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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
Postal Reminiscences


IN no department of the public service have more important changes been effected than in the Post Office, even within recent years. Under the enlightened administration of Mr Fawcett the work of reform has gone steadily on, until our postal and telegraphic system has attained the highest state of efficiency. The contrast between the present and the past is very striking; and it may prove interesting to many if we point out here the changes which have taken place in the transmission of letters in the county of East Lothian. Before the introduction of the royal mail coaches in 1786, post-bags were carried on horseback from Edinburgh to London, and it would appear that they were neither heavy nor ill to carry.

It is recorded that on one occasion the post-bag from London to Edinburgh contained only one letter. Most people may have heard of the old story, that when the two mail express riders met on Coldingham Muir to exchange the Edinburgh and London bags, they dismounted from their horses and indulged in a game of pitch and toss. The post riders were frequently stopped by highwaymen and the bags taken from them. Croker’s Hedges, between Haddington and Linton, was a place which was rendered notorious from the frequency with which deeds of this description were perpetrated. The starting of the mail coaches was the first improvement in the postal system.

We find from an old almanac of date 1798, that the royal mail coach was despatched every day from Edinburgh except Thursday (because no mail arrived in London on a Sunday), at four o’clock P.M., and the mail from London to Edinburgh arrived on Wednesday night—thus taking three days in travelling. In that year there were only ten letter-carriers to deliver letters in Edinburgh, Leith, and the country places, and only four receiving houses. The old post-road from Edinburgh was at that time up the long steep brae of Ravensheugh, the west boundary of East Lothian, and by the old Pease Road, along the sea-side, on the east (before the Pease bridge was built), and past Auld-cambus, Head-Chesters, across Coldingham Muir, to the Press Inn, and on to Berwick. The interior of a country post-office in the latter part of the eighteenth century, on the arrival of the post-bags, bears no resemblance to what it is now. Sir Walter Scott, in his novel of the Antiquary, as every one knows, gives an inimitable description of Mrs Mailsetter, the postmistress of Fairport, with her two cronies Mrs Heuckbane and Mrs Shortcake, in the back parlour of the post-office. The account of how post-office business was conducted at that time in more parts of the country than Fairport is by no means exaggerated. Letters were narrowly looked into, and a deal of gossip thereby arose. There were no envelopes in those days.

It may be interesting to notice some particulars of old post-office matters connected with the Haddington of long ago. Provost M'Call, who was chief magistrate of the burgh from 1723 to 1728, was postmaster in his day. His house was at the foot of Sidegate Lane, and was a grand one in its time—having an enclosed court in front with large trees in it, which some old Haddington folk still recollect. Its baronial tower and spiral staircase still exist. It is one of the few specimens of the old style of houses left in the burgh. The M'Calls were an old Haddington family which has become extinct. M'Call’s Park, where the Knox Memorial Institute is built, was once their property. After Mr M'Call’s death, Mr John Martine, Provost in 1781, was appointed postmaster, which office he continued to hold until his death in 1812, when his son, the late Mr Peter Martine, succeeded him. The post-office continued to be in Sidegate, opposite Justice Wilkie’s house, until 1817 or 1818, when it was removed to the Custom Stone, and afterwards to Mr Martine’s property in the High Street On a large board was painted in big letters the time of the departure of the two mails east and west each day. The guards used to walk up with the arrival bags from the coach, and receive the departure ones. A single letter from Edinburgh in those days cost 5½d, from London is 1½d; and double ones, although they contained only a small enclosure of any kind, were charged double postage—2s 2½d from London, and 10½d from Edinburgh. The postage was marked in large figures on the letter, the unpaid ones with black ink, the paid ones with red.

Letters were long delivered in the town by James Anderson, and afterwards by his daughter Kirstie, afterwards Mrs Bell, who carried them in her white apron. They were allowed one halfpenny for delivering each letter, and one penny when they went out of the town. James was a character in his day, as well as his wife, Betty Jardine, who came from Ecclefechan along with Mrs Barclay, wife of the minister of the first charge of Haddington, as servant. James went by the name of “Letter a Penny.” He had been delivering a letter to a lady at Letham House, a mile from the town, and she, after paying the postage, thanked him for his trouble. “No thanks at all,” James said, “only a penny mair to pay, my lady.”

