History of the Royal Mail

History of the Royal Mail

What is now the UK’s Royal Mail was set up in 1516 and still lives on. Royal Mail is set apart from other postal provider owing to the fact that the ‘Royal Mail’ is responsible for the UK’s universal mail collection and delivery system. Letters are deposited in Royal Mail post boxes from which they are collected and delivered. The arrangement is different from that of Royal Mail’s competitors. Any letter put in a Royal Mail postbox must be delivered for the same uniform price regardless of distance in the UK. The same applies to any parcel carried by Royal Mail. Permitted variations in price relate only to weight and shape of the package. So Royal Mail is the foundation of the UK postal service and has been for centuries. Royal Mail’s competitors offer competitive prices and services but do not have the same legal obligation to discharge this special guaranteed duty which Royal Mail has had placed upon it by law.

First ‘Royal Mail’ London to Edinburgh 1600s

First ‘Royal Mail’ London to Edinburgh 1600s Royal Mail History

For most of its history Royal Mail has been a state run service but in 2013 it became fully independent and is now a Stock Market Company the same as any other. In 2013 the Government sold a proportion of the shares it held in Royal Mail and retained the rest. Employees of Royal Mail were also given shares..Although the Government retained some Royal Mail shares it no longer controls; the company in the way it used to. The shares still owned by the Government  are an investment held like any other shares would be. In due course the Government will no doubt sell its investment in Royal Mail without affecting Royal Mail itself

Royal Mail traces its history as far back as 1516 when Henry VIII set up a ‘Master of the Posts’. Nearly 200 years later in 1710 the position changed its name to ‘Postmaster General’. On accession to the English throne in 1603 James 1st (6th of Scotland), moved to London and set up an antecedent to the present Royal Mail and called it the ‘Royal Postal Service’. This ancestor of our Royal Mail ran a postal service for the King between London and Edinburgh. The embryonic Royal Mail appears to have been intended to enable James to retain control over the Scottish Privy Council. In 1635 Charles 1st opened up use of this new ‘Royal Mail’ to the public. Postage carried by the ‘Royal Mail’ was paid by the recipient of the letter or package. This early ‘Royal Mail’ was originally a state run enterprise but the monopoly was soon placed under the control of Thomas Witherings, a politician and merchant who established ‘Royal Mail’s’ public letter service. By the 1640’s however Parliament removed the ‘Royal Mail’ monopoly from Witherings and during the English Civil War and the reign of Cromwell, Edmund Prideaux ran a service called the ‘Parliamentary Postal Service’. The suggestion of a ‘Royal Mail’ was obviously thought inappropriate as there were no more Royals. Edmund Prideaux himself was a lawyer, prominent politician and Attorney General and made a considerable profit for himself from what is now the Royal Mail postal service. But Prideaux improved the efficiency of what had been the former ‘Royal’ Mail and successfully defended his monopoly fiercely using legal and sometimes even illegal means.

In 1653 Parliament did away with all previously granted permissions for postal services and appointed John Manley was given a monopoly contract for all inland and foreign mails. Manley’s monopoly on what we now know as the Royal Mail postal service was enforced by Oliver Cromwell’s government. But the improvements made necessary by the demands of the Civil War enabled John Manley to run a much improved postal service. In 1955 however the Post Office was transferred into the control of John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Spymaster General.. Hitherto the government had usually sought to prevent rebellious elements from communicating with one another. Thurloe however charged to deliver communications whilst reading them en route. In 1657 Parliament passed the ‘Act for settling the Postage in England, Scotland and Ireland’. The legislation created what we would now recognise as Royal Mail, namely a single monopoly Post Office for the whole of the British mainland and Ireland. Save for the withdrawal of Ireland when it became independent, this arrangement continued until the latter part of the 20th Century when even though Royal Mail remained state owned, the system was opened up to competition.

