The Post Across Stainmore

Paul Phillips, GBCC, U.S.A.

Published in the January, 1999 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.

Very often the acquisition of a new item for a collection generates a search for information that cannot be found in the standard reference works. Sometimes information on a cover is at variance with what can be found in the classic works. Whereas at first this can be very frustrating, if followed through, it can lead to knowledge which has been lost for centuries. Here is one of those examples, being published for the first time in this journal.

When travelling from London to Edinburgh or Glasgow by road, it has been common for centuries to take the road via Leeds and Carlisle, crossing the Pennine mountains at Stainmore. It has always been the fastest route because the Great North Road takes the long slow route to Edinburgh via the coasts of Northumberland and Berwickshire. It was the quickest route between Carlisle and London until the motorways were constructed. Nowadays it is seen only by the cognoscenti who wish to take advantage of the magnificent scenery. Every time I’m back home, have rented a car and take the road, the views of the Carlisle - Settle Railway viaduct still take my breath away, snaking away into the distance like a Roman aqueduct. Back in the period of mileage marks, there was a time when whoever authorized the Carlisle mileage marks should have been impeached, as the mileage figure was deliberately low. They read 298 for about 25 years. The situation was corrected after a post office inspector new to the area, wrote to the P.M.G. that the mileage had always been greater than 300 miles and that the correct mileage via Leeds was 305 miles. A year or so afterwards, the second circular mileage mark was issued with 305 on it, putting an extra penny on every letter and making the cost of sending a letter to Carlisle the same as to Glasgow, Edinburgh and all points in between. But the subject of this article comes from a much earlier period, that of the first decade after the restoration of King Charles II.

Although the question of when the route across Stainmore had been inaugurated had come to mind about 15 years ago, the search for the answer really became earnest three years ago when I purchased a 1667 cover going from Carlisle to London. It is a wonderful piece, since it was charged a fee and then corrected to a Free Frank as the recipient was a Member of Parliament. It is earlier than any free frank listed in “Herewith My Frank” and its supplements, and, in the opinion of many, is the earliest recorded free frank of the restoration period (I am sure Michael Jackson or Viv Sussex will be able to correct me on this point!). However, I had to find out what route was taken.

When I had first looked into the question of early routes from London to Carlisle 15 years earlier, the impression I got was that the route was via Newcastle or Lancaster until sometime in the 1670s. Alan Robertson’s “Great Britain: Post Roads, Post Towns and Postal Rates” gives maps of the Elizabethan period (via Newcastle), of 1675 by John Ogilby (via Lancaster) and of 1677 from John Gardiner’s survey (via Northallerton, Yorkshire; i.e. the Stainmore route). The academically oriented book, “The British Post Office: A History” by Howard Robinson (published 1976), provided similar information. At that time there was no compilation of government documents that might shed more light on the subject. I spent hours going through the Peover Papers without any success.

However, when I purchased the 1667 cover 10 or so years later, everything went up in the air again as the first line of the letter reads “The post was late because of heavy snow on Stainmore.....”!

This changed the whole picture. During the years between my earlier research and acquiring the 1667 cover, I had bought a copy of a book that was published by Christie’s Robson Lowe in 1987, by J.W.Stone. It is a compilation of entries in many government archives and is called “The Inland Posts” and it stops at 1673. Sure enough, there was relevant information in the original sources. The post to Carlisle via Lancaster had been suggested in 1651, during the Commonwealth period, but not established intil 1654. However, there was an entry of 1659 which listed the postmaster at Carlisle, along with those of Newcastle, Hexham and Haltwhistle (i.e. the Newcastle - Carlisle road), implying that the post was coming along that route once again.

In a long list of the routes by Henry Bishop, unfortunately undated, it says that mail goes “to the Counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland by way of Brough twice a week, every Tuesday and every Saturday from London.” This is the Stainmore route. Since Bishop was appointed by Charles II, this is a list of the new postal system he inaugurated. But when was this started? The answer appeared to come in a letter from the Earl of Carlisle dated 28 July 1666 to the Postmaster General requesting that the mail be sent via Newcastle. This letter must have been written at about the time the change occurred, since his home is just off the Newcastle road and he was probably used to personal service. There is also a compilation of the mileages for the first few years: in 1666 Northallerton to Carlisle was 67 miles, was 70 miles in 1667, but was back at 67 miles for the rest of the decade. So it appeared from this compilation that 1666 was indeed the start of the route.

In the mid 1980s I spent quite a bit of time going through archives deposited in the Cumberland (now Cumbria) County Record Office in Carlisle Castle. With hindsight, this is quite a coincidence as the 1667 letter was sent to Westminster by Henry Fielding, the Warden of Carlisle Castle. Many of the early private archives of Cumbria had been dispersed, or lost, many years ago (my 1667 letter was a new find from an archive that was thought lost!). I did however obtain some very interesting information from the Lonsdale Archives. This is the Lowther family that became very rich in the late 1600s and early 1700s, becoming the Earls of Lonsdale, and well-known to boxing fans because of the Lonsdale belt. The family seat was at Lowther Castle near Penrith, but they also owned property in Yorkshire. There are quite a number of letters dated fom the period in question. Fortunately I had copied the most interesting items. These copies proved very useful because I found it hard to believe that the Newcastle road was being used. The Borders were a very dangerous place at that time because of mosstroopers, who were basically little different from the rustlers of the Old West. Indeed I have in my collection a Bill of Parliament of 1661 authorizing measures to be taken against them to make transportation and commerce safer. I also doubted the Lancaster route, since it was well-known that the road was in extremely poor shape.

Many letters had docketing on the front saying where the letters had to be left for forwarding or the route that should be followed. A handful of letters from 1654 to 1657 confirmed that the mail was left at Kendal coming via Lancaster and Preston, but apparently went no further. Two letters of 1661 said to leave the mail with the postmaster of Penrith, one saying specifically “send this by Northallerton post,” so the Stainmore route was functioning as early as 1661. A few later letters confirm this route, until the end of December 1663, when one says leave at Carlisle. This suggests that the Newcastle route had been reintroduced, and the Penrith office was no longer functioning. But then there are no more letters until January 1666, when the letters say to leave at Penrith. During the period 1668 to 1673 the directions mention sending the mail via Northallerton, consistent with the information in Stone’s book. The Post Office records are silent on the period 1660 - 1666, but the docketing on the letters suggests a period of change with the Stainmore route introduced in 1661, perhaps being discontinued in 1663 in favor of the Newcastle route, but being reintroduced and becoming permanent in 1666.



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