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Red Letter Days: 10 milestones in the history of the Post Office

Since its birth in 1635, the Post Office has been a microcosm of the nation. An instrument for surveillance in the Civil War, it became a vehicle for free speech and commerce before evolving into a kind of prototypical welfare state. It has even been the largest employer in the world. Dominic Sandbrook nominates ten landmark events in its history

A postboy drives a mail coach in a contemporary illustration. Soon after their introduction in 1784, coaches were traversing the country at speeds of up to 10mph. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Published: December 11, 2011 at 12:47 pm
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The establishment of the Royal Mail, 1635

A "gigantic apparatus for censorship and control" is born

In the summer of 1635, Charles I issued the proclamation that marked the birth of the Royal Mail. His postmaster of foreign mails, a Staffordshire merchant called Thomas Witherings, had suggested setting up a state monopoly to ensure a quick flow of information – and to keep an eye on what Charles’s critics were writing. As Witherings pointed out, information was power, and a reliable postal service would ensure that “any fight at sea, any distress of His Majestie’s ships (which God forbid), anie wrong offered by any nation to any of ye coastes of England or any of His Majestie’s forts… the newes will come sooner than thought”.


Not surprisingly, Charles liked the idea, and for the first time, England had a formal state post office. At this stage, though, it was less a public service than a gigantic apparatus for censorship and control. Both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II used the Post Office to open and examine their subjects’ letters; not for nothing did Cromwell’s postmaster general, John Thurloe, double as his intelligence chief.

In Thurloe’s papers in the British Library, there are dozens of intercepted letters – including some from the future Charles II, then in exile on the continent. “They have tricks to open letters more skilfully than anywhere in the world,” remarked the French ambassador in 1685, “some even fancying that it is not possible to be a great statesman without tampering with packets.”


The Penny Post, 1680

A private postal service becomes the envy of Europe

When an enterprising businessman called William Dockwra advertised London’s first private postal service, the Penny Post, in 1680, it seemed that he could hardly fail. The Royal Mail was both hideously expensive – to send a single sheet cost the equivalent of £40 today – and highly restrictive. Prospective correspondents could send a letter from London to Edinburgh, but not one from, say, Southwark to Islington. So Dockwra’s service, which cost just a penny and relied on an army of messenger boys, seemed manna from heaven.

Within just two years, the Penny Post was the marvel of Europe. “Letters are now delivered at the remotest corner of the Town almost as soon as they can be sent by messenger, and that four, five, six or eight times a day,” wrote one admiring visitor. “We see nothing of this at Paris, at Amsterdam, at Hamburg or any other City.”

Unfortunately for Dockwra, however, not only did his service contravene the government monopoly, but his association with the opposition Whigs had made him enemies at court. In 1682 he was prosecuted, found guilty and fined, while his Penny Post was absorbed into the state machine. It remained highly successful; by its 50th anniversary in 1730 there were more than 600 receiving houses across the capital. But the dream of a private postal service was dead – at least for the time being.


The mail coach, 1784

A "highly dangerous" innovation cuts delivery times

"The London Mail did not arrive here till near five Hours after the usual Time last Monday morning, owing to the Postman's getting a little intoxicated, and falling from his Horse into a Hedge," fumed the Bath Journal in November 1770. Fourteen years later, however, an ambitious local businessman thought up a solution. A theatre owner in the West Country, John Palmer used stagecoaches to transport his props and actors. Why not, he suggested to the chancellor of the exchequer, William Pitt, use stagecoaches to move the mail, too?

On 2 August, Palmer began the first trials – and they went better than anybody had expected. “The New Mail Coach has travelled with an expedition that has been really astonishing, having seldom exceeded 13 hours in going to or returning from London,” gushed the local paper a few days later.

Soon people across the land were growing accustomed to the spectacle of mail coaches whizzing down the nation’s roads, their scarlet-coated guards relieving the boredom of the journey by taking pot shots at passing cattle.

