India letters

Prior to 1814, a British Post Office packet service to India and the Cape was not considered to be economical.

The shipping trade to the Far East was the monopoly of the East India Company. An Act of Parliament in 1814 changed everything. It allowed the Post Office to set up a Packet Service, but using mainly the private ships of the East India Company. These went into service in 1815, providing monthly sailings to Madras and Calcutta, with a service to Bombay when possible.

Another Act of Parliament, in 1819, provided for special sea-postage rates for “India Letters” which were cheaper than the ordinary Ship Letter rate. This necessitated special “INDIA LETTER” handstamps to be struck on each letter at the port of arrival, so that letters could be distinguished from other ship letters and the correct sea and inland rates charged.

A great variety of handstamps are known, both framed and unframed and usually in two lines, with the port of entry in the upper or lower line. Stamps are commonly struck in black or red, but are occasionally found in blue and green.

The need for “India Letter” stamps became unnecessary in the early 1840s due to changing conditions associated with the transportation of Indian mails.

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

India 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.

Abbreviations:

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

  • Ship & packet letters

    Before airmail all British mail going to or coming from abroad travelled by sea. Handstamps were not recorded until the early 18th Century.

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  • Paid-at stamps

    Before 1840 most letters were paid for by the recipient.

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