Mail by Sea

Find out how the mail has been carried by sailing boats, steam ships, ocean liners, rowing boats and even by hovercraft.

Until the 20th century, moving the mail by sea was the only way to send post to other countries and to the many islands around the United Kingdom. It could be a perilous journey for the crew. Injury, privateers and shipwreck were very real dangers, let alone the weather.

Early Ships and Routes

Oil painting in colour showing a sailing ship with three masts in stormy seas at night. The sky is dark and cloudy with moonlight shining from the moon partially hidden behind the clouds.

‘Mail Packet off Eastbourne’ – Oil Painting. Mid 19th century. Artist Captain Victor Hughes RN. (2005-0102)

As early as the 17th century, mail was sent from Britain to the continent by ships known as packet boats. From 1660 they ran regularly from Harwich to Holland. This is because Holland was a major international trade partner for Britain. Other routes included Dover to Calais and Falmouth to Spain, Portugal and the West Indies. Both the ships and crew were contracted, not directly employed by Royal Mail. These times were often not safe to travel by sea. The packets and mail were attacked so often that there were official compensation rates for death or injury: £8 for a sailor’s arm or leg, £4 for an eye.

Contract to build, supply, maintain and operate three packet boats, 1748 (POST 12/1)

From Sail to Steam

Sailing packets carried the mail up to 1815, but then gradually steam ships took over. For some of the 19th century the Post Office did own and run some ships themselves – the Admiralty took over for a time when the Post Office’s lack of maritime expertise got them into difficulties. However, from the 1840’s commercial shipping lines began to be contracted to carry the mail. Companies such as White Star Line (later Cunard), Peninsular and Oriental Shipping Company (P&O) and the West Indian Royal Mail. They found the postal subsidies valuable as they extended their routes further to keep pace with the expansion of the British Colonies of the time. 

  • A 19th century oil painting showing a paddle steamer with four masts in a rough sea. The sky is cloudy with a ray of sunlight streaming through onto the ship.

    ‘The SS Great Western’ – Oil Painting. c. 1843. Artist Joseph Walter. (2004-0134)

  • Ship owners also made profits from carrying passengers, bullion and freight. The Post Office did not pay for loss or injury to vessels caused by storms. However, they did compensate owners for damage during times of war and often had to pay ransom money for the return of boats seized by privateers.

Mail by Sea in Wartime

Privateers

A privateer was a boat authorised by a government to attack foreign boats during wartime. Many governments did this and Britain had its own privateers too.

A black and white lantern slide of two sailing ships. The ship on the right has six masts as full sails and the lower portion of the ship is covered in smoke. There is a smaller ship to the left. The image shows HM packet ship 'Granville' being attacked by American privateers off the island of Barbados.

‘Untitled: HM Packet Granville attacked by privateers’. Black and white lantern slide. 20th century. (2012-0171)

Officially, the captains of British packet ships were forbidden to engage larger ships in battle. But in 1793, the packet ship Antelope successfully fired on the French privateer Atlanta until she surrendered. Prior to this attack, the Antelope had been captured twice before, by the French, and ransomed back to the English. The crew successfully defended the mail and the packets on board and were hailed as heroes when they arrived back in England.

  • The World Wars

    Wartime in the 20th century also took its tole. Some ships, and the mail they carried, did not make it safely to harbour. They included the RMS Leinster, torpedoed during the First World War, and the SS Gairsoppa, torpedoed during the Second World War.

  • Paper items from the SS Gairsoppa in the conservation studio for treatment. Colour photograph. 2017.

Royal Mail Ships

1840 saw the introduction of the designation ‘Royal Mail Ship’ (RMS). Only commercial ships contracted to carry mail were allowed to use this designation. The ships proved popular with passengers as they ran on strict timings to ensure that mail was delivered on time. 

The ships probably most associated in our minds today with the letters ‘RMS’ are famous passenger liners such as the RMS Queen Mary, the RMS Olympic and the ill-fated RMS Titanic.

A black and white photographic image showing the 'Titanic' leaving dock with two small boats before and behind her. Smoke is coming out of all the ships funnels.

‘SS TITANIC/ Leaving Southampton’ – Lantern Slide. 20th century. (2012-0126/04)

Mail by boat at home

Sailing Boats

It was not only international mail that was transported by boat. Inland mail was delivered, for example, by boat in Northern Ireland, Cornwall and Scotland.

A black and white photograph showing mail being loaded from a pier onto a one masted sailing boat.

‘Northern Ireland, Ballycastle. Loading Mails for Rathlin Island’. Black and white photograph. 1936. (POST 118/571)

  • Rowing Boats

    There was also a River Postman in the Pool of London, the stretch of the River Thames from London Bridge to below Limehouse. The River Postman received and delivered mail by rowing boat to the moored ships. The first person appointed to this position was William Simpson in 1800. Five generations of the same family worked in the role until 1952, when it ended due to the increase in commercial traffic on the Thames.

  •  

    Artwork in colour for a poster showing a postman in a rowing boat on the River Thames. Two large ships and Tower Bridge are in the background.

    ‘River Postman’. Artwork for a poster by Ellis Silas. 1946. (POST 109/178)

  • A colour photograph showing a hovercraft on the slipway. A Royal Mail van and two postmen with a mail bag are in the foreground.

    ‘Hovercraft mail service – Ryde, Isle of Wight, June 1987’. Colour photograph. (POST 118/CT00825)

  • Hovercraft

    The first ever Hovercraft mail service in the world travelled from Rhyl on the north coast of Wales to Wallasey in Merseyside on 20 July 1962. Unfortunately, strong winds and continued engine failure meant the service did not run as often as originally planned and the last trip was only a few months later in September 1962. However, the Post Office reviewed the idea about 20 years later. In the 1980s they began transporting mail by hovercraft once more, this time between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

Find out more

The Royal Mail Archive holds records of the movement of inland and overseas mail by sea, such as log listings, contracts, voyage records and packet boat reports. Please visit the archive to find out more.

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