The Falmouth Packet Service commenced to operate out of Falmouth in 1689 and ceased operations in 1850. The ships carried mail to and from the far corners of the British Empire.
A service called the ‘King’s Post’ started in the reign of Charles I, and had two mail routes serving the Continent – Dover to Calais/Ostend, and Harwich to the Hook of Holland. However in 1689 Britain entered a state of war with Catholic France, and the overland postal routes across France to the Mediterranean, Spain and Portugal, and from three to America and the West Indies were impassable. The Falmouth Packet Service was founded as a way of getting mail to the Iberian Peninsula.
On the downside Falmouth, 273 miles from London, was a long way from central government. The Great Western Road leading to Cornwall was no more than a rough track. But Falmouth was far from the French coast and hence safer from privateers. It offered a secure sheltered harbour with the shortest sea passage to our western colonies. The Killigrew family wanted to promote their new port and town at Falmouth, and the Trefusis family invested in providing Flushing with water storage tanks, warehouses and accommodation suitable for the new service.
In 1702 Samuel Trefusis married one of Post Master General Cotton’s daughters, and following her death seventeen years later, married the daughter of Post Masster General Craggs. Samuel Trefusis was therefore able to obtain a condition that all commanders, officers and crew of the Packet Service must live in Flushing, or forfeit their jobs.
The Packet Service used mainly privately owned, or hired ships. However the Post Master General retained the right to name the packets, and appoint their officers and crew. The ship names tended to be patriotic with names like the Princess Elizabeth, King George, Duke of Cumberland, Lady Arabella, Pitt and Walsingham.
The first two packet vessels (the Spanish Allyance and Spanish Expedition) operating out of Falmouth were to Iberia, and the service grew to cover Halifax, the West Indies, the east coast of South America, Gibraltar, Malta and Corfu.
The packet vessels were two or three masted 10-gun brigs. They were not primarily fighting ships, but would be armed with anything from six 6-pounder cannon, to ten 12-pounders and even carronades, whose role was to defend rather than attack. These were fast ships, designed to escape enemy action, rather than attract it.
Packets often carried huge sums bullion. For example between 1729 and 1731, £636,000 was transported from Falmouth to London, this paid one-half a percent. So Mr Fray, the contractor, netted £1,200 pa, the Post Office £1,060 and the packet commanders and their investors £2,120 gross, eachc ommander receiving some £132.10s, at a time when his annual salary would be about £78.
Only packet ship was lost in home waters. This was the 'Hanover', lost off St. Agnes, North Cornwall, in 1763. She was carrying a huge amount of gold, passengers and mail when lost, but also an illegal cargo of over 30 tons of large iron cannon and boxes of muskets. To carry such a heavy cargo in the middle of winter from Lisbon to Falmouth was no sensible..
1810 Mutiny at Falmouth - by crew of Prince Adolphus, on 24 Oct.1810, led to the eight remaining packets being escorted under the guns of three RN ships to Plymouth to continue their work. However the move from Falmouth was a mistake and a year later in February 1811 all thirteen packets not on service were returned to Falmouth.
1823 Admiralty took over the running of the postal packet service
1827 39 packets, all under Naval Commanders & Admiralty orders. 18 of these ships were Post Office “contract” vessels & 21 Admiralty packets
1850 6 Dec. - Seagull, the last scheduled postal packet sailing from Falmouth
Falmouth's Packet Ship heritage can be seen today by using the Packet Walkway Guide to follow a trail of plaques that take you to key vantage points in the town.
Falmouth Packet Archive Website
The Falmouth Packets a book by Tony Pawlyn
Cornwall Tourist Information