Sunday, September 19, 2021

Merry Chase - Postal History Sunday

Welcome to Postal History Sunday!

Grab yourself something to drink and find a comfy chair. This week's PHS entry is going to take us on a "merry chase" that I hope we'll all enjoy!


What is a "Merry Chase?"

This is going to be one of those times in Postal History Sunday where I introduce you to a term that is not an "official" postal history or philatelic term.  Instead, I am afraid this is one of those Genuine Faux Farm terms.  At least that's my story and I am sticking to it!

At a stamp show some years ago, a person shared an item that made numerous stops on the way to its eventual destination.  The envelope was covered with a confusing myriad of postal markings, defying anyone to make complete sense of all of the travels it had taken.  As I looked at it, I said, "Well, this sure went on a merry chase."  Much to my surprise, several people were greatly amused by that comment.

Many who collect postal history are attracted to items that clearly had to make multiple stops in the process of attempting to find the recipient.  Sometimes the individual is traveling and the mail has to follow them until both are in the same location.  Perhaps that person's travels are over and the letter has to get sent on to their permanent address.  Maybe global conflict requires some extra travel on the part of the mailed item?

So now... I present you with a  "Merry Chase."  Enjoy.

Choices Choices - Leigh/Liege?
Have you ever thought about how difficult it must be for postal people to deal with all of the bad hand-writing and mistaken addresses on letters and packages?  If you haven't, consider the envelope sent by letter mail in 1858 shown below:

The short story is that this letter was posted in Le Havre, France.  It first went to England - which was NOT the correct destination - and then it went to Belgium.  Aha!  Right country!

The back of this cover shows a fairly decent array of markings that invite us to trace the travels the envelope took as it attempted to find Mr. John Haile.  Don't worry, I'll take some time to decipher these as we go, but if you want to give it a try, click on the image for a larger version of the image.

Postal historians often enjoy letters such as this one because they show a journey that was a bit more complicated than most letters of the time took.  When things go wrong, there is more to explore! The markings on the back of the letter actually help us to tell the story.
  1. Le Havre Feb 28, 1858 (on the front)
  2. Le Havre A Paris Feb 28 (on the back)
  3. Paris A Calais Mar 1 (on the back)
  4. London Mar 2 (on the front)
  5. Manchester Mar 2 (on the back)
  6. Leigh Mar 3 (on the back)
  7. Manchester Mar 3 (on the back)
  8. London Mar 4 (on the back)
  9. Angleterre par Ostende Mar 5 (on the back)
  10. Liege Mar 5 (on the back)

But, part of what makes this letter and its journeys interesting is the fact that it all starts with a spelling error.

The sender of this letter had some issues with the correct spelling of Liege, Belgium - calling it “Leigh.”  Then either the clerk on the mail train between LeHavre and Paris or the Le Havre post office had to make a decision.  Did this person really mean Belgium or didn't they?

These clerks had lists of post offices to reference, so I suspect they did a little looking.  Finding no “Leigh” in Belgium, they did find it in England.  And, actually, they probably found it TWICE!  There is a Leigh near Manchester and North Leigh near Oxford (WNW of London).

(*note - there are also Eastleigh, Westleigh and South Leigh in England.  South Leigh is near North Leigh and Westleigh is near Leigh and Eastleigh... that's um, near Southampton - so maybe there were even more options.)

So, the postal clerk decided the person sending this letter must not mean Belgium, they apparently were sending it to England.  The simple letter rate was the same (40 centimes) either way, so now a decision was needed - which Leigh in England?

If we look at the darker ink, we can see that N. Liegh Angleterre (England) appears to have been written to correct the address.  Belgium was crossed out and then "Leigh" is underlined.  To make matters worse, it looks like this person spelled "Leigh" wrong here... maybe even giving us a premonition that it really was "Liege?"

My guess is that they might have found North Leigh and then Leigh.  At that piont they may have crossed out the "N. Liegh" and figured the underlining on "Leigh" would make the point.

Apparently it did, because here is the route the letter took:

  1. Feb 28, 1858 - the letter entered the French mail system at Le Havre
  2.                       - the letter was on the mail train running from Le Havre to Paris
  3. somewhere in steps 1 & 2, the decision was made to send the letter to Leigh, England
  4. Mar 1, 1858  - the letter was on the mail train from Paris to Calais
  5.                      - the Paris to Calais train was an exchange office for mail to England
  6. Mar 1 or 2    - the letter crossed the English Channel from Calais
  7. Mar 2, 1858 - the letter was taken out of the foreign mail bag in London and routed to Leigh.
  8.                      - the letter took another train from London to Manchester
  9. Mar 3, 1858 - regional letter services probably used coach or other ground transportation and the letter arrived in Leigh, just west of Manchester.

Once the letter arrived in Leigh, the postmaster there probably sighed a little and wrote “Try Liege Belgium” and put it back in the mail stream.  Of course, if you look at what this clerk wrote you could also think he wrote "Try Lieje Belgium."  I guess the writing and spelling issue didn't just belong to the general public?

In any event, now this letter had to retrace some of its steps:

  1. Mar 3, 1858 - the letter is returned to Manchester
  2. Mar 4, 1858 - the mail train from Manchester gets the letter back to London and the clerks there put the letter in a mailbag destined to Belgium.
  3. Mar 4 or 5  - let's cross the English Channel again - going to Belgium this time!
  4. March 5 - HEY!  We're in Belgium at the Ostende exchange office.
  5. March 5 - Finally, after taking some Belgian trains, we get to Liege.

Similar Letter Rates Fail to Help

Our poor postal clerks guessed and were wrong about what a postal customer intended with their misspelled address.  And, unfortunately for them, the postal rates did not help one bit.

The postal rate for a simple letter from France to Belgium was 40 centimes for a letter weighing no more than 7.5 grams (from Oct 1, 1849 to Mar 31, 1858).

The postal rate for a simple letter from France to the United Kingdom was ALSO 40 centimes for a letter weighing no more than 7.5 grams (Jan 1, 1855 - Dec 31, 1869).

At least the clerks in France got this much right - the letter WAS paid in full to the destination, so they marked the cover with the red "PD" in a box.  The postal clerks in England understood that the letter had been misdirected by post office error, so they also put a "PD" marking in an oval on the cover, to show that they also considered the postage to be paid.

So, let this be a lesson to us all - write your addresses carefully and well, lest your letter take an unwanted trip to another part of the world.  But, if you happen to err, let's hope someone who enjoys tracing the travels of a letter will someday collect that piece of mail and get a little joy out of doing so.


Thank you once again for joining me for this week's Postal History Sunday.  Have a great remainder of your day and a wonderful week to come.


  1. Quite an amazing trip! It pays to address a letter carefully.

    1. Indeed it does. However, in this case, I am glad they made the mistakes they did because it gave us all an interesting story!