Details & Cataloguing

English Literature, History, Private Press, Children's Books & Illustrations


Postal History--Original Dockwra Stamp.

triangular hand-stamp in black ink (21mm height x c.30mm at base), reading "PENNY | POST | PAID" around the outer edge, "PAID" facing outward, with rounded corners and a corner emblem of three dots, centre letter "T" designating this as the stamp of the Temple sorting office, found opposite the address panel on the verso of an autograph letter signed by William Farmerie, to Sir John Reresby, Bt., "at his house next doore to the Sun Taverne in Leicester feilds", referring to an ongoing legal issue ("...you may insist upon your Privilidge of Parliament if you please..."), 1 page, folio, 15 March 1680/81, seal tear, light dust-staining to portions forming outer wrapper, stamp incompletely inked

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Not in Jay, but similar to Jay 317 (which has "P" centre-letter) 

Jay, Barrie. The British County Catalogue of Postal History 3: London, 2nd edition (Leicester, 2005)
Todd, T. William Dockwra and the Rest of the Undertakers (Edinburgh, 1952)
Holyoake, Alan. Great Britain: Secured Delivery Leading to the Introduction of Registered Mail: 1450-1862 (London, 2011)


A previously unrecorded example of the earliest version of the original Dockwra hand-stamps, the "Murray's Post" stamp, marking a crucial development in postal history as the first penny post, pre-dating the Penny Black by 160 years, and the first postal system to allow for registration and pre-payment. Original Dockwra stamps are exceptionally rare: only one other "Murray" stamp is recorded in private hands (with another seven in institutional collections), only four other original Dockwra's of any type are known in private hands, and this is the first to have come to auction in more than ten years.

The sender of this letter, William Farmerie, was almost certainly the lawyer of that name working at Thavies Inn near Holburn in London's legal district. He was writing to a client, the Yorkshire-born politician Sir John Reresby, 2nd Baronet (1634-1689), at his house in the newly-developed area of Leicester Fields (today's Leicester Square), just over a mile to the west of his office. It was an ordinary letter, but it was sent by a revolutionary new postal system – the London penny post.

The penny post was launched by a partnership of "undertakers" led by William Dockwra and Robert Murray in late March 1680, its services  advertised through handbills and in several newspapers. It was a remarkably sophisticated and efficient system that aimed at nothing less than a communication revolution in London. For an up-front flat fee of 1d. (equivalent to roughly 55p today), the undertakers guaranteed delivery of a letter anywhere within London and its immediate environs within four hours. Several hundred receiving-houses were established where a messenger would call hourly to take all letters received to the closest of the seven sorting offices where they were stamped (at least from December 1680 onwards) and sorted for onward delivery. The sender, recipient, and time of posting all letters were recorded in registers, and compensation was paid for failure to deliver.

This cheap and reliable system was of great benefit to trade, and no doubt played its part in the extraordinary commercial growth of London that was underway in the later seventeenth century, but it was also deeply entwined in the politics of the day. This was the time of the Exclusion Crisis and the Popish Plot, when opposition Whig politicians were engaged in a massive campaign to sway public opinion – especially in London – against the court and the Duke of York, through anti-Catholic propaganda. The penny post provided an excellent method of disseminating propaganda and it was also independent of the royal mail, which was controlled by the Duke of York. There is plenty of evidence connecting Dockwra and especially Murray to Whig circles, and as early as the autumn of 1680 the government brought law-suits to try and suppress this infringement of its monopoly. 

The early history of the penny post was fractious and the initial partnership between Murray and Dockwra soon collapsed. The details of the dispute are unclear, but it was probably triggered when the Privy Council issued a warrant for Murray's arrest in May 1680 for the dissemination of Whig tracts. In the summer of 1680 Murray had a circular letter printed in which he claimed to be "the Original Contriver, and Author of this way of conveying Letters and Pacquets", complained bitterly of being ousted by Dockwra, and intimated that he was establishing his own penny post. A small printed ticket advertising Murray's postal service operating "at Mr Hall's Coffee-house in Wood-street" also survives.

Hand-stamps were not used during the first months of the post's existence, although some letters survive in public archives with a handwritten endorsement "penny letter house p[ai]d". The hand-stamp on this letter is one of a very small group that are usually (following Todd) associated with Robert Murray. The earliest of these is dated 13 December 1680 and the present example is the latest (the previously known latest example was dated 31 January 1681). Although they are commonly known as Murray marks, their association with Robert Murray's post is in fact uncertain. It is far from clear Murray's post was a fully developed system with multiple sorting offices (the printed ticket suggests little more than a carrier service based at a single coffee house in the City), and no full and convincing explanation of the early hand-stamps has yet appeared in print. The "Murray" stamps are distinct from the hand-stamps illustrated and explained by Dockwra in a handbill dated April 1681, namely a slightly smaller triangular "penny post paid" with dimpled corners, and a heart-shaped time stamp, which begin to appear on letters from 2 June 1681. However, it is not clear whether the "Murray" stamps are simply earlier versions produced by Dockwra or the product of a rival post. 

The penny post was a rapid and long-standing success for London, but did not enrich the entrepreneurs who established it. By September 1681 Robert Murray was to be found working as an agent for the Whig leader Lord Shaftesbury in France, having evidently abandoned the penny post to Dockwra, and in later years he proposed a number of money-making schemes – variously advertising a debt-collecting service, trying to establish a credit bank, and petitioning for exclusive rights to establish a provincial penny post. Meanwhile, the penny post itself continued with Dockwra as the principal undertaker until November 1682, when the Postmaster General brought a successful action against him for infringing the Royal Mail's monopoly. By this time the furore of the Exclusion Crisis had  died down and it was easier for the government to persuade a London jury to support the rights of the Duke of York, so in late 1682 the London penny post was taken over by the government leaving Dockwra himself massively out of pocket (he later claimed to have lost £8000). However, the success of the system is illustrated by the fact that the government then continued to run the system almost unchanged for more than one hundred years.   

English Literature, History, Private Press, Children's Books & Illustrations