Key moments in the history of postal services
The timely delivery of letters and parcels are such a commonplace everyday occurrence that it’s very easy to forget the man-power, and complex bureaucratic and mechanical systems which are involved in getting posted items from A to B in an efficient manner. Of course, the postal service wasn’t the well-oiled machine that we are familiar with today from its inception; years of evolution and innovation have been required to get it to the scale and complexity necessary to ably service the modern world. In order to better understand the structure and inner workings of the modern postal service, and gain an insight into just how much it has evolved, we’ll use this article to take a look at some of the key points in the development of the postal service, throughout history.
550 BC: The postal system is born
While there still remains some debate over who precisely invented the concept of sending and receiving post, the Ancient Persians lay claim to the first actual postal system. It is said that King Cyrus the Great instigated it, for the purposes of gathering information on enemies. This early postal system was deemed so important that roads were built specifically to facilitate easier transportation of the messages that the Persian couriers were transporting. To best expedite the speed of delivery, a relay system was utilised, with way stations along Persian roads allowing couriers to switch horses and replenish supplies along their route, ensuring optimum efficiency.
300 BC – 200 BC: Further ancient international evolutions in postal services
Ancient cultures in both India and China also featured forms of postal service; both of which are believed to have been initiated prior to 200 BC. The early Indian postal service is of particular note due to the way in which it’s system, which was otherwise similar to the previously outlined Persian system, sometimes utilised chariot in order to ensure the timely delivery of messages.
1 – 100 AD: The advent of the Cursus publicus
The postal system utilised in Roman times, the Cursus publicus also featured many similarities to the archetypal Persian system, though the manner in which the system was maintained and run was different; the Cursus publicus instead relied on a single courier to take a message or parcel from one destination to another; meaning that the delivery was slower than the earlier Persian equivalent, but was simultaneously considered to be a more secure, trustworthy system.
1512: The first seeds of the Royal Mail are planted
On February 1, King Henry VIII created the position of “Master of the Posts”, with a man named Brian Tuke being the first person to inhabit the position. Serving in a number of high profile administrative positions at the behest of Henry VIII and his ally Cardinal Wolsey, his role was essentially to sort through and manage the delivery of the correspondences of the king, to and from his subjects. In many ways, Brian Tuke can be considered the precursor to the position of Postmaster General of the United Kingdom, itself a more contemporary stepping stone towards the modern version of the Royal Mail with which we are all better acquainted.
1607 – 1624: Eavesdropping and censorship
The usage of Cabinet noirs (‘Black rooms’) was established in France, during the reign of Louis XIII, by Cardinal Richelieu (the same Cardinal Richelieu who acts as primary antagonist in The Three Musketeers), to serve as a means to monitor potential dissent against the king. This was necessarily a covert operation, with post being passed through a Cabinet noir (generally an office of some kind) on the way to its destination, allowing the Cardinal’s spies to thoroughly read messages, before sending them on, ensuring that the public remained unsuspicious and unaware of any such activity. The use of Cabinet noirs in one incarnation or another has remained pervasive throughout history, across many different nations, forming a key part of domestic of security, and the crushing of dissent, for as long as postage has remained a staple mode of communication.
1635: A more familiar version of the Royal Mail emerges
King Charles I was responsible for officially creating the organisation of the Royal Mail; opening up the ability to send and receive postage to the public as a whole, instead of being a service enjoyed exclusively by the reigning monarch and their immediate circle. The system was still different in many ways to what we know today, with one major difference being that recipients had to pay postage, rather than the sender.
1653: Paris installs the first post box
Our Gallic cousins were the first nation to use post boxes and it is thought the original collection points were installed around Paris. However it wasn't for some years (1829) that the population enjoyed a nationwide availability of post boxes and by this time, we Brits had jumped on the band wagon. The oldest surviving British post box dates back to 1809 and can currently be found in the local museum in Wakefield, Yorkshire.
1653: The First General Post Office in the UK is created
After his father instituted the Royal Mail itself, King Charles II introduced further reforms and additions to the service. The way in which postage was calculated was changed to better reflect the service required; with the cost calculated based on both the distance required to be travelled, and the number of sheets of paper utilised. The ‘General Letter Office’ was also established in Post House Yard, London, where the first postmark in the world was created in 1661.
