Everyone likes the opportunity to travel in their job; especially if you are asked to go overseas, and sometimes you may choose to take your work home with you. This is a long established practice for many occupations. But the history of the King's (Queen's) Messengers gives us a different perspective on 'out of office ' working.
Diplomatic relations between nations have always necessitated the relaying of sensitive messages. The King's Messengers have been employed to carry Royal messages since the 15th century. Richard III reputedly employed a messenger to hand deliver his private papers in 1485.
Charles II employed four messengers. When asked how they were to be identified as His Majesty's messengers, Charles II broke off four greyhounds from a silver breakfast platter and presented each with this token. This has remained the symbol of the Messenger to this day.
Originally each government department would have had their own messengers. These messengers were gentleman of high standing, and were unlikely to merely deliver packages. It is more likely they employed others to do their work for them.
In 1641 'Forty messengers of the Great Chamber of Ordinary' were lodged in the Royal Palaces, under the orders of the Lord Chamberlain.
The formation of the Foreign Office in 1782 saw the King's messengers take a more prominent role. The Messenger Service was now divided into two separate divisions, King's Home Service Messengers and Corps of King's Foreign Service.
Europe at War
The messenger role was particularly hazardous from 1795. With France at war with most of Europe including England, the Messenger's role became not only important but also dangerous. A Messenger travelling through France was highly vulnerable.
It was now impossible to predict when a messenger would arrive back in London. These delays caused the Foreign Office to use Home Service Messengers for foreign duty. A restructure, in 1795, resulted in 30 messengers interchanged between Home and Foreign Service.
Unwanted servants, valets, sons of trusted servants and other 'less desirables' were now appointed, resulting in the Diplomatic Corps regarding them as 'a very subordinate class'.
Some were killed whilst on duty. However, despite the dangers, the messengers still succeeded in their duties. One reported/notable story involved a messenger, thought to be Andrew Basilico:
Andrew Basilico was sent to Europe to deliver a package. This involved travelling through France. With the threat of the messenger being caught, the dispatch was written in a small corner of a sheet of paper. Basilico was caught and the French, on opening the packages, only found bundles of plain paper. Basilico, knowing indeed he was about to be caught, had eaten the corner of the dispatch. He was later exchanged for a French General.
Another interesting tale concerns a messenger who was to escort a prisoner back to London. He ended up taking the prisoner home. His wife dutifully cooked a meal for the three of them. With no guards, the husband and wife were obviously taking a considerable risk, and slept with a loaded pistol - not the sort of work you would volunteer to take home today! The prisoner is likely to have been a Gentleman or Officer rather than your usual rogue.
As well as heroics there were also disciplinary matters.
In 1834 a complaint was made against William Cookes returning from Vienna. The complaint from an Austrian Post Master at Dobra reported Cookes use of two carriages; the second being for a Mr Knight, gentleman. He commented: 'what business has a messenger with two carriages?' followed by 'the idea of a man being his own avant courier has at least the merit of originality'.
The amount a Messenger could claim for each journey was predetermined with tables showing the amounts for every journey. Messengers often tried to make extra money by selling the empty seat in their carriage. This legitimately helped cover costs and provided a companion for the journey. But they charged heavily for the seat and in 1837 Lord Palmerston tried to prohibit this custom. This ban was however suspended after a series of memorandums from Lewis Hertslet to remove this 'hardship'.
Lewis Hertslet was the Superintendent of Messengers, and Foreign Office Librarian until he retired in 1854. Appointed in 1824 he was under the direct authority of the Foreign Office.
Tracing a service history
Although there are no dedicated files on the service records of these messengers, you can trace their journeys and careers through various sources at The National Archives:
• The Foreign Office List includes the messengers by name
• Lewis Hertslet's papers in FO 366, and the miscellaneous series in FO 95, contain financial papers relating to the messengers. These include the Oaths sworn by messengers, allowances for journeys and applications for pensions and sick leave.
One can also find lists of the dates of appointment, deaths and pensions received, the number of year's service, and names of those who died in service. For example, Andrew Basilica was appointed on 5 October 1782 and retired after 31 years service on the 7 December 1813 with a pension of £266 13s 4d. He died on the 28 August 1824 leaving his wife a pension of £75.
There are plenty of records relating to the accounts, expenses and appointments of the messengers. These bills list the expenses claimed for each journey, and using these records you can trace an individual messenger's career.
In 1824 Lewis Hertslet was promoted to Superintendent of Messengers. His changes to the Messenger service would last until the 20th century.
The Corps of Queen's Messengers still exists today, as not everything can be sent by electronic or registered mail. In 2005 there were reportedly 15 messengers in Her Majesty's Service. They are still issued with a red passport. They still carry the official sealed diplomatic bag which cannot be inspected by customs officers.
The job is not for a 'shy, retiring wallflower'. If you wanted a role travelling the world, you would need to:
- Like travelling and your own company
- Remain calm and confident in chaotic, stressful or uncomfortable situations
- Keep a secret
- Be interested in foreign affairs and working for the government
Not your everyday travelling job, perhaps.
The History of the King’s Messengers, V Wheeler-Holohan (Grayson and Grayson, 1935)
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