Two Strings to the Stagecoachman’s Bow: Mail and Passenger
On land, stagecoach owners and operators counted on both passengers and mail to keep their businesses afloat. References to the operation of passenger and mail stages between Fredericton and Saint John date back to the 1780s and the early 1800s.
The movement of mail and passengers on and off the island of Montréal also brought together the interests of stageline operators, postmasters and innkeepers. In the Montréal area, private systems of mail transport operated as well. One such system was established in 1808 between the north shore village of Terrebonne and Montréal. The contractor was authorized to carry passengers, freight and mail on his stagecoaches or bonnes voitures. However, he was specifically instructed not to carry oral messages or messages de vive, that could hurt the interests of his clients. This suggested that an entire load of oral messages was carried in the wagons along with the freight, the passengers and the mail.
A seemingly banal event in 1853, the robbery of the Halifax-Pictou mail coach, illustrates how stagecoaches were used. On this occasion, thieves stole the private luggage of a female traveller. In her trunk was several hundred pounds in coins and a certain amount of mail. Much of the stolen mail consisted of newspapers, apparently a commodity worth stealing and shows that newspaper publishers were frequent users of the postal system.
By the 1830s and 1840s, newspaper publishers could not afford to rely only on the informal network of mail to reach his customers. The publisher could ask willing passengers to carry copies of newspapers free of charge. However, he could never be entirely sure that the newspapers would be delivered to his subscribers. Yet, this is exactly what happened to Edmund Ward, the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia newspaper publisher, in the winter of 1843. Due to a lack of passengers to carry his newspapers, he was left with no means to distribute the February edition of his paper to his readers living in Charlotte County, New Brunswick. The only alternative was to send the newspapers through the postal system.
In 1849, the Parliament Buildings of the province of Canada in Montreal were destroyed by an angry mob. The crowd that gathered on the night of April 25, 1849, to burn down the legislature responded to a Tory-minded call to action that appeared in the Montréal Gazette. In this instance, the newspaper ignited a feeling of resentment among certain Montréalers who felt betrayed by British officials. The press had become an important factor in the articulation of public opinion. How did the press get its messages out? Through the post.
The Montreal Gazette, for example, was delivered to city dwellers by teams of delivery boys. For readers in the rural areas, i.e., in the Eastern Townships, the postal service delivered the paper. In Nova Scotia as in Lower Canada, the mails were important to the newspaper business. Petitions from readers were presented to the colonial legislature to express their frustration with the lack of postal service. The inhabitants of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, argued for better postal service “on account of letter[s] and of their American and New Brunswick newspapers.” The citizens of Five-Mile Village, Nova Scotia, requested a new postal route on the grounds so that they could safely receive and send their letters and newspapers. Certain inhabitants of the County of Cumberland were “virtually denied the privilege of taking newspapers” because of the lack of regular postal service nine months of the year.
The postal service was a necessity for newspaper publishers throughout British North America, not only because of the access it provided to readers. For Canadian publishers, the newspaper postal exchange was a vital means of sharing information with other publishers. By this convention, newspaper editors could receive single copies of all colonial newspapers free of postage. Around 1840, there may have been as many as 156,000 copies of such newspapers circulating in the mails of British North America. The result was a uniform pattern of news reporting working its way like a chain-reaction from one city to the next. If, for example, a fire occurred in one town, that city’s newspaper reports would soon appear in another town’s newspaper. And so on down the line, the same article was copied again and again, sometimes with some embellishment of the story.
Newspaper Publishers and Postal Reform
Although the post was doubly important to the newspaper industry, the publishers were reluctant to pay the cost of the postal service. They believed that the subscribers, not the newspaper publishers, should pay the four to five shillings it cost to post each newspaper. They argued in an 1829 petition before a colonial legislature that the cost was a “great drawback on the diffusion of knowledge.” They were angered by the fact that the revenues were used to enrich the salary of the Deputy Postmaster General instead of being used to improve the postal system.
Small wonder then that publishers were at the forefront of the movement for postal reform and that the Deputy Postmaster General at the time, Thomas Allen Stayner, was a prime target of their wrath. Postal reformers demanded a reduction in postage within the colonies and not just on newspapers. It was often noted in the newspapers that it cost less to send a letter from Britain to Halifax, than from Halifax to Toronto. The consistent, cheaper postage in Britain that came with the introduction of the postage stamp in 1840 did not go unnoticed in British North America.
The colonials also demanded a postal authority that would be responsible to each of the colonial legislatures. Their wish to control their own postal affairs was part of a more general movement toward responsible government. Reform-minded colonials sought to take control of their political affairs from British officials who often acted without consulting with the colonials. Pressure on the British to give up control of the colonies increased noticeably during this decade.
Demands and petitions in favour of postal reform appeared in colonial newspapers alongside the more spectacular demands in favour of responsible government. Postal agitation spilled over into the respective legislatures of the colonies gathering force, in particular, during the 1840s. Local chambers of commerce and business groups became involved. Indeed, much of the literate elite of British North America was made aware of the need for reform in the relationship with Britain. In practical terms, it simply was not convenient for the post office to be run by outside imperial officials who were not responsive to colonial needs. Herein lies the special significance of postal reform in the larger context of political reform. The concept of responsible government was, of course, more radical and spectacular, and the matter of postal reform may have appeared at first as just a detail. But, it was an ever-present and recurring detail pushing the colonists in the direction of self-government.