Notes from the Past

Ship Letter

A ship letter is one carried on a ship not normally engaged in the carriage of mail.

Henry Bishop is credited with beginning the system whereby ship letters were brought into port by captains and placed in the mail service.  Bishop paid the captains one penny for each letter they brought to him for delivery by his postal service.  This system was later made official, and special markings were applied to such mail.

These markings would read "Ship Letter," "Loose Ship Letter," or "Posted at Sea," with the name of the port of entry.

As mail carriage by contract grew and private vessels carried less mail, the practice declined.  By the beginning of the 20th century, only a few markings saw occasional use.  The earliest British ship-letter markings date from the early 1700s and were straight-line markings.  Later, curved types went into use, followed by oval markings.

The East India Company had a special arrangement by which mail was carried, and some ports had special India letter markings.  This practice ceased in the 1840s. 


- Kenneth A. Wood
This is Philately - Volume Three Q-Z
Van Dahl Publications 1982
Posted October 12, 2000

Editor's Note:  Henry Bishop served as Postmaster General by Oliver Cromwell and continued in the position into the reign of Charles II.  He is given credit for having invented the practice of marking mail with the date every letter came into the post office.  These 'Bishop Marks' were intended to prevent letter carriers from detaining mail.

Index of 508 Notes from the Past

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