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Free Franks: Some markings used for the Parliamentary Franking System in the U.K.

[The items used as illustrations are from our own collection but barely scratch the surface of a complicated study.]

The origin of the Franking System was a decree of the Council of State in 1652, by which correspondence to and from Members of Parliament and of certain State Officials was permitted to pass free through the post. The system lasted till January 10 1840, when the Uniform Penny Postage was introduced.

Abuses soon arose, and regulations were made at various times, about the number and weight of 'FREE' letters, the time and place of posting and the method and form of addressing them. In the early days of the system, the written word 'FRANK' or 'FREE', accompanied by the seal and sometimes the name of the person entitled to the privilege was all that appeared on the letter.

Manuscript "Free Geo. Bird?" at bottom left of cover.

This entire is dated inside 'Carmarthen March ye 10th 1760' and despite its age the letter is perfectly legible and is as easily read as the address on the front. In it, the sender, John Rogers mentions a 'chirograph'.

In the centre of the front is the two line ' CARMAR THEN' stamp. On the reverse is a Bishop Mark of 14 MR.

The London Office Stamps

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Introduced in 1764, the first London Chief Office mark was a circled 'Free' with the letter 'F' larger than the other letters.

This piece has a 20mm. circle around the word Free and was franked by Lord Burghersh. "Free Burghersh" in manuscript, left of 'London'

Later marks had all four letters of the word 'FREE' the same size.

This entire dated 10th December 1778 has a 20mm circle around 'FREE'.

In the late 1780's, more decorative types of 'FREE' marks began to be used. The initials which were incorporated into the marks were those of the surnames of the various Inspectors of Franks.

This piece is franked by Lord Grenville and dated July 2nd 1792.

Detail of stamp

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In 1791 three ring date stamps with initials were brought into use. This piece is dated AP 4 96 and has the initial 'C'

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In 1791 the Post Office experimented with various designs, one of which consisted of 'FREE' above a circle with the date and two digit year inside the circle underneath a crown.

This wrapper has manuscript "London August sixteenth 1799" across the top.

At the beginning of 1800, a type of mark was introduced which showed 'FREE' on a crown and contained within a single rim. This mark, with some variations, remained in use until 1807.

This front bears a manuscript "London march twenty first 1800" and is franked by Lord Inchiquin.

1807 saw the introduction of what are commonly called "Crown Circle Frees".

This wrapper is dated in manuscript "London May twelve 1813" The double ring shows that this was an evening duty mark, morning duty had a single ring.

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Smaller stamps came into use from 1807 and these, with differences in the size, shape and details of the crown and in the size of figures and letters, continued to be used until the system ended.

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The 'additional' stamp for each duty had a cross, differing in size and shape, below the date.

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There are varieties of the crowned circlemarks with the letter 'O' or 'E' below the date

This front shows an example of the 'E' type. The letter was addressed to Oxford Street, London, but was redirected to Dorking, which explains the use of the two free stamps. It has been suggested that the 'E' type was used on letters that arrived in London by train in the early afternoon.

This entire has a single rim crowned circle free dated 6 De 6 1831 but the manuscript date reads "Selkirk October three 1831". There is no apparent reason for this and it does not appear to have been detected.

In 1832, a mark was introduced for use on letters received on Sunday and posted on Sunday at the Chief and Branch Offices, consisting of a circle surrounded by arcs or scollops. There are many varieties of this mark, differing in size and the number of arcs. The use of these marks continued into the 1860's.

This piece franked by "Will" and dated May eighteen 1834 in manuscript, has the "SUNDAY" mark dated May 18 and with the curved figures in the year. The inner circle is 21mm, and it has 22 arcs around it. The single rim, crowned circle Free mark was applied on May 19th 1834.

Some Dublin Office Stamps

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The mark shown on this piece was introduced in 1819. This example is dated 29 JU 29 1825. The type appears to have been in use until 1831.

A completely different shape was introduced in 1815 and remained in use till 1831.

In 1832 a new type was introduced consisting of a two-ring date stamp with date symbols in the centre, FREE and DUBLIN in the outer band separated by two stars. This type is listed by Lovegrove as being in use from 1832-1835.

Time coded stamps were in use from 1835-1840. The mark consisted of a crowned circle containing date symbols with code letter 'M' at the bottom for 'Morning'. This piece is dated 29 AU 29 and the part manuscript at the top reads 'twenty eight 1835'.

This front is as the previous mark but with the code 'E' at the bottom, for 'Evening'.

This piece makes one wonder how on earth it was delivered. It was redirected twice as is seen by the three addresses and the three 'FREE' marks. Other marks on the front are the mileage mark of 'STIRLING 20 MAR 1826 431 — - E' and Glasgow mark 'G MAR 20M 1826' plus a receiving stamp. Good luck to the Postman!


Much of the information regarding these marks was taken from J. W. Lovegrove, Herewith my Frank, (KB Printers Ltd. 15a Alma Road, Bournemouth). The book runs to 100 pages of highly detailed information and illustrations and shows how incredibly complex the whole story was.

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