Ship & packet letters

Before the advent of airmail all British mail going abroad, and coming from abroad, had to travel by sea.

The earliest known handstamps were not recorded until early in the eighteenth century when the first handstruck stamps were issued by the General Post Office indicating that mail had arrived by sea.

There were two basic types of handstamps found on mail sent by sea. The terms used of “PACKET” and “SHIP” letters are completely different. Mail transported to and from Britain by ships owned by the British Post Office were termed “Packet Letters” and the ships that conveyed those letters were called “Packet Boats”. Mail conveyed by ships that were privately owned and not under Post Office control, were termed “Ship Letters”. Each had their own distinctive handstamps.

Ship letters

In 1799, a Ship Letter Act enabled the Post Office to receive and send letters by private ships at half the Packet rates. In that same year the London Chief Office set up a Department known as the “Ship Letter Office” which remained as such until 1847.

The earliest “SHIP LETTER” mark consisted simply of the word “SHIP” which appeared during the second decade of the 18th century in 1712. From as early as 1660 it was enacted that masters of private ships, at their first port of arrival, were to deliver the mail they carried to the Postmaster. He was duty-bound to forward it without delay to London so that the correct postage could be assessed at the Chief Office. To assist this procedure nearly all handstamps show the name of the port of arrival either above or below the words “Ship Letter”.

Throughout the 18th and up to the mid 19th century there are numerous designs and shapes of ship letter marks both framed and unframed in a variety of colours. Some are dated below.

Packet letters

The earliest “PACKET LETTER” mark showing the port at which the mail was landed belongs to Falmouth and is dated 1806. As with ship letters, the types of handstamps issued over the years are many, both in variety of design and colour. As with “Ship Letter” handstamps some are dated.


One interesting type of “ship letter” mark is particularly worth mentioning. It was issued in 1814-1815 when a Post Office experiment allowed people to send letters abroad by handing them in at a Port Post Office, where they paid one-third of the rate of a “Packet Letter”. The sender could then withdraw the letter and send it by any private ship of their choice. Such letters were known as “Post Paid Withdrawn Ship Letters”.

The PDF link below is a table listing relevant items in The Postal Museum’s Postal History Collection. They have been arranged in alphabetical order of ship letter.


Ship letters

Table Glossary

Sources used:

Robs. S.1, S.2, S.3 etc. for Ship Letters. A.W. Robertson A History of the Ship Letters of the British Isles; Colin Tabeart Robertson Revisited*.

Robs. In.1, In.2, In.3 etc. for India Letters. Ditto.

BCC. type (15), (16), (47), (L133), (L275) etc. R.M. Willcocks & B.Jay. British County Catalogues of Postal History. Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Auck. type S.19, S.42 etc. Bruce Auckland. Markings of Scotland to 1840. Second edition. Edited by Ron Stables.

*The type of Ship Letter handstamps in the listings are based on A History of the Ship Letters of the British Isles which was first published by Alan W. Robertson in 1955. Colin Tabeart produced a further book on Maritime markings in 1997 entitledRobertson Revisited which updated Robertson’s work including all known additions and variations to the handstamps plus extensions to their recorded usage that had accrued in the intervening years. The benefit of both these books has been used in the preparation of The Postal Museum’s listings.


CDS or cds circular date stamp

circ. circular

dd dated

d. arc. double arc

D.R. or d.r. double ring

ds datestamp

H/S or h.s. handstamp

H.struck handstruck

MS. or ms. manuscript

P. or Pr. Per

rec. receivers or receiving

rect. h.s. Rectangular handstamp

R.O. Receiving Office

s/l or s.l. straightline

S.R. or s.r. single ring

T.P. Twopenny Post