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Anatomy of a Madeira Letter – Back Stamp

October 16, 2020 Leave a comment

The British Post office was divided into a number of branches with the Foreign Office separate from the Inland Office. The Foreign Office handled post to and from overseas destinations including a number of the letters sent to Messrs Newton, Gordon that I have in my collection.. Beginning in 1797, the Foreign Office office hand stamped all outward posts.[1]

Between 1806-1814, the Foreign Office used a red stamp with “Foreign” and the year within two concentric circles. There is a code number in the middle. The first image is comprised of four marks for the years 1808-1811.

Beginning in 1815, the Foreign Office switched to a new black stamp. Within a circle appear “F” and the last two digits of the year split by the perpendicular code number. The second image is comprised of stamps from 1817, 1819, and 1820, and 1821.

The last image includes three back stamps from 1817 which I have arranged in ascending order of the numerical code. As you can see, the May letter has a higher value than the September letters. Perhaps the code is simply a 3-digit sequence number which has rolled over back to zero at least once between May and September. Further, there were 67 letters stamped between the two September letters. If anyone has an understanding of this code please let me know.

  • #167 – Dated 10 September 1817
  • #235 – Dated 10 September 1817
  • #252 – Dated 13 May 1817

[1] “The Jay Catalogue: Revisions Continued – FOREIGN OFFICE”, London Postal History Group, Number 158, August 2004. URL: http://www.gbps.org.uk/information/downloads/lphg-notebook.php

Anatomy of a Madeira Letter – Receipt Docketing

October 12, 2020 2 comments
A related pair of letters received by Messrs Newton Gordon Murdoch & Scott, Madeira on 30 May 1817. Author’s collection.

On the back of an individual Madeira letter you will find its history docketed. This information includes who sent the letter and from where, when it was written, when it was received, and when it was answered.

The first image featured in this post illustrates the receipt docketing of two letters of introduction sent to Messrs Newton Gordon Murdoch & Scott of Madeira. The letters concern two men each making the journey from London to Calcutta via Madeira. Written one day apart, the letters were received at Madeira on 30 May 1817. They were promptly answered the following day, perhaps because the gentleman themselves were on the very same ship that the letters were sent on.

A letter received by Messrs Newton Gordon Murdoch & Scott, Madeira on 29 Nov 1809. Author’s collection.

Not all letters were answered in a timely manner. One such letter sent by packet, took only 11 days to travel from London to Madeira. However, it took nearly four months to be answered! The letter concerns an order for 10 pipes of Madeira to be sent first to the Brazils before making their way back to London. It is possible the reply was not written until the pipes had made their journey back from Brazil hence the long delay.

A letter received by Messrs Newton Gordon Murdoch & Scott, Madeira on 22 Feb 1791. Author’s collection.

The final cover featured in this post, indicates that two letters bearing different dates from Francis Newton were received. Though written on one sheet, Francis Newton first provides an extract from his previously sent letter dated 30 November 1790, which is followed by his current letter dated 6 December 1790. The extract of the previous letter is marked “copy” which is perhaps why it is docketed with “Duplicates”. The letters were received on 22 February 1791 and marked “ans’d formerly”. It could be that the first letter was received and answered before this latest copy arrived.

Anatomy of a Madeira Letter – Rates

The three letters featured in this post, dated 1808, 1811, and 1817, highlight the different rates charged for sending letters from London to Madeira using the British Post Office. These letters were carried by postal packet thus in addition to the recipient’s address and endorsement, they bear the rates charged for delivery.

The port city of Falmouth, located in the south-west corner of England, was home to the Post Office’s Packet Service for nearly two centuries.[1] In sending a letter from London to Madeira, the rate was calculated by adding up the inland cost of sending the letter from London to Falmouth. and the Falmouth packet rate to Madeira. The letters dated 1808 and 1811 were rated based on the same scale set forth in the Postage Act of 1805[1].

Falmouth is located some 270 miles from London. In 1805, the inland rates for England charged 11d. for a 200-300 mile journey. The Falmouth packet rate for Madeira was 1s. 7d. The total rate then is 11d. + 1s. 7d. – 1d. = 2s. 5d which is marked in red in the upper right-hand corner of the cover. The letter is also marked “40” for the 40 Centimos collection fee in Madeira. I do not have any further information about this fee.

The second letter was rated 4s. 10d. or twice that of the previous letter. This was the charge for a double letter. The reason for which is found in the correspondence itself, where we learn that “Under this cover you will receive Copies of my last letter…”.

