We have come to expect that a new publication authored by Vincent West will bring to the reader considerable detailed and original research. This history of The Court Bureau is no exception, offering as it does, insight into the London social scene of the period as well as the company itself. The mid to late 19th century was a period of considerable enterprise, and the provision of private delivery services was one of the recurring themes.
Up until the introduction of the Post Office parcel delivery service in July 1883, all goods and parcels were delivered by private enterprise. Virtually every town and village had its own road carrier, which worked in tandem with the bulk delivery systems provided by the canals and railways.
In the mid-1860s the services offered by the Circular Delivery Companies offered cheap and reliable local deliveries of what would now be termed junk mail. Despite being suppressed by the Post Office, the Circular Delivery Companies were instrumental in spurring what was to become the Post Office “printed matter” rate in October 1870; the first reduction in a basic postal rate since the introduction of the universal inland penny post in January 1840. The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge had formalised their messenger services within the university cities with the issue of stamps in late 1871. The system of pre-payment by means of stamps was, by the end of 1885 being used by eight Oxford and three Cambridge colleges until the system was challenged and suppressed by the Post Office. Vincent West has already provided us with the book The Post Office and the Colleges covering the history of the college posts.
The story of the Court Bureau is all too familiar, with the Post Office jealously guarding its monopoly of the collection and delivery of letters. It also objected, as with the Circular Delivery Companies and the College posts, to the use of stamps. That the Post Office would inevitably win the argument was clear and that the business of the Court Bureau would be broken. However, the business case seems to have been weak in any case; sufficiently so that the company folded before the argument with the Post Office was concluded.
The large red stamps of the Court Bureau are well known, although any value other than the 1d can be considered rare and the higher values are of extreme rarity, with very few existing outside official collections. The census of known examples and of known usages on cover is most valuable for the collector. The story of the company itself is less well known other than in the most simplistic of terms. This book gives the full story, using the extensive information unearthed by the author in the archives of The Postal Museum and elsewhere, and is a most useful addition to the knowledge base of any who collect these local issues or who are interested in the workings and attitudes of the Post Office of the period.
C. G. Harman