Chapter 45 – East Side of the North Bridge (continued)., pp.353-358.

Memorabilia of the General Post Office – First Postal System in Scotland – First Communication with Ireland – Sanctions given by the Scottish Parliament – Expenses of the Establishment at various Periods – The Horse Posts – Violation of Letter Bags – Casualties of the Period – The First Stage Coach – Peter Williamson – The Various Post Office Buildings – The Waterloo Place Office – Royal Arms Removed – New Office Built – Staff and Fiscal Details.


THE demolition of the old theatre was proceeded with rapidly, and with it passed away Shakespeare Square, on its southern and eastern sides, a semi-rectangle, alike mean in architecture and disreputable in character; and on the sites of both, and of Dingwall’s ancient castle, was erected the present General Post Office, a magnificent building, prior to describing which we propose to give some memorabilia of the development of that institution in Edinburgh. 

The year 1635 was the epoch of a regular postal system in Scotland, under the Scottish ministry of Charles I. This system was probably limited to the road between Edinburgh and Berwick, the main object being to establish a regular communication with London. Mails were despatched once and sometimes twice weekly, and the postage of a single letter was 6d. From Rushworth’s “Collections” it appears that in that year Thomas Witherings, his Majesty’s Postmaster of England and foreign parts, was directed to adjust “one running post or two, to run day and night between Edinburgh and London, to go thither and back again in six days, and to take with them all such letters as shall be directed to any post town on the said road.” Three years after these posts became unsafe; the bearers were waylaid and robbed of their letters, for political reasons. 

Chapter 45a

In 1642, on the departure of the Scottish troops to protect the Ulster colonists, and put down the rebellion in Ireland, a line of posts was established between Edinburgh and Port Patrick, where John McCaig, the postmaster, was allowed by the Privy Council to have a “post bark”; and in 1649 the posts were improved by Cromwell, who removed many, if not all the Scottish officials; and in 1654 the postage to England was lowered to 4d.; and to 2d. for a single letter within eighty miles. On the 16th of December, 1661. Charles II. reappointed Robert Muir “sole keeper of the letter-office in Edinburgh,” from which he had been dismissed by Cromwell, and £200 was given him to build a packet-boat for the Irish mail. 

In 1662 Sir William Seaton was succeeded as Postmaster-General of Scotland by Patrick Grahame of Inchbraikie, surnamed the Black, who bore the Garter at the funeral of Montrose, and who, according to the Privy Seal Register, was to hold that office for life, with a salary of £500 Scots yearly. In 1669 the Privy Council established a post between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, twice weekly, “wind and weather serving.” A letter was conveyed forty miles (about sixty English) for 2s. Scots; and for one an ounce weight the charge was 7s. 6d. Scots; for every single letter carried above eighty miles within Scotland the rate was 4s. Scots; while for one an ounce weight 10s. Scots (i.e. 10d. English) was charged. In 1678 the coach with letters between Edinburgh and Glasgow was drawn by six horses, and performed the journey there and back in six days! 

In 1680 Robert Muir, the postmaster, was imprisoned by the Council for publishing the News Letter, before it was revised by their clerk. “What offended them was, that it bore that the Duke of Lauderdale’s good were shipping for France, whither his Grace was shortly to follow, which was a mistake.” 

In 1685 the intelligence of the death of Charles II., who died on the 7th of February, was received at Edinburgh about one in the morning of the 10th, by express from London. In 1688 it occupied three months to convey the tidings of the abdication of James VII. to the Orkneys. 

In 1689 the Post-office was put upon a new footing, being sold by roup “to John Blair, apothecary in Edinburgh, he undertaking to carry on the entire business on various rates of charge for letters, and to pay the Government 5,100 merks (about £255 sterling) yearly for seven years.” And in October that year William Mean of the Letter Office was committed to the Tolbooth, for retaining certain Irish letters until the payment therefor was given him. IN 1690 the Edinburgh post-bag was robbed in the lonely road near Cockburnspath, and that the mails frequently came in with the seals broken was a source of indignation to the Privy Council. In 1691, John Seton (brother of Sir George Seton of Garlton) was committed to the Castle for robbing the post-bag at Hedderwick Muir of the mail with Government papers. 