1825: The establishment of the ‘Dead Letter office’
In order to try and stymie the amount of undeliverable mail in circulation, the US postal service initiated a ‘Dead Letter office’; where lost or incorrectly addressed mail was collected, sorted and ideally helped along the way to its intended recipient, or instead returned to the sender. Somewhat depressingly, the need for such an operation has only increased around the world since; with most nations having multiple dead letter offices, or some other similar operation, in action. For example, the modern UK dead letter office, the Royal Mail National Returns Centre, is located in Belfast; and as of 2013 holds around 20 million undelivered items!
1838: Initiation of Travelling Post Offices (TPOs) in the UK
TPOs were specially converted train carriages, used for the transportation and sorting of post across large distances, with the first service running between Liverpool and Manchester in 1838. The service was gradually rolled out over the rest of the country, until there was a network of train routes transporting post to a number of otherwise distant locations. The last TPO service ran in the UK ran on 9th January 2004.
1840: Stamps make posting mail affordable
You've heard of the Penny Black; that rare, tiny stamp featuring a young Queen Victoria. This was the world's very first stamp. It was created after the postal reforms in 1840 to bring down the cost of sending a letter. The previous system priced mail depending on how many sheets of paper were used, and the distance the letter had to cover, making it sometimes very expensive. The British Library says that to send a two-page letter 100 miles would cost 18 pence. After the reforms, the Penny Black stamp meant that same letter would only cost one penny; equating to a massive saving. Naturally, this sudden affordability made the use of the postal service that much more commonplace.
1849: The letterbox is adopted by Britain
While certainly not without fault, British society in the Victorian period instigated many processes, and developed many inventions, that still see wide usage today. As well as the invention of the first postal stamps, the Victorian era also saw the widespread adoption of domestic letterboxes; that is, the now ubiquitous space in the front doors of most houses used for the delivery of mail. Prior to 1849, letterboxes were used solely by post offices in the UK for outgoing mail; it wasn't until that year that the public were actively asked to fit their own residential versions.
1852: Pillar boxes are introduced
Nine pillar boxes were originally commissioned to service the demand for a reliable postal system in the Channel Islands; 4 were destined for use on Guernsey, and 5 for use in Jersey. These original pillar boxes had eight sides, and were painted olive green; similar in many ways to the red pillar boxes that we know today, but still very different! The colour of pillar boxes was changed to a uniform red colour in 1874, while the less ornate, cylindrical modern design of pillar box was rolled out in 1879.
1883: a dedicated parcel delivery service is created within the Royal Mail
The Parcel Post service was dedicated solely to the effective delivery of parcels around the UK, and eventually became Parcelforce Worldwide, after being separated from the Royal Mail over a century after its inception, in 1986, then going through further rebrands and restructures throughout the 90s.
1968: The class system is introduced to the British Postal system
First and second class postage were introduced, making the sending of post much easier to both understand and operate.
1969: Further reform minimises government involvement
Legislation introduced in 1969 (the ‘Post Office Act 1969’) saw the end of the position of Postmaster General, with the changing of the General Post Office to a corporation known by the more succinct moniker of ‘the Post Office’. As a corporation, the role of Postmaster General was replaced by the required corporate positions of chairman and chief executive.
2011: Privatisation of the Post Office
Following years of legislation that gradually reduced the amount of public control or oversight over the Post Office, including the Postal Services Act 2000 which saw the Post Office become a public limited company, with the Government still holding a majority stake; the Postal Services Act 2011 fully privatised the corporation. Provision in the Postal Services Act 2011 ensured that 10% of shared would be held by employees, providing them with a measure of control over the newly privatised organisation. In practical terms for the public, the major changes instigated by this switch were the transfer of responsibility from Postcomm to Ofcom in regards to regulation of the Post Office. Of course, now that the majority of the Post Office is privately owned, there could potentially be many more changes made in the future! Nowadays we have the freedom to choose who delivers our parcels and letters, when they are sent and even if they should be left with a next door neighbour; it’s quite impressive to think how far the system has grown from its inauspicious roots all those years ago, to the staple part of modern society that it is today.