But not everybody was thrilled by the new innovation. As the future lord chancellor John Campbell recorded in 1798, the coaches’ 10mph speed “was thought to be highly dangerous to the head, independently of the perils of an overturn, and stories were told of men and women who, having reached London with such celerity, died suddenly of an affection of the brain”.


The Penny Black, 1840

The world's first stamp arrives

The Little Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, was one of Victorian Britain’s greatest design triumphs. The image of Queen Victoria’s head was based on a medal by William Wyon, struck to celebrate the young monarch’s first visit to the City of London three years earlier. But its real father was Rowland Hill, the peerless postal reformer who had pushed for universal prepaid postage, arguing that only sweeping modernisation would turn the Post Office into a genuinely public service.

In truth, many people found it very strange to lick a piece of paper and stick it on their letters. One schoolboy recalled that he did not “fancy making my mouth a glue pot,” although licking a stamp did provide “the satisfaction of kissing or rather slobbering over Her Majesty’s back”. But within a week the presses were working round the clock to produce 600,000 stamps a day.

And strange as it may sound, the postage stamp forever changed the look of Britain’s front doors. “We are all putting up our letter-boxes on our hall doors with great glee,” the feminist Harriet Martineau explained to a friend. “The slits in the doors are to save the postmen’s time – the great point being how many letters may be delivered within a given time, the postage being paid in the price of the envelopes, or paper. So all who wish well to the plan are having slits in their doors.”


The pillar-box, 1852

A design icon arrives in the Channel Islands

The novelist Anthony Trollope, creator of the incomparable Barsetshire chronicles, has another claim to fame. Trollope worked as a surveyor for the Post Office, and in 1852 Rowland Hill sent him to the Channel Islands to work out the best way of collecting people’s post and getting it to the mainland.

Inspired by a device he had seen in Paris, Trollope’s solution was brilliantly simple. On 23 November, the people of Jersey watched in bewilderment as builders installed the first pillar-box, or ‘post-pillar’, as Trollope called it. A year later, Carlisle became the first mainland town to have its own pillar-box; London, however, did not get them until 1855.

Mundane as they seem today, the pillar-boxes represented something entirely new in the world of the Post Office: a culture of privacy. Sending and receiving letters was becoming a private, domesticated event, and many Victorian commentators worried that it would only encourage licentiousness among the young. "The post-office system offers a facility for clandestine correspondence which no respectable father or mother on the European side of the Atlantic would think of without a shudder," remarked Blackwood's Magazine.

Yet Britain was becoming a nation of letter-writers: by 1853, the British people were sending 20 letters a year for every man, woman and child in the country. The pillar-box, as GK Chesterton put it, had become “the treasure-house of a thousand secrets, the fortress of a thousand souls”.


The nationalisation of the telegraph, 1870

Public ownership is briefly triumphant

In 1870, the British government did something extraordinary, taking a profitable area of the economy into public ownership. Introduced 40 years earlier, the telegraph had proved a great success; the American president James Buchanan even called it “an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world”. But as one Post Office official, Frank Scudamore, reported to his superiors, it was not quite as efficient as it could be. “Wasteful competition,” Scudamore claimed, was undermining service. He went on to argue: “The annexation of the British telegraphs to the British Post Office would accrue great advantage to the public, and ultimately a large revenue to the State.”

In many ways Scudamore’s scheme was a triumph. In 1869, the last year of private competition, the British people sent 6.5m telegrams; in 1880, after ten years of Post Office ownership and state-sponsored expansion, they sent 20m.

Unfortunately it turned out that Scudamore had spent an extra £900m in today’s money on the private companies without Treasury approval. When the scandal broke in 1873, he was forced to resign and fled to Turkey – where he promptly took over the telegraph system.


The first Post Office strike, 1890

Workers air their grievances

On 29 June 1890, Hyde Park was the venue for one of the biggest rallies ever organised by the postmen’s union. Working 16 hours a day for seven days a week, covering up to 24 miles a day on foot before returning to dilapidated offices, Britain’s postmen were in the mood for change.

