Penny Post, Docwra, and St John’s Gate

PO regs penny postThis day in London history: on 10 January 1840, the Uniform Penny Post was introduced in the UK, allowing letters not exceeding half an ounce in weght to be sent anywhere in the country for one penny if prepaid. If the recipient had to pay, it cost two pence. On 1 May that year, the world’s first postage stamp for a public postal system – the Penny Black – was issued.

In 1680, though the Post Office had a monopoly on the collection and delivery of letters between post towns, there was no delivery system. Enter William Dockwra and Robert Murray, who established the London Penny Post, which cost one penny for delivery of letters and packets, weighing up to one pound, within the cities of Westminster and London as well as Southwark.

Penny Black cancelledThe name Dockwra, with variant spellings, comes from the village of Dockray in Cumberland; the word derives either from the old Norse ‘dokk – a ‘valley’ or the Old English ‘docce’ (dock, or sorrel), and ‘ra’, a corner.

There is a Docwras Buildings in Islington, which was built in about 1857 by Thomas Docwra & Son, well-borers. With all due respect to these Docwras, however, there was a far more famous Thomas Docwra in the 16th century.

Thomas Docwra
Sir Thomas Docwra

The Priory of Clerkenwell, which was founded in the early 1140s, was the administrative centre of the property of the Knights of St John. Sir Thomas Docwra was the prior from 1502 until his death in 1527. (His successor was said to have died of grief on Ascension Day in 1540 when the religious order of St John was dissolved in Britain by Henry VIII.)

Sir Robert Hales, prior of the order in the 14th Century, was also Chancellor of the Realm and responsible for collection of the poll tax that sparked the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Wat Tyler and his rebels set fire to the priory and beheaded Hales. (A rather more extreme reaction to a poll tax than centuries later when the Tory government reintroduced it to the UK.)

The priory was quickly rebuilt and then, in 1504, Docwra was responsible for having it refurbished. Stow says that it was like a palace, though it is questionable if Docwra would have expended so much energy had he known that the order was soon to be suppressed.

St John's Gate
Docwra’s coat of arms can be seen on the north side of St John’s Gate.

The gatehouse – St John’s Gate – is the only priory building still in existence. It was, in Elizabethan times, the office of the Master of the Revels – that era’s equivalent of a censorship board. All plays had to pass through the office for approval, and it is therefore more than likely that William Shakespeare would have been a visitor there.

The gatehouse had a chequered career, including service as a watch-house (where people under temporary arrest were held); a tavern – the Old Jerusalem Tavern; the offices of a masonic order; and the meeting place for various societies. By 1845 it was under threat of demolition because of its dilapidated and dangerous state. A local architect and antiquarian, one William Griffith, came to its rescue by starting a restoration fund and ensuring that it was saved.

St John’s Gate is now the headquarters and museum of the Most Venerable Order of St John, or Order of St John, which directs St. John Ambulance and the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem.


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