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Post Office: Contracts and Voyage Records on the Conveyance of Inland Mails by Sea

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0813 POST 12 Series
Held at: British Postal Museum and Archive: The Royal Mail Archive
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Full title: Post Office: Contracts and Voyage Records on the Conveyance of Inland Mails by Sea
Date(s): 1748-1965
Level of description: Series
Extent: 81 files and volumes
Name of creator(s): Post Office


Administrative/Biographical history:

The first Post Office packet station was established in the 16th century at Holyhead for the transport of mails to Dublin. Packet boats from Holyhead were soon supplemented by services from Milford Haven to Waterford and Portpatrick in Scotland to Donaghadee. Regular Irish services were established in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the end of the 19th century regular packet services between the mainland and many of the islands around Britain were in operation.

Although the Post Office owned some of the vessels, until the early 19th century the normal practice was to contract for the supply, maintenance and operation of packet boats, paying an allowance to the owner, often the captain, for their hire. The Post Office determined the schedules and rules for handling the mails. Owners made profits from carrying passengers, bullion and freight. The Post Office did not pay for loss or injury to vessels caused by storms but did compensate owners for damage inflicted by enemies of state during times of war and often had to pay ransom money for the return of boats seized by privateers or foreign foes.

In the early 19th century developments in industrialisation led to successful application of steam power to ships. In 1818 a private company, Holmes and Co, established steamboats between Holyhead and Dublin. As a result, the number of passengers on government packets decreased drastically. The Post Office decided to take action in response to protests by packet owners and to stop the illegal transmission of mails by the steam boats. Rather than use the Holyhead company's boats, the Post Office decided to build its own steam packets and the first two, Lightning and Meteor, were placed on the Holyhead station in 1821. Further Post Office steam boats were introduced at Dover in 1822, Milford Haven in 1824, Portpatrick in 1825, Liverpool in 1826 (packet station established there in that year for conveyance of mails to Dublin) and Weymouth in 1827. In 1836 the Post Office had 26 steam packets in operation.

The steam packets were very expensive to build and operate and nearly always made a financial loss, particularly the services from Holyhead and Milford Haven in the 1830s. In 1790 the entire packet fleet had been placed under the supervision of an Inspector of Packets, following severe criticism of their high cost by a government inquiry of 1788. However, by the early 19th century the office was not equipped to manage the expanding fleet. Inefficiency and poor management of both sail and steam packets, was largely due to the Post Office's lack of expertise in maritime affairs.

Post Office awareness of this failing was demonstrated in 1823 when 30 packets at Falmouth were taken over by the Admiralty. The carrying out of repairs to all packet boats at one central workshop in Holyhead was particularly uneconomical. Competition for passengers from private steam boat companies on the Irish routes, particularly from the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company on the Liverpool to Dublin route, turned initial profits into sustained losses. The Post Office soon realised that a system of private contracts may have been preferable to building and owning its own steam boats. Following three critical government inquiries, 1830-1836, an Act of Parliament turned over all packet operations to the Admiralty from 1 Jan 1837, although the Post Office still controlled the schedules.

The Admiralty, which at first intended to carry on the mail service in its own vessels preferred by the end of the 1830s to grant mail contracts to companies that could build large vessels and maintain adequate fleets. The Liverpool to Dublin route was the first to be put out to tender and was run by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company from 1839. Although the Admiralty increasingly entered into contracts with private steam companies for mail services to Ireland, and the Scotch and English islands, government steam packets continued to sail during the 1840s. The Holyhead to Dublin service was not put out to tender until 1849. In 1850 a ten year contract was signed with the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. In 1848 and 1849 services between Liverpool and Dublin, Milford Haven and Waterford and Portpatrick and Donaghadee were discontinued. Government packets had disappeared by the end of the 1850s and the policy of relying entirely upon the mercantile marine had been established.

In 1860 control of the packet services was returned to the Post Office and every endeavour was made to lower the high cost of the services run by various steamship companies. The struggle continued until the end of the century when the Post Office began using the services of commercial steamship companies for the conveyance of mails.


Scope and content/abstract:

This series relates to conveyance of mails within the United Kingdom and Ireland by sea. The majority of records are on the Irish and Scottish packet services, with a few contracts for mail services to the Scilly Isles, Lundy Island and the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands, placed at the end of the series.

Access & Use

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Conditions governing access:

Public Records

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Archival Information

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Allied Materials

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Description Notes

Archivist's note:

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
EAD transfer validated May 2011

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