To improve the system of correspondence throughout the kingdom, the Scottish Parliament, in 1695, passed a new “Act for establishing a General Post-office in Edinburgh, under a Postmaster-General, who was to have the exclusive privilege of receiving and despatching letters, it being only allowed that carriers should undertake that business on lines where there was no regular post until such should be established. The rates were fixed at 2s. Scots for a single letter within fifty Scottish miles, and for greater distances in proportion. It was also ordained that there should be a weekly post to Ireland, by means of a packet at Port Patrick, the expense of which was to be charged on the Scottish office. By the same law the Postmaster and his deputies were to have posts, and furnish post-horses along all the chief roads to all persons ‘at three shillings Scots for ilk horse-hire for postage, for every Scottish mile,’ including the use of furniture and a guide. It would appear that on this footing the Post-office in Scotland was not a gainful concern, for in 1698. Sir Robert Sinclair of Stevenston had a grant of the entire revenue with a pension of £300 sterling per annum, under the obligation to keep up the posts, and after a little while gave up the charge as finding it disadvantageous… Letters coming from London for Glasgow arrived at Edinburgh in the first place, and were thence dispatched west-ward at such times as might be convenient.”1

The inviolability of letters at the Post-office was not held in respect as a principle. In July, 1701, two letters from Brussels, marked each with a cross, were taken by the Postmaster to the Lord Advocate, who deliberately opened them, and finding them “of no value, being only on private business,” desired them to be delivered to those to whom they were addressed; and so lately as 1738, the Earl of Islay, in writing to Sir Robert Walpole from Edinburgh, said, “I am forced to send this letter by a servant, twenty miles out of town, where the Duke of Argyle’s attorney cannot handle it;” and in 1748 General Bland, commanding the forces in Scotland, complained to the Secretary of State “that his letters at the Edinburgh Post-office were opened by order of a noble duke.” 

From 1704 till the year of the Union, George Main, jeweller, in Edinburgh, accounted “for the duties of the Post-office within Scotland, leased him by the Lords of the Treasury and Exchequer in Scotland” during the three years ending at Whit Sunday, for the yearly rent of 21,500 merks Scots, or £1,194 8s. 10d. Sterling, subject to deduction for expenses, among which are £60 for the Irish packet boat. 

In 1708 the whole business of the General Post-office was managed by seven persons – viz., George Main, manager for Scotland, who held his commission from the Postmaster General of Great Britain, with a salary of £200 per annum; his accountant, £50 per annum; one clerk, £50; his assistant, £25; three letter-runners at 5s. each per week. The place in which it was conducted was a common shop. 

In 1710 an Act of the newly-constituted British Parliament united the Scottish Post-office with that of the English and Irish under one Postmaster-General, but ordained “that a chief letter office be kept at Edinburgh, and the packet boats between Donaghadee and Port Patrick be still maintained.” The postage of a letter to London was then raised to 6d. sterling. 

In 1715, James Anderson, W.S., the well-known editor of Diplomata Scotiæ, obtained the office of Deputy Postmaster-General, in succession to Main, the jeweller. When he took office, on the 12th of July, there was not a single horse post in Scotland, foot-runners being the conveyers of the mails, even so far north as Thurso, and so far westward as Inverary.

“After his appointment,” to quote Lang’s privately-printed history of the Post-office in Scotland, “Mr. Anderson directed his attention to the establishment of the horse posts on the Western road from Edinburgh. The first regular horse post in Scotland appears to have been from Edinburgh to Stirling; it started for the first time on the 29th November, 1715. It left Stirling at 2 o’clock afternoon, each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, reaching Edinburgh in time for the night mail for England. In March, 1717, the first horse post between Edinburgh and Glasgow was established, and we have details of the arrangement in a memorial addressed to Lord Cornwallis and James Craggs, who jointly filled the office of Postmaster-General of Great Britain. The memorial states, that ‘the horse post will set out for Edinburgh each Tuesday and Thursday at 8 o’clock at night, and on Sunday about 8 or 9 in the morning, and be in Glasgow – a distance of 36 miles (Scots) by the post road at that time – by 6 in the morning, on Wednesday and Friday in summer, and by 8 in winter, and both winter and summer, will be in on Sunday night.’ ” 

At this period it took double the time for a mail to perform the journey between the two capitals that it did in the middle of the 17th century. When established by Charles I., three days was the time allowed for special couriers between Edinburgh and London. 