Trade unionism was the talk of the town: gas workers and match girls had already staged successful strikes for better conditions, and only a year earlier, London’s dockers had managed to get a minimum wage of sixpence an hour.

The Hyde Park rally almost turned sour: when the postmen discovered that the Post Office had sent an informer to take notes, some shouted: “Hang him up! Throw him in the Serpentine!” And in the short term, the strikers lost: most men carried on working, and some 450 militants were sacked.

But in the long term, the dispute strengthened the postmen’s hand. They had shown that they were no longer prepared to accept 18th-century working conditions, and within a few years they had been granted better pay and better conditions. By the 1930s the Post Office had become almost a little welfare state, with a rich programme of educational, recreational and sporting activities for its workers.


The First World War, 1914

Letters to the front boost soldiers' morale

When war broke out in 1914, the Post Office played its part. Although the army technically had its own independent postal service, run by the Royal Engineers, it was staffed largely by former postmen and mail sorters. This was an extraordinary logistical exercise: every week some 12.5m letters left Britain for Flanders, which meant dispatching 16,000 mail bags every day.

In Regent’s Park the army and the Post Office set up a massive temporary sorting office, the largest wooden structure in the world, staffed largely by female volunteers. On the front line, meanwhile, there were deliveries every morning, and by and large it took just three days for a letter to reach the front.

Letters and parcels from home played an enormous part in maintaining morale. Every day, tea, biscuits, clothes and even lice powder arrived in Flanders, while many soldiers wrote home several times a week. Letters, however, were strictly censored. “Faces come back out of the past… the face of this man dead, of that vanished for ever,” the historian Guy Chapman, who served in the Royal Fusiliers, wrote later. “Some of the faces have disappeared. Did I know you? I censored your letters, casually, hurriedly avoiding your personal messages, your poignant hopes.”


The introduction of postcodes, 1966

One of the world's best sorting system is unveiled

One morning in 1966, every householder in Croydon received a letter. After a successful trial in Norwich, the Post Office announced, they had chosen the Surrey commuter town to launch the new postcode system. “Sorting letters by hand is time-consuming and expensive: it now costs many millions of pounds every year and occupies a lot of people,” the letter explained. “We need to mechanise it and thereby improve our productivity.”

In the long run, postcodes were highly successful; while other countries such as France and the United States were lumbered with much less accurate systems, the British postcode is widely regarded as one of the most effective in the world.

But postcodes provoked extreme reactions. The Union of Post Office Workers voted to boycott the new sorting machines and carry on sorting by hand, while the letters pages of The Times smouldered with rage. "I am once again amazed how intelligent people can be mesmerised by the machine," wrote one woman. "Do the Post Office really expect that the correspondents and their secretaries who cannot easily follow the letters of a fairly ordinary name are going to get a jumble of letters and figures right so that the post reaches one quickly and accurately?"


Consignia, 2001

The Post Office gets a makeover

For the last 30 years, the Post Office has existed in a kind of limbo, neither public service nor private enterprise. Nothing sums up its schizophrenic existence better than the shambles of its rebranding in 2001, when its bosses spent £3m renaming themselves Consignia. "It's not meant to mean anything," a spokesman told Radio 4's Today programme. "Your press release says it's modern and meaningful," replied his interviewer, James Naughtie, "which proves that meaningful is a meaningless word."

Within just 18 months of the rebranding, the name Consignia had been given the boot. “We’ve got three very good names to choose from, and those names have been around for a long time. Everybody knows them and has warm affection for them,” explained the new chairman, Allan Leighton.

Despite the return of the names Post Office, Royal Mail and Parcelforce, the future of the service remains uncertain. Already one European state post office, the Dutch Statenpost, has disappeared, replaced by four competing companies. And with the volumes of letters falling rapidly and all three political parties toying with elements of privatisation, there is a good chance that when we reach the Post Office’s 400th anniversary in 2035, it will simply no longer exist.

Dominic Sandbrook is the author of State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970–74 (Allen Lane, 2010).


Dominic Sandbrooks's 15-part history of the Post Office, The People's Post, airs on Radio Four from 5 December.


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