The Emigration Post Note of James Corscaden and Company

Peter Symes

For a broader description of Post Notes, see the article Bank Post Bills and Post Notes

From 1820 to 1860, just under two million Irish immigrants went to the United States of America, while more went to Canada.[1] The greatest number left Ireland during the Great Famine, from 1845 to 1849. During this forty-year period, many shipping companies regularly transported Irish immigrants to North America. One of these companies was James Corscaden and Company.

James Corscaden was born in 1808 in Londonderry,[2] where his father ran a grocery business. James sold the business after his father died, when James was just 18 years old. He then went into business with the McCorkell Line, a shipping business with which there was already a family connection. James eventually bought two ships and commenced his own shipping company in 1830. Although his business was varied, a significant part of his business for many years was taking immigrants from Londonderry to Philadelphia, New York and St John in New Brunswick.[3]

In June 1832 his company was offering four ships sailing from Londonderry to Philadelphia: the Elizabeth, Retrench, Deveron, and Royal Adelaide.[4] Soon, James Corscaden and Company became an established merchant, importing goods from North America, and acting as agents for insurance companies. From 1834 until 1841 he served as Consul of the United States of America and he was at one stage Chairman of the Port of Londonderry. James died, after a successful and distinguished career, in 1888.[5]

Illustrated here is an Emigration Post Note, supplied by James Corscaden and Company to an emigrant, for safe carriage of her money to the United States of America. Bank post bills were introduced by the Bank of England in 1722 and they were simply a bill designed to be transmitted through the mail, bearing a sight clause that meant they could not be immediately cashed if stolen. In the United States, the bank post bill became known as the “post note”. (As they could only be cashed after a certain date or a number of days after sight, they were called “post notes” because they were post-dated.)

Post notes were first used in the United States for the specific purpose of transferring funds to distant places, mirroring the reason they were introduced in England. Post notes were initially for a specific amount and for a specific transaction; that is, the note was not meant to circulate but rather it was used to protect the remittance of money over a great distance. This was the case for the Emigration Post Note issued by James Corscaden and Company, and the form indicates the post note was to be cashed a certain number of days after “sight”.

At the top of the note is a vignette of a three-masted ship well underway, with half its sails billowing and half its sails furled, above which is a piece of advertising: “First Class Ships Sail Weekly for New York & Philadelphia during the passr. [passenger] Season”. Below and to the right of the vignette is the imprint “J. Carney L.Derry” but it is unclear if Mr. Carney was responsible only for preparing the vignette, of for designing the entire note, and whether he was also the printer.

To the right of the vignette is printed: “American Passenger Office Londonderry” after which is the hand-written date: “23 April 1846”. To either side of the form is the text, in vertical panels, “James Corscaden & Co.” (at the left) and “Emigration Post Note” (at the right). Each panel is enclosed in acanthus leaves and supported by three round and oval patterns of decorative engine work.

The principal text on the form reads “___ days after sight pay ________ or Order ______ Sterling for value received which charge to the account of”. However, this post note was issued for 27 American dollars and the text of the form has been completed and altered to read: “One day after sight pay Jane Barnard or Order Twenty Seven Dollars for value received which charge to the account of yours truly James Corscaden & Co.” The note is assigned, at the lower left, “To Messrs. Ab. Bell and Son, New York”.

The correspondent who received the Emigration Post Note in New York, and possibly at other ports, was Abraham Bell (1778–1856). “Abraham Bell and Co. was a firm of Quaker shipping and commission merchants in New York City. It had trading contacts in Belfast and Dublin, Ireland, and Liverpool and London, England, as well as in the United States. Although the firm imported and exported a variety of commodities, cotton appears to have been its mainstay. During the potato famine of the 1840s, Bell transported thousands of immigrants from Ireland.”[6] Abraham Bell the second, became head of the firm around 1835 and the company changed its name to Abraham Bell and Son in 1844.[7] Bell was born in Ireland and kept many commercial contacts in the United Kingdom, amongst which was James Corscaden.

The Emigration Post Note was initially crossed with two lines, between which was written “Under Thirty Dollars”. After being cashed in the United States, across the note was written “Paid” and then “Cash 6/2/46” (2 June 1846). On the back of the note is the endorsement “Jeane Barnard”. The note is numbered 1320, suggesting James Corscaden and Company had been issuing Emigration Post Notes for some time.

Another Emigration Post Note issued by James Corscaden and Company is known to exist. Issued in 1841 for 22.66, according to the Postal History Journal of the United States of America,[8] the note was “to enable Andrew Larnock to pre-pay his passage to America. A back notation reveals that Larnock ‘proceeded to sea on board ship Stephen Whitney’ of the Black Ball Line, May 15, 1841. The packet boats readily served the immigrant trade, first class as well as steerage, at rates determined by fine freight.” The number on this post note is 1165 and a simple calculation shows that it was 155 numbers earlier than the illustrated post note issued in April 1846, issued five year later. This suggests roughly 30 notes were issued every year, although numbering could not have commenced at “1”, as at this rate it would mean the notes had been issued for over 30 years in 1841.

The use of the term “Emigration Post Note” appears to have been unique to the notes issued by James Corscaden and Company, although other arrangements between merchants on both sides of the Atlantic would have allowed the transfers of funds. Interestingly, the note made out in favour of Andrew Larnock shows he did not sail on one of James Corscaden’s ships, rather a ship of the “Black Ball Line”. This suggests the Emigration Post Notes issued by James Corscaden and Company may have also been used by emigrants travelling on ships not owned by James Corscaden.


© Peter Symes 2018