In 1715 it required six days for the post to perform the journey. This can easily be seen, says Mr. Lang, by examining the post-marks on the letters of that time. 

In that year Edinburgh had direct communication with sixty post-towns in Scotland, and in August the total sum received for letters passing to and from these offices and the capital was only £44 3s. 1d. The postage on London letters in the same month amounted to £157 3s. 2d. 

In 1717 Mr. Anderson was superseded at Edinburgh by Sir John Inglis as Deputy-Postmaster-General in Scotland, from whom all appointments in that country were held direct. The letter-bags, apart from foot-pads and robbers, were liable to strange contingencies. Thus, in November, 1725, the bag which left Edinburgh was never heard of after it passed Berwick – boy, horse, and bag, alike vanished, and were supposed to have been swallowed up in the sands between Coquet-mouth and Holy Island. A mail due at Edinburgh one evening, at the close of January, 1734, was found in the Tyne at Haddington, in which the post-boy had perished; and another due on the 11th October of the following year was long of reaching its destination. “It seems the post-boy,” according to the Caledonian Mercury, “who made the stage between Dunbar and Haddington, being in liquor, fell off. The horse was afterwards found at Linplum, but without mail, saddle, or bridle.” 

The immediate practical business of the Post-office of Edinburgh (according to the “Domestic Annals”), down to the reign of George I., appears to have been conducted in a shop in the High Street, by a succession of persons named Main or Mein, “the descendants of the lady who threw her stool at the bishop’s head in St. Giles’s in 1637.” Thence it was promoted to a flat on the east side of the Parliament Close; then again, in the reign of George III., behind the north side of the Cowgate. The little staff we have described as existing in 1715 remained unchanged in number till 1748, when there were added an “apprehender of letter-carriers,” and a “clerk to the Irish correspondents.” “There is a faithful tradition in the office, which I see no reason to doubt,” says Dr. Chambers, “that one day, not long after the Rebellion of 1745, the bag came to Edinburgh with but one letter in it, being one addressed to the British Linen Company.” 

In 1730 the yearly revenue of the Edinburgh office was £1,194, according to “The State of Scotland;” but Arnot puts the sum at £5,399. 

In 1741 Hamilton of Innerwick was Deputy Postmaster-General, and nine years after, the mails began to be conveyed from stage to stage by relays of fresh horses, and different post-boys, to the principal places in Scotland; but the greater portion of the bags were conveyed by foot-runners; for the condition of the roads from Edinburgh would not admit of anything like rapid travelling. The most direct, at times, lay actually in the channels of streams. The common carrier from Edinburgh to Selkirk, 38 miles, required a fortnight for his journey there and back, the channel of the Gala, which for a considerable distance was parallel with the road, being, when not flooded, the track chosen as most level and easy for the traveller. At this period and long before, there was a set of horse “cadgers,” who plied regularly between different places, and in defiance of the laws, carried more letters than ever passed through the Edinburgh office in those days. 

In 1757 the revenue amounted to £10,623, according to Arnot; in that year the mail was upon the road from London 87 hours, and, oddly enough, from Edinburgh back 131 hours; but by the influence of the Convention of Royal Burghs, these hours were reduced to 82 and 85 respectively; and 1763 beheld a further improvement, when the London mails were increased from three to five. Previously they had travelled in such a dilatory manner, that in the winter the letters which left London on Tuesday night were not distributed in Edinburgh till the Sunday following, between sermons

In 1765 there was a penny postage for letters borne one stage; and in 1771, when Oliphant of Rossie was Deputy Postmaster-General, the Edinburgh staff consisted of ten persons, exclusive of the letter carriers. 

In 1776 the first stage coach came to Edinburgh on the 10th April, having performed the journey from London in sixty hours. In the same year the penny post was established in Scotland by Peter Williamson, to whom we have referred elsewhere. This man was the Rowland Hill of his day, and the postal authorities seeing the importance of such a source of revenue, gave him a pension for the goodwill of the business, and the Scottish penny posts were afterwards confirmed to the General Post by an Act of Parliament in 1799. 

In 1781 the number of post-towns in Scotland consisted of 140, and the staff at Edinburgh amounted to twenty-three persons, including letter-carriers. Ten years afterwards thirty-one were required, and in 1794 the Inland Office, including the letter-carriers’ branch, consisted of twenty-one persons. 

