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A Stampless "Ship Letter" from 1819

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

Before the advent of adhesive postage stamps in 1840, mail was still sent and received throughout the world. These are referred to as “stampless” letters or covers.


This stampless cover was sent from Charleston, South Carolina to London, England via Cowes, a port city on the Isle of Wight some 101 miles southwest of London. It is a “ship letter,” which means it was carried by a private ship to Britain at which point it entered the British Post Office stream for delivery.[i]


The letter is dated May 8, 1819, and was written by George W. Prescott, a merchant headquartered at Martin’s Wharf in Charleston. Mr. Prescott was born in 1787 in Kensington, New Hampshire. When he moved to Charleston is unclear, but his name appears as early as 1815 in an advertisement in The Charleston Daily Courier to sell bank bills. He was a founding member of Charleston’s “New England Society” established in 1819. For reasons unknown, he was expelled from the Society in 1820.[ii] I wonder what the scandal was! Maybe it was as simple as not paying his annual dues, which is cited in the rules as a reason “to be stricken from the roll.”


His expulsion did not seem to hurt his business, however, because his name appears under ship arrivals and departures in the Charleston newspapers into the mid-1820s. He moved to Fort Gaines, Georgia sometime between 1826 and 1833 where he died in 1839 at age 51. The epithet on his tombstone reads, “He was distinguished by his enterprise and activity in business and by his strict integrity. That life is long which answers life’s great end.”[iii]


The letter was sent to Colonel Thomas Aspinwell who at the time was the U.S. Consul to Great Britain. As consul, Colonel Aspinwell’s primary role was to promote the trading and business activities of the U.S. That role explains the letter’s contents:


Sir, this goes by the Brig Ruthy, Capt. Wise, which vessel we have dispatched with a cargo of upland cotton for account & ? of our mutual friend William Gary of Boston. She has onboard 354 bales mostly square & of very fine quality. The Ruthy is to touch at Cowes for instructions from you where to proceed which you will be good enough to communicate to Capt. Wise at Cowes. We wrote you yesterday by the Octavia Capt. Wilson for Liverpool which vessel we doubt not will have a short passage.


The Ruthy will leave here with the necessary documents to proceed to the Baltic should the markets in that quarter offer any inducement for her to proceed beyond G[reat] Britain. We would however observe that Capt. Marsters of the Ship Pactolus belonging to Mr. William Gray sailed from this port a few days since & we think it most probable she will have gone direct to St. Petersburg with an assorted cargo of which there is on board her about 200 bales cotton & 50 bbls. rice.


We remain Sir

Yr. Obt Servants

G.W. Prescott & Co.


Colonel Aspinwell was the second-longest-serving U.S. Consul, holding that position in London from 1816–1854. He was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, in 1786. In the War of 1812, Colonel Aspinwell sustained an injury to his left arm that required an amputation. In recognition of his service, President Madison appointed him consul to London. While in London, Colonel Aspinwall also acted as a literary agent and a liaison between American authors and British publishers. One such client was Washington Irving. Colonel Aspinwall died in 1876 in Boston.[iv]

Mr. Prescott entrusted this letter to a Captain Wise who commanded the brig Ruthy.[v] According to the newspaper The Lloyd’s List, the Ruthy arrived in Cowes on June 9, 1819, after a journey of 28 days. That meant it departed Charleston on or about May 13, a few days after the letter was written. The front of the letter is lightly stamped “COWES/SHIP LETTER.” The back of the letter has a circular date stamp of June 10, 1819, which is presumably when it arrived at the Ship Letter Office in London. The letter was likely carried by mail coach from Cowes to London and then delivered to Colonel Aspinwell at 1 Bishopsgate Churchyard – at least that was his address in 1825 according to that year’s Pigot’s Directory.


The Ruthy is listed in the 1821 Lloyd’s Register as being captained by “D. Wise,” owned by “W. Green,” and operating out of Charleston. Even with that information, I have been unable to find additional information on either individual. Neither is listed, for example, in the 1816 Charleston City Directory nor I can find any likely matches on Ancestry.com.


On the other hand, there is an entire biography on William Gary, which includes a portrait of him painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1807 (Figure 5).[vi] He was born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1750. He was active in both business and politics and wrote often to John Quincy Adams when the future president was Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of St. Petersburg. That may explain why one of the ships Mr. Gray owned, the Pactolus, was sailing to St. Petersburg with a load of cotton and rice. Mr. Gray passed away in Boston in 1825, leaving an estate of $900,000 – a sizeable sum for the day!


As for the other ship noted in this letter – the Octavia led by Captain Wilson (no relation, I think) – it arrived in Liverpool carrying 656 bales of cotton on or about June 11, 1819, according to the Liverpool Mercury.


Acquired at Vance Auctions on May 18, 2022, for C$320.00 or approximately $232.00 as of October 2022.



Figure 1 - Front

Figure 2 - Page 1 of 2 of letter

Figure 3 -Page 2 of 2 of letter

Figure 4- Back

Figure 5 - William Gray

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