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A Lawyerly Spat from 1840 England

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

At the same time that Great Britain issued the first ever adhesive postage stamp (the Penny Black - see this post: A Naturalist, A Prize Agent, and A Navy Captain: A Penny Black Story from 1840 (, it also issued postal stationery letter sheets. For the price of one penny, an individual could purchase one of these letter sheets, jot down their message on the blank side, fold it, and pop it into the mail. They were first available for sale on May 1, 1840, and valid for postage beginning May 6, 1840.

These letter sheets are referred to as "Mulready stationery," named after William Mulready who was commissioned to illustrate them. His "artwork shows Britannia, a female figure symbolizing Britain, at center, together with a shield and a reclining lion. Figures at upper left and right suggest the continents of Asia and North America. In the lower corners, idealized family members are engrossed in their mail."(i)

Sir Rowland Hill, who spearheaded postal reform in Great Britain, thought the Mulready letter sheets would become more popular than postage stamps, but he was badly mistaken. The design was widely ridiculed and caricatures of it were very common. Within two months of its issuance, a decision was made to replace the Mulready stationery.

Here is one example of a used Mulready letter sheet. I acquired this item from Kurt Schau of K.H. Philatelics, Inc. located in Petaluma, California on January 25, 2022, for $275.00. It has a red Maltese cross cancellation on the front (Figure 1) and a black circular date stamp on the back (Figure 2) dated June 29, 1840, from Appleby, England. It arrived in London, about 180 miles south of Appleby, on June 30, 1840, as shown by the red circular date stamp on the back.

The writer was a prominent solicitor and attorney by the name of Frederick Weymss who was born in 1796 or 1797 and died in 1869. He was a lifelong resident of Appleby. In addition to serving the legal needs of the community, he served as Appleby's town clerk and councilor, attended to the needs of the poor of the community, and was a proponent and shareholder in the Eden Valley Railway, which began operations in 1862. Frederick never married and lived with his widowed mother and sister. He has a memorial in Saint Lawrence's Church in Appleby that is shown below (Figure 5).

Frederick was writing to Allen & Nicol, a law firm in London, the principals of which were James Allen (1801-1881) and Henry Nicol (1806-1877). Frederick was somewhat peeved at Allen & Nicol over a "Writ of Summons," a legal document that is used to commence a civil action against a person. He writes, "I find from your letter of the 27th that I am mistaken in supposing that the new process, the Writ of Summons, was serviceable in any Court but I err only in common with most of the professionals in this district of the Kingdom." He goes on to mention others that he is engaging to issue a second Writ of Summons including a Mr. Byron and a law firm by the name of Wilson & Harrison located in Kendal, England, which is about 24 miles southwest of Appleby. There is another name in the letter that I can't decipher; it might be "Flex" or "Flox." I haven't been able to pinpoint Mr. Byron, but I found three Wilson's and two Harrison's in the Kendal town directory who were solicitors. I suspect most, if not all, of these individuals were involved in some way with the firm of Wilson & Harrison.

While not happy with the situation, Frederick does attempt to smooth over any bad feelings by including a postscript in which he says, "I meant no [illegible] for the Courts & I assume you will issue the second writ with the same [illegible]." This is akin to having to make amends for hitting the send button on a flaming email without first pausing to think, "Is this a good idea?"!

Figure 1 - Front

Figure 2- Back

Figure 3 - Text

Figure 4 - Unfolded Mulready Stationery

Figure 5 - Memorial to Frederick Weymss

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