Runners, as they were called, carried the letters to Gifford, North Berwick, and other places at that time. A woman of the name of Kirstie Taylor for many years carried the bags from and to Gifford every morning except Sunday. In winter and in bad weather she wore a pair of long black boots. She was a stalwart woman, and walked with a stout stick. On one occasion some young chaps in a frolic stopped her on the Cockle Brae and pretended to take the bags from her. She turned on them, and cried out, “What! will you attempt to stop the King’s mail on the high-road?” Brandishing her stick, she dared them to meddle with her. She lived in Gifford until she was a very old woman. James Bell was Gifford postman at one time, and travelled for long with a donkey cart. Afterwards Sandie Wight was a paid messenger, and latterly, after some others, James Donaldson (who is yet hale and fresh) was long in the service as Gifford postman. It was diverting to see James at the Post Office door mounting his “nag,” and starting on his daily journey. Peter Taylor for many years carried the mail-bags on foot from Haddington to North Berwick, and delivered letters at places on the road. Afterwards John Gowans was the North Berwick postman. Both walked upwards of twenty miles a day. The well-known Matthew Cassie, of North Berwick—clever, shrewd, and witty, although not compos mentis—once came up with John Gowans, with whom he was very friendly, to pay Haddington a visit He was soon picked up by the boys of the town, whom he diverted with his clever remarks. Next morning he was escorted out of town by a lot of youths. Although he was well taken notice of, which he liked, he never came back to Haddington, perhaps thinking that once was often enough to visit the royal burgh. He used to say of Cranshaws, in Berwickshire, which he once visited, “No more Cranshaws; it’s a rough road. Never mention it to me again.” One Willie Yorkston for a long time took the letters from Prestonkirk to Stenton, &c. He rode a “cuddie,” and latterly a pony, obtained through the kindness of a few of the farmers. He blew a long tin trumpet, which announced his arrival at Stenton, and was the signal for the schoolboys to turn out and get fun with Willie, and make his cuddie “funk.” On going through Stenton he used to cry out to young girls, &c., “There is a letter in the bag for you, and you will get it at John Grierson’s, the merchant, and ye maun gie me a penny for telling ye.” He used to gallop along with the mail when he met it with his pony, which he at last killed with rough usage. Willie was a character in his day, and is still remembered in and around Stenton,

Many of the gentlemen around Haddington sent messengers for their letters to the Post Office, A rider who used to come down from Nunraw every morning rode a mule, a very cross, dour, restive beast It was no easy matter for the rider to get it to start from the Post Office door. On one occasion it was more than ordinarily dour, and ran back, breaking to pieces Mrs Cockburn’s shop window, with all the jars of sweeties, &c. She kept a little shop down a stair, in a small house now rebuilt, adjoining the Post Office premises. The starting of the Nunraw mule was always a diverting scene to the scholars of Graham and Hardie’s school in those days. Bell Anderson, a daughter of old “Letter a Penny,” carried a bag of letters daily to Saltonhall, and to Keith House, Colonel M'Lean’s, of Ardgour. In the country post offices many old characters were employed. Under the old system, members of Parliament, both Lords and Commons, had the privilege of franking a certain number of letters every day, which were transmitted free of postage. When Sir Adolphus John Dalrymple was elected member for the five burghs, in 1829, in the town council room of the burgh of Haddington, the moment the proceedings were over, he franked a number of letters to different persons, who were waiting on for the purpose, among whom were Mr Hugh Fraser, Mr Haldane, &c. The penny postage put an end to franking.

The mail coaches always changed horses at the George Inn. The old guards from Edinburgh to Berwick were Burgess and Warby, both burgesses and freemen of Berwick-on-Tweed. On the kings birthday they got new red coats trimmed with gold lace, which looked uncommonly spruce. The horses were adorned with ribbons on their heads, and the Union Jack was fixed to the guard’s seat behind. It was the old practice for the guard to be furnished with a blunderbuss, which was carried in a box opposite his seat, to afford him protection against the footpads who infested the roads. The mail bags were carried in a box below his feet, or strapped to the top of the coach. The coach had to keep to time, if possible, and was under the guidance of the guard, who sometimes, when late, had to cry out to the driver, when a talkative passenger was seated beside him, “George, give us less of your talk, and give the horses more of the whip.” The guards and drivers of those days were the first intelligencers of important news. For instance, when the events of the Derby and St Leger races came off, the sporting men of Haddington were anxiously waiting for the arrival of the mail to hear who were the winners. Burgess was a stout, jolly man. He drank strong ale at the inn bars, and was the picture of health. Warby was a thin, wiry man, and drank brandy. In the long course of years he was guard, his nose got quite blue. It is a well-known fact, authenticated by guards and drivers who travel daily, and who are necessarily exposed to many cold and fierce blasts, that a draught of stout, heavy ale, such as was made long ago, keeps the stomach in far better and longer trim than ardent spirits. Snow-storms were the worst enemies the mail coaches had to contend with. The road from Houndwood to Cockbumspath was almost always the worst part for being blocked up with snow. Frequently the coaches were detained there for many days until the roads were cut. Seven mails have been known to have been due from the east at Haddington at one time, and at last they had to be carried on to Dunbar on horseback, and from thence to Edinburgh in post-chaises.


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