The medium was the message: Victorian postal propaganda was strong stuff, and among its targets were taxation, Sunday trading and slavery, says John Windsor

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Shockin' bad taste. Fancy selling envelopes illustrating the prime minister beheading the queen. This is satire gone too far. Permissiveness run riot. Thank goodness it could never happen today.

Mr Gladstone, four times Queen Victoria's prime minister, lived in more robust times than Mr Major. The queen referred to him as a madman and bossed him about. In 1882, when she was at her bitchiest - reclusive, yet envious of his hob-nobbing with heads of state, constantly carping at his appointments to cabinet, peerage and Church - spiteful postal envelopes appeared which showed him exacting terrible retribution.

A selection goes on sale at Christie's on Thursday, 10 March (10.30am) from the collection of the late Donald Turner, a Somerset optician. One shows Gladstone about to chop off Disraeli's tongue. Whoever thought the Victorians were fuddy- duddies? They could be vicious.

Four different anti-Gladstone envelopes, lotted together, are estimated pounds 150- pounds 200 - modest, considering how few survive. Prices for postage stamps, following the speculative boom-and-bust of 1979-81, have regained 1979 levels (although they are down in real value since then by 30-40 per cent). However, postal history - stamps, envelopes and all, now considered to be the chic way to collect - has not shown the buoyancy expected of it. The new market awaits knowledgeable collectors.

Anti-Gladstones were among a host of propaganda envelope designs spanning Victoria's reign, including anti-tax, anti-slavery, anti-Corn Law, anti-drinking (no anti- smoking envelope is known), anti-vaccination, anti-Sunday trading and anti-Sunday post.

Envelopes became popular propaganda vehicles because, in the days before electronic communication, printed materials - newspapers, handbills, hoardings, envelopes - were virtually the only message bearers. Moreover, the new penny post had a fascination of its own. This country's vast stock of riddles and other pencil-and-paper puzzles is owed largely to early Victorians seeking an excuse to use the system.

Most of the 19th-century's postal propaganda battles were never won. Slavery, abolished in the colonies in 1833 and in the United States in 1865, is still rife in developing countries. Anti-tax movements are ever with us. Anti-Sunday trading became a lost cause two months ago. And as for anti-Sunday postal deliveries, victory there was, but not until 1921. Abolition was spurred by economics rather than by memories of the Victorian envelope showing a devil-postman emptying a sackful of envelopes on to a church (one in the sale is estimated pounds 80- pounds 100).

Sunday postal collections (as distinct from deliveries) were not abolished until 1976; again, not through fear of fire and brimstone, but as 'part of a drive to maintain price stability and letter rates and reduce costs'. They resumed four years ago as 'part of a drive to improve the quality of service to customers'.

The National Anti-Vaccination League was last heard of in Croydon, Surrey, in 1972, renamed the Howey Foundation. It sent Richard Bodily, a co-author of the standard textbook on pictorial envelopes, tracts hardly different from the Victorian originals warning parents: 'If you submit to this accursed thing, you never know what seed of rottenness you have sown in the blood of your offspring.'

The nearest modern counterpart, the Association of Parents of Vaccine Damaged Children, does not oppose vaccination in principle. But today's concern about shared hypodermic needles and the popularity of natural medicine make the old National Anti-Vaccination League sound less cranky than it might in years past. Three of the sale's five anti-vaccination envelopes, showing an infant threatened by the grim reaper and a policeman, are estimated pounds 100- pounds 120. Two addressed to Joseph Abel, repeatedly prosecuted for refusing to let his children be vaccinated, are pounds 500- pounds 600 and pounds 200- pounds 250.

Most nostalgic of propaganda envelopes are those promoting the activities of the American peace-maker Elihu Burritt, who campaigned for 'Ocean Penny Postage' - cheap, unrestricted international postage as an aid towards world harmony. His envelopes, bearing doves, are redolent of the charmed era of more than three decades of peace, reform and progress in the first half of the 19th century. The Crimean War of 1854, and the unyielding attitude of Rowland Hill, founder of the penny post, put a damper on Burritt's idealistic ambitions. But a Universal Postal Union was ratified in 1875, four years before his death. (Four Ocean Penny Postage envelopes are estimated pounds 150- pounds 200.)

For national clamour, nothing has surpassed one of the first propaganda envelope campaigns - in 1844, four years after the launch of the penny post - against the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham. Attacks on him in the Commons (for having granted a warrant for the interception of 60 or 70 letters sent by Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian nationalist leader) set a hare running among the public, who feared that their mail was being opened by government snoopers. Graham was vindicated by two committees of inquiry, but the government agreed to stop routinely intercepting diplomatic mail (warrants to be granted only in specific cases) and to abolish its Secret Office. Not, however, before the magazine Punch (in those days, a kind of Private Eye with teeth), had printed anti-Graham envelopes showing fat, prying busybodies in top hats and cherub wings.

An envelope, published by the anti-Graham MP, Thomas Duncombe, was sarcastically inscribed, 'If this letter be OPENED at the General Post Office, the writer will be glad to have it forwarded the same day'. (The specimen in the sale, one of only two known, is estimated pounds 500- pounds 600). Punch also published a series of illustrated 'wafers' (adhesive paper envelope seals). A soda bottle is captioned, 'If opened a noise will follow', and an open-mouthed crocodile inscribed, 'You're welcome to the inside'.

The episode yielded a detailed and delightfully quixotic description of the ceremonial opening and resealing of mail inside the Post Office's 'secret chamber', published in The London Journal and Weekly Record of Literature, Science and Art of 14 March 1845. Five silent clerks occupied the bolted room, it revealed. On the table was a black tray filled with 'an immense quantity of bread seals' - that is, impressions of wax seals made from moistened, kneaded bread. The sealed letter was then warmed at a coal fire to soften the wax, and opened. One clerk read the contents aloud while another took notes, none of them appearing 'surprised or amused, shocked or horrified'. The letter was resealed using matching wax impressed by bread stamps that had dried hard. Wafers were removed by holding the letter in a jet of steam from water boiled in a glass retort over a spirit lamp. Clumsily replaced wafers were heavily inked with rubber-stamps.

It was not until 1985 that government interception of mail was regulated by statute. The Interception of Communications Act of that year forbade the practice except by warrant from the Home Secretary. Which is exactly what Sir James Graham was up to when he became a victim of Victorian propaganda envelopes.

British Pictorial Envelopes of the 19th Century by Ritchie Bodily, Chris Jarvis and Charless Hahn, Collectors Club of Chicago (1984).

(Photograph omitted)