The Edinburgh Post-office, for a long time after its introduction and establishment, was conducted solely with a view to the continuance and security of the correspondence of the people, and thus it frequently had assistance from the Scottish Treasury; and if we except the periods of civil war, when a certain amount of surveillance was exercised by the Government, as a measure of State security, the office seems to have been conducted with integrity and freedom from abuse. 

In 1796, Thomas Elder of Forneth, at one time Lord Provost, was Deputy Postmaster-General; in 1799 and 1802, William Robertson, and Trotter of Castlelaw, succeeded to that office respectively. It was held in 1807 by the Hon. Francis Gray, afterwards fifteenth Lord Gray of Kinfauns; and in 1810 the staff amounted to thirty-five persons, letter-carriers included. 

Chapter 45

In April, 1713, the Post-office was in the first flat of a house opposite the Tolbooth, on the north side of the High Street – Main’s shop, as we have stated. At a later period it was in the first floor of a house near the Cross, above an alley, to which it gave the name of the Post-office Close, where its internal fittings were like those of a shop, the letters were dealt across a counter, and the whole out-door business of the city was conducted by one letter-carrier. After being for a time in Lord Covington’s house, it was removed to one already mentioned on the west side of the North Bridge, and from thence to a new office (now an hotel) on the Regent Bridge in 1821. For ten years before that period James twelfth Earl of Caithness was Deputy Postmaster-General; and in the year preceding the removal there, the Edinburgh Weekly Journal says, that by order of the Depute Lyon King of Arms, and the Usher of the White Rod, the new coat of the royal arms of Britain, put thereon, was torn down and removed, “as derogatory to the independence of Scotland,” i.e., wrongly quartered, giving England precedence. Another and correct coat of arms was substituted, and remained there till the present building was erected. 

In 1823, Sir David Wedderburn, Bart., of Ballendean, was appointed Postmaster-General of Scotland, an office afterwards abolished. 

In 1856 the establishment on the Regent Bridge consisted of 225 officials, of whom 114 were letter-carriers, porters, and messengers, and the average number of letters passing through and delivered in Edinburgh daily was estimated at 75,000. The number of mail-bags received daily was 518, and the number despatched 350. The amount of money orders issued and paid showed a sum of £1,758,079 circulating annually through the department in Scotland. 

On the 23rd of October, 1861, the foundation-stone of the new General Post-office was laid, on the east side of the North Bridge, by the late Prince Consort, amid much state and ceremony, the letter-carriers, all clad for the first time in blue, in lieu of their old scarlet, being drawn up in double rank within the galleries which occupied the site of the old Theatre and which were crowded by a fashionable audience. This was almost the last act of Prince Albert’s public life, as he died two months subsequently. At his suggestion the crowning row of vases was added to the façade. 

As finished now, it stands behind a pavement of Caithness slabs forty-three feet broad, and is from designs by the late Mr. Robert Matheson, of H.M. Board of Works in Scotland. Built of fine white stone from Binny quarry, in the neighbourhood of the city, its style of architecture is a moderately rich Italian type. It presents an ornamental main front of 140 feet, to the deep valley where once the North Loch lay. 

The flank to the Waterloo Place Buildings is somewhat plainer than the others, and measures 160 feet. The edifice rises in the central part of each of these three ornamental fronts, to the height of two stately storeys above the street level, and has at the corners wings, or towers, a storey higher, and crowned with rows of massive and beautifully sculptured vases. On the south front it descends to the depth of 125 feet from the summit of these towers, and thus presents a very imposing appearance. 

The office, the chief one for all Scotland, cost, including the site, £120,000, and was first opened for business on the 7th of May, 1866. The entire staff, from the Surveyor-General downwards, consisted in 1880 of 429 persons; whose salaries, wages, and allowances, amounted to £38,427. Connected, of course, with the head office, there were in Edinburgh, Leith, and the suburbs, in 1880, receiving-offices and pillar-boxes.2


1  “Domestic Annals of Scotland,” Vol. III. 
2  By a Government return it appears that in 1880 there passed through the Scottish Post-office 101,948,300 letters, 12,284,700 post-cards, 22,140,500 book-parcels, and 14,570,700 newspapers. In the same year, the average number of letters delivered to each person in the population of the three kingdoms was 35 in England, 26 in Scotland, and 13 in Ireland.