The Postal System in British North America
Throughout British North America, a formal postal system existed. Its early history was marked by the establishment of a post office in Halifax in 1754; the introduction of postal routes and post offices in the St. Lawrence Valley following the conquest of New France in 1763; and, the appointment of key officials in charge of the system.
The head official of the colonial post office was the Deputy Postmaster General. He appointed rural postmasters as well as clerks and letter carriers to the post offices in Montréal, Trois-Rivières and Québec. (His counterpart in Halifax did much the same thing for the Nova Scotia postal service.) He had an annual salary of £500 pounds, a £30-pound stationary allowance, and a portion of the postage fees charged on newspapers. This amounted to the princely sum of almost £4000 per year, making him one of the highest paid colonial officials, making him a perfect target for those who were anti-British. Assisting the Deputy Postmaster General were three clerks, a watchman and eventually an accountant and two surveyors, one of whom was stationed in Upper Canada. Around 1840, there were as many as 400 country postmasters offering service to customers in Upper Canada and Lower Canada.
The amount of mail in the postal system was around 1.8 million pieces. Probably an additional 231,000 letters were mailed free of charge on an exemption available to sailors, military personnel, and government and post office officials. An equal amount of mail (roughly two million articles) travelled outside the system. “The unofficial correspondence of the country, according to a postal commission of enquiry, must have nearly trebled” between 1828 and 1840. As the first half of the century wore on, there was more and more mail, official and unofficial.
Keeping the Mail Safe
Security procedures for Her Majesty’s mails were not especially tight. For the informal mail system, security probably did not exist. On their travels, the post office bags were opened repeatedly by the individual postmasters, even if the bags were padlocked. To find the mail addressed to his locality, a postmaster had to fumble his way through packet after packet of mail in order. Then he dumped his own packets into the bag.
It was only along the long postal route from Fredericton, New Brunswick, to Amherstberg, Upper Canada, that mail going all the way was kept in a separate bag, or portmanteau, that was known as a grand sac des malles. Another bag, the “way bag” or sac de route, carried the mail for the various post offices along the way. The grand sac was not supposed to be taken into post offices along the way, as the contents of the packets were not supposed to be tampered with, although sometimes mistakes were made.
The climate was the single most formidable challenge facing postal officials. There was no shortage of damage the Canadian weather could inflict upon the post. One heartbreaking twist of irony befell a team of men who, in 1847, carried the mail from Halifax to Québec in record time only to find that much of their load had been destroyed:
…both letters and papers in consequence of continued rains from which the Bags could not be effectually defended, suffered very much.…Many of the bundles of letters were so completely saturated with the water-and ground by the unavoidable friction produced by a conveyance of more than 800 miles [1200 km]-that they were little better than a Mass of pulp upon being taken out of the bags! We used our best exertions to dry the letters, and put the broken portions together, but many were rendered useless.
Various measures were taken to protect the mails during long overland treks. Damage due to friction was reduced by bundling the mail in tightly tied stout brown wrappers that were then tightly fitted into the mailbags. The bags were laid on beds of straw to prevent them from rubbing against the wooden floor of the wagon or sleigh.
The mailbags were supposed to be of waterproof material. Heavy leather portmanteaux were more effective as were iron and tin boxes. In some cases, the mailbags were covered with tarpaulin cloth as protection from weather. Waterproof materials such as oilcloth, India rubber and painted sheepskin were used. One disadvantage of sheepskin was that it caught fire easily. Oilcloth was held in good esteem when it was learned that a letter mailed in this material escaped damage after a shipment of mail accidentally went through the ice along the Saint John River in 1842.
Getting the Overseas Mail from East to West
Mail travelled through the colonies of British North America via the post office and a network of unofficial messengers and agents. Both relied on common systems of transport. Mail was exchanged with Europe across the Atlantic via both Halifax and New York. Because of the massive concentration of ships in New York harbour, mail between the Europe and British North America flowed through there. Mail from Toronto, Montréal, and even Saint John, New Brunswick, was sent via New York. The Halifax packet ships that carried mail between Nova Scotia and Britain also ran between New York and England. Halifax was merely an extra stop along the way.
Once the mail for New Brunswick and Upper and Lower Canada arrived in Halifax, it was shipped to its destination by steamer in summer and overland in winter. Delays occurred. At Halifax, for example, letters for Upper and Lower Canada were placed in one set of bags. Letters for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were placed in another bag. New Brunswickers had to wait until the Halifax postmaster and staff had the time to separate the Nova Scotia mail from theirs before they could expect delivery. Mail reached New Brunswick from Halifax overland via Truro, Nova Scotia, and, increasingly, across the Bay of Fundy aboard the Saint John-Digby ferry. In 1821, a schooner was built, “a superior vessel expressly for the comfort of passengers and safety of the mail.” Seven years later, a steamboat was introduced along this route. In 1830, plans were underway to build a new boat to be fitted with a stronger 40-hp steam engine.
The overland journey between Fredericton, New Brunswick, and Amherstberg, Upper Canada, at either end of the major mail route was difficult. The route was 1900 km (or 1200 miles) long. There were 10 main stopping places and many lesser ones. It took 55 hours just to carry the mail from Fredericton to Lake Témiscouata, a distance of 343 km (230 miles). Another 40 hours and the mail bags were in Québec (240 km/160 miles) where they were put aboard a steamer for Montréal or on a specially designed coach that travelled up the St. Lawrence seven days a week.
Steam navigation and spectacular improvements to inland navigation improved considerably the transport of mail along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes waterways. A specialized steamboat mail service was introduced and a clearly identified departmental mailbox became a familiar feature aboard the boats. Beginning in 1847, six conductors, each with his own steel cancellation stamp, accompanied the steamer mail between Montréal and Toronto. At ports of call, the mail was carried from the docks to the nearest post office in a covered wagon or cart bearing the inscription, “Post Office Mail.” In the summer of 1852, the Kingston British Daily Whig reported that mail could travel from Upper Canada to Québec in just 23 hours. At that time, Belleville received daily mail by steamer. In 1853, the town of Hamilton received its mail by steamer as well.