How can the Post Office keep pace with the modern world?

As the future of the Post Office comes under increasing speculation, Chris Bowlby considers the place of the postal service in the twenty-first century.

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The fraught debate about the future of the Post Office might seem, on the surface, merely technical – what is the best way of, say, delivering letters or paying pensions? But today’s rows about privatisation and local post office closures are in fact new versions of debates that have dogged this organisation for centuries. Is it there primarily to make money, or to offer a vital, universal national service? Should it be a fully commercialised part of our economy, or does it have a more political role as agent of government?

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And disputes about modernisation of the Post Office are also nothing new, adds Adrian Steel, director of the British Postal Museum and Archive. What had been a royal monopoly was opened up in 1635 in order to make money, and then had to respond to all kinds of changes in society. As literacy spread so did the demand for personal communication and printed news.

Improvements in roads and the organisation of transport, culminating in the railway age, opened up new opportunities for the mail. And the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and more widespread trade depended greatly on improved transmission of information. Indeed the Post Office, says Adrian Steel, can claim at this time to be “as businesslike as anything in the country”.

The great symbolic moment in postal development is the launch of the penny post in 1840, typical of the Victorian ideal of ‘innovation to improve’. Rowland Hill’s invention was crucial in several ways. The new adhesive stamp obliged the sender – not, as previously, the recipient – to pay for letters. But, more importantly, its relatively low cost made the post affordable for far more of the population. And the principle of a standard rate wherever in the country the letter was going signified that the Post Office aspired to be, as Adrian Steel puts it, “one organisation linking people up”, with a function beyond the purely commercial. That universal obligation and pricing regime is still hotly debated by Royal Mail managers and users today.

For a century or so after 1840 the General Post Office was one of the bastions of British society, running a complex daily routine with timetabled precision, absorbing new technologies such as telegraph and telephone into its operations, employing by 1914 a quarter of a million people in prestigious jobs with distinctive uniforms and architecture.

But by the mid-20th century, more profound questions of modernisation loomed. The telephone service lent itself to automation, retained its profitability, and was eventually privatised under Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1984. But postal services faced much greater challenges. While labour costs rose, there was limited scope for automation.

Second class as well as first class stamps were introduced in 1968 partly to try and make more use of cheaper daytime labour. But it was also seen as weakening the Victorian idea of universal service provision. The transformation of the Post Office from government department to more independent national corporation in 1969 left it in an awkward limbo – supposedly more commercially focused yet still obliged to offer universal services and uniform pricing.

That tension has still not been resolved. But technology has meanwhile marched on: email threatens to replace letter writing altogether. Adrian Steel notes that when he introduces schoolchildren to postal history today he first has to explain what a personal letter is, as many have never written or received one.

And yet the idea of the old Post Office as anachronism can be overdone. As faith in modern financial services has been weakened by the recent economic crisis there has been talk of using the post office network to run a ‘people’s bank’. The old Post Office Savings Bank – with its postal orders known as ‘the poor man’s cheque’ – traded on an image of safety and security, “ordinary people saving little amounts”, says Adrian Steel. That approach may have renewed appeal now, even if it still reflects that old tension between public service and profitability.

All human history is contained in the letters it has delivered. And the history of the Post Office itself represents a fascinating battleground between state power, commercial energy, technological change, and the simple human urge to communicate across a country and beyond.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.

This feature was first published in the March 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.