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Bankers' Correspondence London-Edinburgh, 1791

This is the oldest item in my collection: A stampless folded letter - probably better described as a self-made envelope - from 1791.


As you can see in the top left-hand corner of Figure 3, it was mailed by Coutts & Co. of London on April 18, 1791. The recipient was James Fraser at the Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh (Figure 1 and Figure 3). More on the sender and the recipient in a moment.


The back of the item (Figure 2) has two postmarks, referred to as "Bishop marks." These postmarks were introduced by Henry Bishop, England's postmaster general, in 1661 to indicate the month and date (and later year) that a letter was received by a post office. These marks encouraged prompt deliver by letter carriers. This particular letter has a black Bishop mark showing that it was received at a London post office on "AP 18 91" and a red mark presumably applied at an Edinburgh post office three days

later, "AP 21" (i).


The distance from London to Edinburgh is just over 400 miles, a doable distance over three days given how mail was carried in England in the late 18th century. England's famous mail coaches (Figure 4) commenced operations in 1784 between London and Bristol and were plying the London-to-Edinburgh route by 1786. Running around the clock and averaging 7-8 miles per hour in the summer and 5 miles per hour in the winter, a mail coach could easily have made it from London to Edinburgh in 72 hours in late April of 1791 (ii).


I don't know the meaning of the inscription "21 / 27." It probably indicates the postage rate, but I can't square those figures with what I found about Anglo-Scottish postage rates in the 1790s. See this link for that information: Rates on Anglo-Scottish Mail 1660-1801 [Great Britain Philatelic Society] (gbps.org.uk).


Coutts & Co., the sender of this letter, is still in business today as part of Natwest Group's wealth management division. It is one of the oldest banks in the world. It traces its roots back to 1692 to a goldsmith-banking firm at the sign of the Three Crowns in Strand, London. The Coutts named first appeared in the firm's name in 1755 when James Coutts, a Scottish banker, married into the founder's family. James retired from the company in 1775 and died in 1778, but his brother Thomas Coutts (1735-1822) (Figure 5), who joined the firm in 1761, was at the helm at the time this letter was sent (iii). Coutts & Co. banked a large number of the aristocracy, including King George III, the nemesis of the American revolutionaries (iv).


The recipient, James Fraser, was born in 1727 in Edinburgh and died there in 1808 at age 81 (v). His brief obituary in the November 19, 1808, edition of the Caledonian Mercury described him as "Principal Secretary to the Bank of Scotland, while his tombstone in the Old Carlton Cemetery in Edinburgh is engraved with "Treasurer to the Bank of Scotland" (vi). Either way, he was a prominent member of the Edinburgh banking community. The Bank of Scotland, founded by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1695, is the oldest bank in Scotland today.


I wish I knew what Coutts & Co. mailed to the Bank of Scotland, but even without that, this item is still fascinating.


I acquired this item at Vance Auction held on January 25, 2023, for $C75, or about $56.


(i) Henry Bishop (postmaster general) - Wikipedia.

(ii) Mail coach - Wikipedia.

(iii) Our History | Coutts UK Private Bank.

(iv) Ancestry.com - Dictionary of National Biography, Volumes 1-22.

(v) James Fraser* - Facts (ancestry.com).

(vi) UK and Ireland, Find a Grave™ Index, 1300s-Current - Ancestry.com.

Figure 1 - Front

Figure 2 - Back

Figure 3 - Fully opened folded letter.

Figure 4- The Edinburgh and London Royal Mail, 1838

Figure 5 - Thomas Coutts, 1820. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

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