The official QI Twitter account (@qikipedia) today said the following:

If you sent a letter in 19th century London you could expect a reply within 2 hours

Is there any merit to this claim?


3 Answers 3


I interpret the claim to not be about how responsive a particular recipient could be, but to be about how long it took to deliver a letter, and how often this service ran. i.e. if the recipient was attentive, and quick to respond, how long would it take for a response to be delivered?

The Dictionary of Victorian London includes a number of quotes from contemporary sources about the London Postal service.

One source from 1844 shows that there are seven deliveries daily "in town", and they were collected every two hours:

Morning by eight o'clock, for the second delivery. Morning by ten o'clock, for the third delivery. Morning by twelve o'clock, for the fourth delivery. Afternoon by two o'clock, for the fifth delivery. Afternoon by four o'clock, for the sixth delivery. Afternoon by six o'clock, for the seventh delivery.

A source from 1879 shows it varied by postal district:

London is divided into 8 postal districts, in which the number of deliveries varies from 12 to 6 daily, between 7.30 a.m. and 7.45 p.m.

Again, collections occurred every couple of hours:

Take care to post before ¼ to 8, 10, 12, and 2, 4, 6, 8, in one of the Iron Pillar Boxes (first erected 1855) on the kerb stones of the leading thoroughfares.

This doesn't show that the letters would be delivered quickly, just that they were collected and delivered frequently. There may still be a large "lag".

A source from 1879 shows:

the third delivery in [Eastern Central District] [...] is made at about 10 a.m., and includes the letters collected in London generally at 8.45 a.m [...]

This shows that a lag of a little over an hour is expected. It seemed to get better later in the day (as they got over the backlog of the overnight deliveries):

The next nine deliveries are made in every district hourly, and include all letters reaching the General Post Office or the district offices in time for each despatch.

In summary, while it depended on the year and the region, once could expect to receive mail every hour or two, with a lag of around an hour or so. This doesn't support the idea that a response might be typically expected within two hours, but it does suggest that such response times would be sometimes possible on a good day.

  • 7
    I should try reading Twitter this way
    – Avery
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 14:58
  • 42
    Terry Pratchett obviously borrowed heavily from the Victorian Post Office's regulations when writing Going Postal; as all of the quotes in your answer seemed eerily familiar. Commented May 23, 2017 at 15:22
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    This data actually suggests that a 2 hour turnaround time is not possible. It appears that mail is collected/delivered approximately every 2 hours. If I hand my letter to the mail carrier as he arrives, it will take about 2 hours to arrive at the recipient. Unless he writes a response on the spot, he'll have wait another 2 hours to mail the reply, which will take another 2 hours to deliver. So, the minimum expected time to receive a reply is closer to 6 hours, not 2. Including the time needed to write a reply, one requires three cycles of dropoff/pickup, however long they may be. Commented May 23, 2017 at 19:28
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    @Mark - I only mention handing the letter to the mail carrier because it minimizes the wait time. You could of course leave it in the mailbox, but would then have to wait additional time between "mailing" the letter and actually having it go somewhere. And unless mail is delivered every 40 minutes, you're still not hitting the 2 hour mark stated by the OP. Commented May 23, 2017 at 20:07
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    @dsollen: Again, I largely agree. "This doesn't support the idea that a response might be expected within two hours" However, if the winds were aligned, you might be one of the earlier people in delivery, and get a letter in less than an hour, it might sometimes happen. Further, even if it fails to be technically true, it validates the surprising idea that in an era before the motor car, postal delivery times were much faster than today.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 17:11

In the 1850s, the postal system was reformed. From that time until WWI, there were twelve deliveries per day in London:

In order to improve the London system, the separate corps of letter-carriers who delivered the General and District mail were consolidated, there were twelve hourly deliveries per day, and ten separate postal districts were created (Daunton, Royal Mail, 46).
Letters in London: Communication and correspondence in the nineteenth-century city

People did expect fast replies, but it often took longer than two hours:

Victorians expected that a letter might arrive two to three hours after posting, although to the dismay of many patrons, it often took eight to nine hours (still far speedier than mail service today).
Posting it: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing

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    Do you know if the Post Office discouraged or forbade any sort of gratuities? If it didn't, I would think it plausible that some people could get extremely good mail service. If a postman delivers one side of all the roads in his route in one direction, and then does the other side going in the reverse direction, and Y was "downstream" of X in the forward direction, X might send a letter to Y and have it delivered in the same cycle. Y might then offer an incentive for the postman to cross the street to receive a reply while delivering the opposite side's mail.
    – supercat
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 16:46
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    If you were coresponding with someone on the same street, in the days before telephone, you would send a private runner, not use the post.
    – JDługosz
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 20:51
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    @JDługosz why not walk there personally in that case? Commented May 24, 2017 at 9:53
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    @JanDvorak Most people using the post back then would have had servants to carry out menial tasks like that. And post carried an element of formality. Walking round implies that you are sufficiently close as to expect to be allowed an audience without notice. In Victorian times, that's a very close friend.
    – Graham
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 12:45
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    @JanDvorak because you’re going through a pile of business, not dropping everything do deliver one note.
    – JDługosz
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 18:11

From the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the expression "by return of post":

By return of post (F. par retour du courrier): orig. by return of the 'post' or courier who brought the dispatch (obs.); now, by the next mail in the opposite direction.

This certainly suggests that if an urgent reply was requested, one would mark the envelope as such and the messenger would wait for you to write the response immediately. In such cases, a 2 hour delay would depend on the distance (London was about 5 miles across in 1850, based on this map). As other answers explained, conventional mail deliveries happened all day long - obviously the point there was that one would want to minimize the delay for getting letters delivered from when they were written. That doesn't prove that everyone would respond immediately to every letter that came in - again, unless it was marked to indicate that an immediate response was required.

Urgent letters would be marked with "haste, post, haste" - this is the origin of the expression "post haste":

1590s, from a noun (1530s) meaning "great speed," usually said to be from "post haste" instruction formerly written on letters (attested from 1530s), from post (adv.) + haste (n.). The verb post "to ride or travel with great speed" is recorded from 1550s.

Such marking would usually invite a rapid delivery, and quick reply.

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    This is wrong and completely unrelated. The normal, ordinary post service ("dropping letters in to your box" - no connection whatsoever to courier delivery, individual messenger service, etc) was (surprisingly) incredibly better in that era than today.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 15:24
  • @Fattie except that the mail man came to your house several times a day and would "by return of post" come back to pick up letters as well. Yes you could drop them into a box - no you didn't have to. Just as even today the mail in the US is picked up from the mail box (while you can take the mail to a dedicated letter box you don't have to). This continued past the time of dedicated (point to point) couriers.
    – Floris
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 15:42
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    "one would mark the envelope as such and the messenger would..." this QA has nothing to do with messengers, it is about the Royal Mail.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 15:48
  • @Floris But the definition you quote is about a courier coming to your house, giving you a letter and waiting there while you wrote your reply. Sure, the postman would pick up any letters you'd written, but wouldn't stand there waiting for you to reply to a letter that he'd just given you: his job was to provide service to your whole district, not just to you. Commented May 28, 2017 at 16:59

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