuscript "P Ann" in the bottom left corner.
Late in the 18th Century the crown in a double oval type of mark appeared. The marking shown in Figure 9, is from a cover received in London on July 11, 1804 and bears the "SHIP LETTER DEAL" and crown in double oval. It has a manuscript "Pr Fame Captn Smyth" in the bottom left corner. (Fame being the name of the vessel)
Figure 10 is a cover from New York to London of November 14, 1827, and bears the framed stepped "LIVERPOOL SHIP LETTER" with the smaller step at top. It was received in London on December 6, 1827 -- not bad going for the time.
The last cover, Figure 11, was posted August 13 from Laguna to London and received November 19, 1845. This shows an octagonal frame with concave arcs and straight lines and date incorporated "18 NO 1845 LIVERPOOL S H I P."
A late addition to the collection shows a larger two line straight framed "Liverpool Ship Letter" illustrated above.
and a wrapper with the same mark in black ink.
In the first half of the 19th century the framed Ship Letter stamps show much the same variations as the unframed marks. A rectangular framed type has been recorded as used in Greenock in the late 1790s, and it was this frame and what has become known as the "step" framethat were generally adopted. In the main they belong to the period of the 1830s to early 1850s.
The Scottish examples have a rectangular frame varying in the type of corners.
The manuscript at the left is "pr Sapho"
Although we do not usually collect beyond the 1840s, this next wrapper illustrates one of the markings used from 1840-57.
Though most readers are no doubt familiar with London, Liverpool and Portsmouth, perhaps I should point out that Cowes is on the Isle of Wight, Gravesend is in Kent (Southern England) as is Deal (near Dover)
This article barely scratches the surface of this interesting facet of our hobby. It may give some insight into the fascination it holds for me though. Apart from the actual markings on the covers, the entire letters are a bonus and often make very interesting reading and tell stories of their own.
The acknowledged expert on the subject was Alan W. Robertson, who produced a prodigious amount of literature on the Ship Letter Marks as a whole. His various handbooks, pages of illustrations and maps act as the "bible" for those interested in this branch of the Postal History hobby and it is to him that I owe much of the information about my collection.
Other informative sources are:-
British Postmarks, A Short History and Guide. by R.C. Alcock and F.C. Holland. and The Postal History of Great Britain and Ireland by R. M. Willcocks.
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