It was the forerunner of the internet we have today: The postal network that started in Britain in 1840 with the issue of a uniform stamp known as the ‘Penny Black’ made communicating over great distances affordable for ordinary people.
Although education was not yet compulsory or free in Britain, it seems that many of the gold seekers who came to the Victorian gold fields could read and write. As the letter was the only means of communication with anyone at a distance, the art of being able to write a good letter held considerable importance.
This rather long post concerns how a letter was created, written and posted in 1852. It is broken down into sections.
Step 1: Choose your paper
Anyone who was keen on writing or drawing would carry with them a portfolio or portefeuille (a leather wallet with writing paper); and some people even had a ‘laptop’ — the original ‘laptop’ being a laptop desk (otherwise known as a ‘writing slope’), which would contain ink wells, writing implements and stationary.
The 1850s was a period in which paper production was only just switching from using pulped linen or cotton rags (which is long-lasting and highly stable), and ‘Manila’ type materials (hemp, jute, flax), to wood pulp. Paper was finally being machine-made, and as such was becoming more affordable.
There were two types of paper commonly available: the ribbed laid paper, which was made using a centuries-old process; which was being supplanted by the more uniform wove paper that came in ‘fine’ and ‘superfine’ grades. Vellum — a parchment made from calf skin — was also still readily available in the mid-1850s.
A lot of paper was Foolscap folio size (commonly contracted to ‘foolscap’ or ‘folio’) — roughly 8×13 inches. This was the traditional paper size used in Europe and the British Commonwealth before the adoption of the shorter A4 as the international standard. However, there was also writing paper and note paper of smaller sizes.
There was an etiquette surrounding the selection of paper: its quality had to be in keeping with the person, the age, the gender, and the circumstances of the correspondents. In particular, messages of mourning were written on paper with a black border, and the width of the border had to correspond somewhat to the nearness of the relationship and the recentness of the bereavement; hence you would see advertised: ‘Mourning envelopes, of the best cream laid and satin papers, of all widths of border’.
Step 2: Assemble your writing implements
The writing was commonly done using a dip pen with a steel nib (which had been mass produced since 1822), which was dipped into an ink well. (Quill pens [made from feathers], which had been in decline since the 1820s, were still available, although these had to be constantly sharpened with a quill knife [the process was known as ‘dressing’].) The ink was usually black, although dark brown and navy blue were also used. The writing was ‘running’ (cursive), because this style resulted in less ink blots. To prevent smudges, excess ink was blotted (soaked-up) using blotting paper — absorbent paper used to soak up excess ink, which only became common place in the 1840s or 1850s replacing a powder (which did the same job by way of scattering it on the writing and blowing it off), known as ‘pounce’.
Grey lead pencils were also in use, but seem not to have been used for formal correspondence. Erasers, made from natural ‘Indian rubber’, had only become commonplace in the mid-1840s. Pencil sharpeners were invented in 1847, and being such a new device were not yet commonplace in 1852.
Step 3: Fold writing paper into its own envelope
In the 1850s, envelopes were in use, particularly among the upper classes. However, many people simply folded their writing paper to make its own envelope.
One way to make the letter into its own envelope (note: these measurements are designed for a modern A4 sized sheet of paper):
1. Holding the page length-ways (ie: landscape), and fold the two side edges vertically inwards so that the two edges just touch each other. 2. Fold the letter horizontally upwards about 7.5cm from the bottom of the page. 3. Fold the top of the letter horizontally downwards about 3.5cm from the top of the page. 4. Flip over and address the letter on the front. Unfold the paper and write your letter. 5. Refold, tucking the top fold into the bottom fold of the letter to form a self-made envelope measuring around 14.5cm by 9.5cm. 5. Seal the join with wax (red, or black for mourning condolences) or a wafer.
Step 4: Write your letter
Letters were written in cursive script, often with the lines very close together to conserve paper. Sometimes, people also wrote crossways across the initial writing, but only in limited circumstances (see note below).
What to write about, and how to write it
If you want to write like a gold digger, don’t worry too much about punctuation, and misspell the occasional word. Do not ever say anything vulgar, and if you must refer to bodily functions, excreta, or sexual matters, these can be only alluded to in an oblique fashion.
Address — Start by writing the date and location (ie: the name of your town or diggings) — in the upper right hand corner.
The salutation — Letters usually started with ‘My dear such-and-such’ and used the person’s relationship (as in ‘My dear father’) or their surname (as in ‘My dear Brown’). First names were not used in a salutation. Not ever.
