The History of the Post Office

The Post Office is experiencing its busiest time of the year, with cards and parcels flooding through the system throughout December, right up to Christmas. In fact, an amazing 1.7 billion Christmas cards and 130 million parcels containing gifts are sent each year in Great Britain.

The Post Office is a national institution in the UK, with early origins dating back to the 16th century during the reign of King Henry VII, who first established a Master of the Posts in 1516. The position later became the Postmaster General – a role which continued for more than 450 years until it was finally abolished in 1969.


Early years

In the early years, the postal service wasn’t available to ordinary people and was rather the privilege of the upper classes. However, in 1635 King Charles I made it available to all. Unlike the modern system, the postage costs were paid by the recipient and not the sender.

In 1654, military and political leader Oliver Cromwell granted a monopoly to the Office of Postage over the postal delivery services in England. Three years later, fixed postal rates were launched.

The General Post Office was established by Charles II in 1660, marking the official launch of the service in England. This was followed by the introduction of the postage date stamp in 1661 and the appointment of the first Postmaster General in the same year. Mail coaches began operating between London and Bristol in 1784 – the first coaches resembled ordinary family carriages, but were easily recognised by their Post Office livery.


Self-adhesive stamps

Uniformed postmen were employed for the first time in 1793, while the first mail train on the Manchester-Liverpool route appeared in 1830. The adhesive postage stamp was invented by Birmingham school teacher Rowland Hill in 1837 – he was later knighted for his invention.

Post Office money orders were introduced in 1838 and two years later, the momentous Penny Black stamp – the first postage stamp with its own adhesive – was released across the nation. The same year, the Penny Post system enabled people to send a letter for the uniform rate of one penny.


Pillar boxes

The first red Post Office pillar box appeared in Jersey in 1852 and the following year, more appeared across Britain. Market Drayton and Shrewsbury were the locations of the first wall post boxes in 1857.

Telegraphs were introduced in 1870 and the same year, the half-a-penny rate was introduced for sending postcards and new laws banned the sending of “obscene” and “indecent” literature through the post. The first postmen on bicycles appeared on our streets in 1880 and the following year, Postal Orders were introduced. Parcel post was launched in 1883.


20th century

The early 20th century saw some major changes: The Wireless Telegraphy Act 1904 was passed as a result of the development of radio links for sending telegraphs and the General Post Office licensed all senders and receivers. The Post Office launched its national telephone system in 1912.

Offering a cheaper postage rate for a slower delivery service, the second class stamp was introduced in 1968, and in the same year, the National Giro Bank was born. One year later, the Post Office Act 1969 saw the General Post Office become a nationalised industry, rather than a government department.



Everyone uses postcodes today without giving them a second thought, but when they were first introduced across Britain in 1974 to make mail sorting easier, they were an innovative invention.

The eighties saw the postal service’s telecommunications arm branch off to form British Telecom in 1981. The remainder of the business was rebranded as the Post Office. Further divisions were created in 1986 – the parcel delivery, letter delivery and post office arms of the service were split into separate businesses under the Post Office Group umbrella.



The Royal Mail Parcels side of the business was rebranded in the 1990s to become Parcelforce. Further rebranding – at a cost of £2 million – took place a decade later, when the Post Office Group was re-launched as Consignia in 2001. However, just 15 months after the change, the service reverted back to being called Royal Mail.

In 2005, mail trains began running on some lines again. The following year, a major change saw Royal Mail lose its monopoly on the postal service after regulator PostComm opened up the market. This introduced the practice of competitors being permitted to carry mail to pass on to Royal Mail for delivery.

In 2006, the growth of the internet saw a new facility introduced that permitted Royal Mail customers to pay for their postage online. So, for the first time traditional stamps weren’t always needed.

The Post Office is now gearing up for its busiest time – it will be handling some 750,000 letters addressed to Santa Claus from children all across the UK. The first specially-designed Christmas postage stamp was used in Austria in 1937. Now, festive stamps appear every year.

Although growth in the digital market has hit the Post Office (in terms of consumers buying gifts such as video games, books and CDs in digital format to download), items like clothing, footwear, sporting equipment and toys will always require traditional delivery.

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