The Postage Act of 1812, increased the inland rate for London to Falmouth by 1d. to 12d or 1s. and the packet rate to Madeira was increased by 1d. to 1s. 8d.[2] The total rate then is 1s. + 1s. 8d. – 1d. = 2s. 7d.


[1] Hemmeon, J. C. “The History of the British Post Office”, 1912. URL: http://www.gbps.org.uk/information/downloads/files/historical-studies/The%20History%20of%20the%20British%20Post%20Office%20(1912)%20-%20J.C.Hemmeon.pdf

[2] “Postage Act 1805, (45 Geo 3 c.11, 12th March 1805)”. The Great Britain Philatelic Society. URL: http://www.gbps.org.uk/information/sources/acts/1805-03-12_Act-45-George-III-cap-11.php

[3] “Postage Act 1812,(52 Geo 3 c.88, 9th July 1812)”. The Great Britain Philatelic Society. URL: http://www.gbps.org.uk/information/sources/acts/1812-07-09_Act-52-George-III-cap-88.php

Anatomy of a Madeira Letter – Recipient’s Address

Whether from England or America, an old letter addressed to a Madeira house is shockingly simple. The name of the firm followed by “Madeira” are all that were required for an address to enable the letter to reach its destination during the 18th and 19th centuries. Founded in 1745 by Francis Newton, the firm of Cossart, Gordon & Co. has changed names some dozen times since [1] and the letters in my possession illustrate several of these changes through the recipient’s address:

  • Messrs Newton Gordon & Co (1787)
  • Messrs Newton Gordon & Johnston (1790)
  • Messrs Newton Gordon Murdoch & Scott (1808)
  • Messrs Newton, Gordon, Cossart & Co (1840)

A number of my letters are endorsed with additional information. To understand why we must turn to postal history.[2] The British Post Office was first organized by act in the mid 17th century which gave it the authority to send all letters and packets.[3] There were exceptions which allowed others to carry mail as well. Letters regarding personal affairs could be carried by a friend and merchant correspondence could be carried by other ships.

Three such examples appear in the image below. The top-most cover is endorsed “pr. Packet” which meant it traveled by a regular postal packet. If you look closely you can see it was rated “2/5” meaning a rate of 2 Shillings and 5 Pence was charged along with “40” for the 40 Centimos collect fee in Madeira. The middle letter endorsed “THe Alexander CapT Reid” was carried by private ship. Captain Reid no doubt carried the letter because a John Welch of London was directing Messrs. Newton Gordon to ship five pipes of Madeira onboard Captain Reid’s ship Alexander. The final cover is endorsed “by favour of Mr Wm Hope” and from the contents we learn that the banking firm of Marsh, Stracey, & Co. of London requested that Messrs Newton Gordon advance Mr. William Hope up to 600 Pounds.


[1] “Madeira, The Island Vineyard” by Noel Cossart & Mannie Berk, 2010.

[2] Many interesting papers may be found at the Great Britain Philatelic Society. URL: http://www.gbps.org.uk/

[3] “June 1657: An Act for setling the Postage of England, Scotland and Ireland.” British History Online. URL: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum/pp1110-1113

“We were in time favored with your letter”: Anatomy of a Madeira letter

Assorted Madeira letters from the author’s collection.

I have enjoyed reading many 18th and 19th century letters regarding Madeira wine both online and in person. The survival of these letters is amazing. There is a thrill I feel whenever I have viewed them at libraries or from the collection of Mannie Berk (The Rare Wine Co.). The descriptions found within, of various wines, vintages, and even oak staves, have appeared in many posts on this blog. I have, however, never addressed the physical letters themselves.

Over the last few months I acquired a small collection of letters addressed to the firm of Cossart, Gordon and Company at Madeira dating from 1763 – 1840. That these letters are even available for purchase stems back to the late 1970s and early 1980s when many were sold off for philatelic value. It is these letters that I have largely purchased. Over the next few posts I will present pictures from my collection to illustrate the anatomy of a Madeira letter.

Cruikshank’s “Oxford Transports” from 1824

Robert Cruikshank, “OXFORD TRANSPORTS, or Albanians doing Penance for Past Offences”, March 1, 1824. Author’s collection.

Robert Cruikshank (1789 – 1856) is the brother of the well-know satirist, George Cruikshank. His satire “Oxford Transports” may very well depict the profusion of wine I hope to share with my friends at the end of the pandemic.

My last post was many months ago at the end of January. Since then the new nature of work due to the pandemic has placed all-consuming demands on my time. I still love curious old bottles of wine and even older wine history which I will endeavor to begin posting about, once again, this fall.

Aaron