Subject matter — In gold fields letters and journals, common underlying themes included:
Opposites — the sense that things in Australia were backwards, upturned or inverted (for example, the swans in Australia were black instead of white, and trees shed their bark instead of their leaves; Australia was a place where working class people became suddenly rich while rich people struggled for lack of servants);
Personal transformations — particularly in terms of personal appearance;
Descriptions of wildlife and scenery — the scenery was quite often described in Arcadian terms; describing Australia’s weird animals and dangerous snakes and insects was popular;
Descriptions of the goldfields, which by contrast with the scenery was described in quite dystopian terms (for example, as looking like ‘a graveyard where all the graves had been dug up’);
The trials and tribulations of travelling on the road by wagon, on horseback, or on foot; and finally,
How little gold you are winning (which was far more usual than talking about how well you are doing — although this was also a subject if it was indeed the case).
‘Selfies’ — If you had any artistic ability at all, you might include a sketch of yourself or your current living arrangements in a letter.
The ‘complimentary close’ — This was used to finish the letter before signing it. It is the phrase of courtesy, respect, or endearment used at the end of a letter. As in the salutation, the particular words used varied according to circumstance. Examples include:
Your affectionate sons,
I have the honor to be
your obedient servant,
Your affectionate friend,
Notes on expectations about readership
While we tend these days to equate letters with being a private message, goldfields letters were often intended as a broadcast social media (ie: to be read aloud to family and friends). Some letters even became the basis for travel narratives (most famously, in William Howitt’s Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria).
Many Victorian-era letter writing guides cautioned that once they were written, anyone could read your letters and thereby make inferences about you; so that even if those with whom you corresponded assured you that they burnt your letters, this may not in fact be the case. Therefore, when you sit to write your letter, consider the fact that its eventual readership is ultimately beyond your control. This is quite good advice for today.
A common convention when writing of other people with whom one was not closely acquainted was to identify them only by an initial (e.g.: ‘I was talking with Mr G.’) to preserve their anonymity.
A note on cross-writing letters
Back in the early 19th century when postage charges were ridiculously expensive, and were charged per sheet, letter-writers saved money with a simple technique called cross-hatching. The process went something like this: the correspondent composed the letter using closely written text to fit as much in as possible, then turned the paper 90 degrees and continued writing across the page perpendicularly. This method produced what was called a ‘crossed letter’.
Crossed writing only came into use when paper was dear and postage was high, but as the prices of both dropped, cross-writing was considered to be disrespectful: it was hard to read, and showed you didn’t care enough about the person to whom you were writing to use a second sheet of paper. During the gold rushes, only the last paragraph was crossed, and even then, only if you had just a little more to write, if at all.
Step 5: Seal the envelope
Envelopes were sealed using either sealing wax or wafers. Sealing wax was used especially in cases of formal correspondence and came in common red, black and fancy colours. At this point in time, the etiquette surrounding sealing wax was quite simple: Red was for daily use. Black was usually reserved for letters of mourning, and only ladies could use fancy colours. Large wax seals were considered to be in poor taste. Wafers were also used; particularly in cases of less formal correspondence. Wafers were a precursor of the ‘sticker’. They were composed of wheat flour made into a thin paste, which was dried and stamped into shapes. Like the wax seal, they came in a variety of colours, and it was also possible to emboss a pattern onto them. Wafers had to be moistened to make them adhere.
When you began to melt your wax, rest your elbow on the table in order to keep your hand steady. Take the stick of wax between your thumb and finger, and hold it above the flame so that it barely touches. Turn the stick around until softened on all sides. Next, insert a little of the melted wax under the turn-over part of the letter, just where the seal is to come. This would give more stability to your seal than if it was entirely depended on the outside seal.
For the outside seal, begin at the outer edge of the area where the seal is supposed to go. Move the wax in a circle which must gradually diminish until it terminates at the centre. Using the end of the wax stick (the non-wicked side if you’re using a wicked stick), stir and shape the wax puddle to bring out any air bubbles, give it a uniform thickness, and mould it into the shape and size you desire.
If you have a seal to press into the wax, create a moisture barrier on it first. If you don’t create a moisture barrier on the seal before you press it into the wax, the hot wax can get stuck on the seal. So breathe, lick, or dab the seal on a moistened sponge, before plunging it into the wax. Put the seal exactly to the middle of the soft wax. Press it down hard, but do not move it in a circle, then lift it straight up.
Step 6: Post your letter
The recent history of postage in 1852
In the nineteenth century, letter writing was the only way to communicate with those living at a distance (until the advent of the development of the international telegraph network). Early in the century, postage in the United Kingdom had been expensive, being charged on the basis of how many sheets of paper were being sent (estimated by holding the letter up to candlelight), with the postage being incumbent on the receiver to pay.
After public agitation for reform, the ‘Uniform Penny Post’ was introduced in 1840. The Penny Post mandated a uniform, affordable rate for postage: a letter weighing up to half an ounce could travel anywhere in the United Kingdom for only a penny. The first stamp, with Queen Victoria’s profile — known as the ‘Penny Black’ — was released. A postal ‘network’ was established, becoming the forerunner of modern communication technologies.