The first ‘Postmaster General’ took office in 1661 when ‘seals’ started being fixed to mail packages. The Monarchy returned in 1660 and the service took another step closer to what we would now recognise as a ‘Royal Mail’. Charles 2nd established the ‘General Post Office’ in the same year.. In the period 1719 to 1763 the Postmaster of Bath, Ralph Allen entered into contracts with the Post Office with the intention of expanding the national postal service. He organised ’Royal Mail Coaches’, coaches with Post Office livery making them recognisable as the being the ‘Royal Mail’. Royal Mail coaches started running between London and Bristol in 1784 and uniformed staff appeared for the first time in 1793. The Post Office established what was the first criminal investigation service in the world in the form of the ‘Post Office Investigations Branch’. The Royal Mail still investigates its own offences today. The first train carrying Royal Mail started in 1830 and in 1838 the Post Office started a ‘Money Order’ system. This is basically what today we would call a ‘Postal Order’. For its time a Money Order was a reliable method of transmitting money. Owing to the Post Office’s trusted status its Money Orders were regarded as better than a cheque. The person having paid for the Money Order in advance could have it delivered by Royal Mail and the recipient who could cash it with the Post Office. In 1870 the Post Office started its ‘Telegraph’ service, an innovation which eventually led to the Post Office having a monopoly of the UK’s telephone system. The National Telephone Service was set up in 1912 and in 1919 an Air Mail Service was established by the Royal Engineers (Postal Section). In 1941 the Royal Mail introduced the ‘Airgraph’. This was a kind of a Royal Mail low tech precursor to a fax machine, although for its time it was a state of the art Royal Mail innovation. Documents would be photographed, and the photographic film carried by air to one of Royal Mail’s limited range of overseas destinations. At the other end the firm would be developed. The system apart from making the items much lighter to carry did offer some additional confidentiality for the contents.

Post Office (Royal Mail’) AirgraphPost Office (Royal Mail’) Airgraph




Royal Mail Letters and Pillar-boxes

By the mid 19th Century, some convenient and cheap to run method of collecting payment was required, for the letters carried by the Royal Mail. So in 1839 the Fourpenny Post was established. A Royal Mail postage stamp could be purchased ready to be stuck on an envelope and it could then be posted as required. In 1840 the letter service became the more affordable when the ‘Penny Post’ was introduced. The penny stamp guaranteed that Royal Mail would deliver a letter anywhere in the country.  Britain is the only country in the world not to have its name on its stamps. It was deemed unnecessary as Britain was the only country in the world issuing them. In keeping with its ‘Royal Mail’ status, British stamps bear the image of the monarch. By the late 19th Century the Royal Mail service in London was remarkable. Up to twelve deliveries a day were run in London and so correspondents could engage in multiple missives, throughout the day. The first trial of the ‘London Pneumatic Despatch Company’s’ new train service was attempted in 1863. The system allowed mail to be sent between postal depots on underground trains. In 1927 the ‘London Post Office Railway’ was opened.

The first Royal Mail Pillar-box was put up in 1852 in Jersey and the idea came to the mainland the following year. From the start and in recognition of the status of the Royal Mail pillar-boxes all bore the name of the monarch at the time they are put up and the same name remained cast in the metal until they were replaced. So the monarch’s name on the Royal Mail pillar-boxes outlasted the monarch. For the last 60 odd years however there is something of a disruption in this UK wide tradition. When Elizabeth 2nd came to the throne Scots didn’t agree that the Queen actually was ‘Elizabeth 2nd. Elizabeth 1st after all was Elizabeth 1st of England. Scotland at the time was not part of her realm and had its own King’s and Queens when Elizabeth 1st was on the throne. So Scots say that the present Queen is in fact Elizabeth 1st of what is now the United Kingdom. Scots argued that when the Crowns had been united under James 6th of Scotland, his new title became James 1st . England had never had a King James.  The affront was so deeply felt in Scotland that Scottish Royal Mail pillar-boxes do not exhibit the monarch’s name. Royal Mail boxes in Scotland exhibit either the words ‘Post Office’ or display the ‘Scots Crown’.