‘The Frank’, the privilege of free postage for Members of Parliament, became during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries notorious for its abuse, not just by Members, but by virtually everybody else as well.
Royal officials would always have been able to use the crown’s own servants to send messages; but the formal postal system dates from 1635, when Parliament was not in being, and the Civil War in the 1640s would have been difficult ground for the establishment of anything other than very informal arrangements for Members to communicate with their constituencies. The establishment of a free postal service is probably to be dated to the 1650s, when the line to be drawn between state officials and parliamentarians was blurred by the very nature of the parliamentary republic. The lease of the Post Office to John Manley from June 1653 – achieved finally, following long debate, after Cromwell’s dismissal of the Rump Parliament – was confirmed in an ordinance of September 1654. The ordinance made Manley responsible among other things for carrying ‘all ordinary and extraordinary Letters and Dispatches to or from His Highness, and to or from his Council, or Secretary of State, or any of them; and to and from all Members of the Legislative power’, and various other officials. The ordinance specified that such franked letters should be endorsed with the words ‘These are for the service of His Highness, or for the service of the Common-wealth, together with the names of such persons or their Secretaries or Clerks, who attend them or those services respectively’. Members of Parliament were clearly meant to be included. An order of the House of Commons of 29 September 1656, early in the subsequent Parliament, asserted the continuance of the right.
When, following the collapse of the republic and the Restoration of the Monarchy the post office was placed on a statutory footing, in 1660, there was a debate in the Commons on whether the Act for establishing a post office should include a provision for free postage for Members. The remaining account of the debate makes it clear that some Members were embarrassed about it: Sir Walter Erle, who had been a Member during the 1650s, had introduced the proviso, but the solicitor general, Heneage Finch, thought it a ‘poor mendicant provision, and below the honour of the House’. The proviso was apparently left out by the Lords. However, it seems that assurances had been given that the privilege should continue: in the eighteenth century, the Post Office produced before a committee of the Commons what they called a ‘warrant’ dated 14 May 1661, in which Charles II recognised ‘that the Members of Parliament seemed unwilling to pay for the postage of their letters during the sitting of Parliament’, and permitted their letters (but not packets) to go free of charge. The privilege seems to have applied to both Houses, although there was an assumption that initially at least it was not intended to apply to the Lords.
Abuses were being raised in the House as early as 1666: it was already well-known that other people would use Members’ names on their own letters in order to make them go free. In 1715 the Commons agreed that Members’ letters had to be authenticated in their own handwriting, and (on division) that letters to Members would only be accepted as free if they went to their place of normal residence. The practice of using the privilege to send newspapers was also well-established by then, though why is unclear: perhaps Members had become used to sending manuscript newsletters, a common seventeenth century means of distributing news, to their constituents, and this had been extended to the printed newspapers that became common in the 1690s.
Twenty years later, the House again discussed what was by now a serious problem for the royal revenue. On 16 April 1735 a committee reported to the House on the privilege. The Committee quoted what Edward Cave, who held the office of supervisor of franks, had told them about how he tried to distinguish between legitimate and fraudulent uses of the privilege. He told them that franks were increasing in each Parliament, ‘that as the new Members do, and have a Right to, frank Letters, those who were in the last Parliament do not willingly part with that Privilege, and, by the Acquaintance they still have in the House of Commons, they get blank Franks’ – presumably covers for letters pre-signed by current Members. The Post Office then estimated that it was losing around £38,000 a year – much more than double the loss in 1716 – against a gross revenue of about £91,000, though it conceded that some of the loss was the result of franking in other public offices. The House came to various resolutions asserting its privilege and condemning the abuses of counterfeiting, but took no serious action to regulate it, save specifying that letters should be taken to the lodgings of Members, or to the Lobby of the House, in order presumably to prevent counterfeited franks being picked up by those for whom they were actually intended.
Things had, predictably, got no better by 1764, when another committee on the subject reported that the loss of revenue by 1761 amounted to more than £170,000, with a huge increase in the last two years: ‘while the produce of the pay letters has in the space of fifty years, increased only in the proportion of one to one and an half, the amount of the franks is now sevenfold what it was in the year 1714’. They cited the still growing practice of counterfeiting Members’ signatures; and the trick of sending letters to members of Parliament at fake addresses, where they were picked up by the intended recipients. The secretary to the Post Office complained that it was hampered in its efforts to pursue these frauds ‘for fear of giving offence to the Members’. There was, he said, a trade in the signed covers for letters. The report led to the first statutory regulation of franking, the 1764 Act (4 Geo. III, c. xxiv) limited franked letters to those less than 2 ounces in weight, sent during the sitting of Parliament or for 40 days either side of it, either signed in the Member’s own handwriting (for letters going from the Member), or directed to his usual place of residence, to him directly, or at Parliament, or at the lobby of the House.
The new regulations seem not to have improved things very much. From the 1780s campaigns for economical reform stimulated demands for the abolition of franking. Sir Cecil Wray proposed in 1783 that the recipients should pay for letters sent from Members (‘why should they indulge themselves in the vanity of saving others from paying their taxes?’), though he insisted that Members should not have to pay for the letters they received from their constituents. William Pitt attempted a further regulation in his budget of 1784, trying to prevent anyone other than Members of Parliament benefiting. Sir Edward Astley’s complaint that the reform would be an attempt to ‘render their privilege of sending letters free, sacred to themselves [i.e., to Members of Parliament], and, consequently more invidious and unjust’ seemed rather to identify the problem than contradict it. The end result seems only to have been a modest attempt to tighten the rules, which naturally made little difference.
Another effort to do something about franking was made in 1795, and sparked considerable controversy. Mr Windham insisted that the privilege ‘gave to members a very desirable power of conferring favours on their constituents, and tended to keep up those reciprocations of civility and endearment, which greatly sweetened the intercourse of private life’. In the course of the 1795 debates the old war hero, General Tarleton, attacked another member, the city alderman and banker, Sir Benjamin Hammet, who had delegated his right to sign franks to his son while he was too infirm to do so himself (which was permitted under the 1764 Act). Hammet was in fact notorious for using the privilege to send bills of exchange duty free, and making £2,400 out of it: in the course of the debate it was suggested that some bankers entered Parliament mainly for the purpose of exploiting the privilege. One of Hammet’s defenders, who is inaccurately named in the source as Alderman Newton, but may have been the banker Nathaniel Newnham, questioned whether ‘other gentlemen had confined themselves strictly to the constitutional object for which the privilege of franking was allowed. For himself, he would own he certainly had not, nor did he believe anyone had; there were many Members of that House who had frequently delegated the privileges of franking to their wives, daughters and other ladies occasionally, and he saw no greater crime or offence in one case than in the other.’ The Act that resulted (35 Geo. III, c. 53) further limited the privilege.
The privilege of free franking would survive until 1839, when its suspension was authorised under 2 & 3 Victoria c. 52, slightly preceding the creation of the penny post system. But its memory lingered on, and when Members began to argue in the 1890s that they ought to be allowed to send letters free to their constituents, the abuses of franking were often referred to as a way of combating the proposal. It took years, and the hugely rising volume of constituency correspondence, before memories of the franking system faded sufficiently for it to be possible to restore a (rather different) right of free postage.