These changes transformed the post into a civic service which was affordable to all social classes, and letters grew in popularity as a means of communication for both business and personal communication. The stamp grew in popularity and quickly became a model for other nations including the United States, which issued its first postage stamps in 1847.
On the gold fields, letters assumed huge importance as they were the sole means of communicating with family and loved-ones who were generally half a world away. Due to advances in the postal system elsewhere, most diggers arrived on the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings with an expectation of access to an affordable and efficient postal service. In reality, they were met with a notoriously unreliable post service, and this became a great source of ‘annoyance’.
Posting a letter during the Ovens gold rush, 1852-53
Initially, the nearest Post Office to the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings was in Wangaratta, 22 miles (36 km) away. Letters were carried from the diggings by The Argus Express newspaper couriers to Wangaratta to be dealt with by its much-despised post-master, Mr Peacock. Wrote The Argus in January 1853,
‘Another nuisance, that of the Post Office, is at present attracting attention. Loud, repeated, and unanimous are the complaints of the residents on the gold fields against the inefficiency, incivility, and negligence of the Wangaratta postmaster.’
The Argus continued, ‘yesterday morning a memorial on the subject signed by 324 of the storekeepers, gold buyers, and diggers of the Ovens, was presented to Mr Resident Commissioner Smythe, complaining of the conduct of Mr Peacock, the postmaster. … letters received from that Post office were not stamped; and that, consequently, there is no means of ascertaining how long they have been in the Wangaratta office. Mr Smythe in reply, informed them, that he had already had occasion to report the Postmaster to the Posmaster-General… He also assured them, that he would forward the memorial with his endorsement, thereon, and that he expected their complaints would be immediately addressed.’ 
A part of Commissioner Smythe’s response to the ‘eccentricities of the Wangaratta Post Office’, was to open ‘A Government Post Office… at the head quarters camp, May Day Hills; [with] one of the Commissioners’ clerks … acting as Postmaster till that functionary arrives.’ 
A new mail contractor was organised to come up from Melbourne and commenced carrying the mail between Wangaratta and the Camp, at which point the Argus Express discontinued carrying letters. However, within two weeks ‘no mail came in; and a message, brought, by the Argus Express informed the crowd assembled for their letters, that, by orders from Melbourne, all letters for the diggings were detained at Wangaratta, and that the mail had ceased running for the present.’ 
The Argus correspondent on the digging, who wrote under the banner ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, captured the outrage of the diggers: ‘A nice state of things this! A Government Post Office opened here, then closed, after an existence of a fortnight, and 8000 diggers told to go to Wangaratta (twenty-eight miles), if they want their letters!’ 
The Argus Express resumed carrying letters to and from Wangaratta, although with limited success as the post-master there processed and handed letters over in limited number. The post-master was fined £10 in a public police court, under the Postage Act, for neglect of duty as a post-master. Not only did he not pay his fine but continued to serve as post master, and in the face of mounting complaints which were received without response, the Post-Master General continued to do nothing. 
‘Surely the newly-appointed Inspector of Country Post Offices might deign to visit the Ovens… As for the Postmaster-General I despair of his ever being brought to a correct sense of his duty, or of his ever paying proper attention to complaints unless proceeding from official sources. The complaints of the public, and especially of dirty diggers, are far beneath his notice,’ wrote the correspondent. 
On 1 March, The Argus correspondent lamented that, ‘The Post-office nuisance is still felt in full force, no Inspector of Nuisances has yet visited the Ovens. Every post-day here witnesses a crowd of applicants around the Argus offices for letters, for which their written orders have been sent by the driver of the Argus Express to Wangaratta. Occasionally, a digger or storekeeper receives three or four letters together, which have lain as many weeks at Wangaratta; but, in general, nine-tenths of the applicants go away unsuccessful, the only consolation they receive being the assurance of their messenger that there is a cupboard full of letters, and two or three heaps of newspapers for the diggings, lying at Wangaratta. 
It took until the end of March before the diggers would see a proper Post Office at the Commissioner’s Camp on the Ovens diggings nearing competition, so that their reliance on the notorious Wangaratta Post Office could come to an end.  In defence of Mr Peacock, when he signed on as post-master of Wangaratta before the gold rush, Wangaratta had been nothing more than a tiny village around a river crossing, serving only a handful of local squatters, their families and staff, as well as the odd traveller on the Port Phillip route between Sydney and Melbourne. To be snowed under a deluge of mail sent from around the world was probably more grief than Peacock’s organisational skills would allow… and so it was probably not only the residents of the Ovens gold fields who ‘gladly hailed’ the opening of the new post office, but Mr Peacock himself. 
- ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 21 January, 1853.
- ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 4 February, 1853.
- ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 18 February, 1853.
- ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 25 February, 1853.
- ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 1 March, 1853.
- ‘Scraps from the Ovens’, The Argus, 29 March, 1853.