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This is a letter written from Montreal, Canada in 1838, folded, addressed on the outside to Thomas Whitehead Senr, Rawtenstall, Nr Manchester, GB, and sealed with red wax.

This was normal at this time, envelopes being rarely used as they would increase the cost of postage, which was charged per sheet of paper, so an envelope would cost extra!

The simple address is also typical as far fewer people would send and receive letters. No stamp (not invented until 1840) and no street letter boxes, so it would have been handed to a clerk over the post office counter. There is a circular red Montreal postmark for April 10th at the bottom left.

Actually paying postage was not straightforward: charges were complicated, generally expensive and normally written in ink on the front of the letter.

Depending on circumstances, they could be paid in advance, collected on delivery or as here a combination of the two. Red generally denoted ‘paid’ whilst charges to be collected were in black or blue.

In this case the Montreal clerk charged 18 and three-quarter cents (US currency which was circulating alongside Canadian pence), written in now faded red ink with two ‘paid’ handstamps also in red. This was the rate to New York, nearly 400 miles to the south and the busiest North American port for ships sailing to England.

Our letter would have been carried down the Hudson River valley, probably by a combination of mail coach and paddle steamer.

It was in New York by the 16th when another red postmark was applied at the lower left corner. It may have arrived a day or two before this, as this postmark usually indicates the date it was handed over to a ship’s captain who would be about to sail for Britain.

This was the beginning of the age of ocean going steamers, faster and less dependent on the weather, but with a lower carrying capacity. However, sailing ships were still more numerous and from the time it took to cross the Atlantic this letter must have been carried by one of these. It is sobering to remember that with no weather forecasting or radio, once out of sight of land a ship was very much on its own: usually the first that was known of disaster was when an expected vessel failed to arrive.

Our letter arrived safely in Liverpool and was handed over to the British Post Office by the captain, who would have received a fee of 1d per letter, a traditional captain’s perk.

A postmark was then applied on the back ‘Liverpool / Ship Letter’. This showed its port of arrival, but also allowed the GPO to charge a fee of 8d to the recipient, a healthy mark up on the captain’s penny!

This wasn’t all: there was also a charge for the inland mileage from the port to its destination, calculated as falling in the 30-50 mile band, so an additional 7d, making a total of 1/3d, written in black so to collect on delivery. This would be the equivalent of several pounds in modern terms.

To get to Rawtenstall the letter was next sent to Manchester on the Liverpool / Manchester railway, the world’s first steam passenger service, opened in 1830.

This travelled at the thrilling and unprecedented speed of 30mph. Our final postmark is a mysterious red ‘2’ (on the front towards the right hand side), known to be associated with the railway and one of a series 2-6 which turn up on a small proportion of letters carried.

Their meaning is debated, but as there were six trains daily it is thought they were applied to the top letter in each bundle on arrival in Manchester to show which train they were from so the postal clerks sorted them in the correct order.

Finally, our letter would be sent on to Rawtenstall by coach, or possibly a postman on a horse, and Mr Whitehead would have been charged the 1/3d British postage before it was handed over.

He has noted just next to the original Montreal heading that it was received on May 12th, so a total of 32 days in transit. The letter itself is on business matters, in particular making out the writer’s case for a significant pay rise! I wonder if he got it?

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