The British Postal Service

We should all be used to sending and receiving items ‘by post’ but, as with so many things in this world, there is change and our postal service is no exception. It is known today as Royal Mail Group Ltd and is a British multinational postal service as well as a courier company.

In England, a monarch’s letters to their subjects are known to have been carried by relays of couriers as long ago as the 15th century. The earliest mention of ‘Master of the Posts’ is in the ‘King’s Book of Payments’ where a payment of £100 was authorised for a Master of the Posts in February 1512 and it was then established in 1516 as a government department, so belatedly in 1517 the office of ‘Governor of the King’s Posts’ was officially appointed as the role actually was when King Henry VIII officially established it. Then in 1603 King James VI moved his court to London and upon his accession to the throne of England at the Union of the Crowns, one of his first acts was to establish the royal postal service between London and Edinburgh in an attempt to retain control over the Scottish Privy Council. In 1609 it was decreed that letters could only be carried and delivered by persons authorised by the Master of the Posts. The Royal Mail service was first made available to the public by King Charles I on 31 July 1635, interestingly with postage being paid by the recipient. The monopoly was farmed out to Thomas Witherings, an English merchant and postal administrator who then established the Royal Mail public letter service. He was a politician who sat in the House of Commons in 1640 but for some reason, in the 1640s Parliament removed the monopoly from Witherings. So during the time that England and Wales (later along with Ireland and Scotland) were governed as a republic until the execution of King Charles I, the parliamentary postal service was run by Edmund Prideaux, a prominent parliamentarian and lawyer who rose to be attorney-general at great profit for himself. To keep his monopoly in those troubled times, Prideaux improved efficiency and used both legal impediments and illegal methods. In 1653, Parliament set aside all previous grants for postal services, with contracts then given for the inland and foreign mails to John Manley, which gave him a monopoly on the postal service and was effectively enforced by Protector Oliver Cromwell’s government, but thanks to the improvements necessitated by the war Manley ran a much improved Post Office service. In July 1655, the Post Office was put under the direct government control of John Thurloe, a Secretary of State best known to history as Cromwell’s spymaster general and he became ‘Master of the Posts’. Previous English governments had tried to prevent conspirators communicating with each other, but Thurloe preferred to deliver their post having surreptitiously read it. As the Protectorate claimed to govern all of Great Britain and Ireland under one unified government, on 9 June 1657 the Second Protectorate Parliament (which included Scottish and Irish MPs) passed the ‘Act for Settling the Postage in England, Scotland and Ireland’, which created one monopoly Post Office for the whole territory of the Commonwealth and Thurloe’s spies were therefore able to intercept mail, and he exposed Edward Sexby’s 1657 plot to assassinate Cromwell, capturing would-be assassin Miles Sindercombe and his group. Ironically, Thurloe’s own department was also infiltrated as his secretary Samuel Morland became a Royalist agent and in 1659 alleged that Thurloe, Richard Cromwell and Sir Richard Willis – a Sealed Knot member turned Cromwell agent – were plotting to kill the future King Charles II. About forty years after his death, a false ceiling was found in his rooms at Lincoln’s Inn, the space was full of letters seized during his occupation of the office of Master of the Posts. These letters are now at the Bodleian Library. As a quick aside to this, I have learned that Lincoln’s Inn has quite a history to it and The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn is one of the four Inns of Court in London to which barristers of England and Wales belong and where they are ‘Called to the Bar’. The other three are Middle Temple, Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn. Lincoln’s Inn, along with the three other Inns of Court, is recognised as being one of the world’s most prestigious professional bodies of judges and lawyers. Incidentally, the term ‘call to the bar’ has nothing to do with alcohol, it is a legal term in most common law jurisdictions where persons must be qualified to be allowed to argue in court on behalf of another party. The ‘bar’ is used as a collective noun for barristers, but literally referred to the wooden barrier in old courtrooms, which separated the often crowded public area at the rear from the space near the judges reserved for those having business with the court. Barristers would sit or stand immediately behind it, facing the judge, and could use it as a table for their work. In 1657 an Act entitled ‘Postage of England, Scotland and Ireland Settled’ set up a system for the British Isles and enacted the position of Postmaster General. The Act also reasserted the postal monopoly for letter delivery and for post horses. Thurloe retained his position as Master of the Posts until he was accused of treason and arrested in May 1660. At the restoration of the monarchy in that year, all the ordinances and acts passed by parliaments during the Civil War and the Interregnum passed into oblivion, and so the General Letter Office, which would later become the General Post Office (GPO), was officially established by King Charles II. The first Postmaster General was appointed in 1661, and at first a seal was fixed to the mail.

Plaque marking the former site of the General Letter Office in London.

Between 1719 and 1763, a postmaster at Bath signed a series of contracts with the post office to develop and expand Britain’s postal network. He organised Royal Mail coaches which were similar to ordinary family coaches, but with Post Office livery. The first one ran in 1784, operating between Bristol and London. Delivery staff received uniforms for the first time in 1793, and the Post Office Investigation Branch was established. The first mail train ran in 1830 on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway then the Post Office’s money order system was introduced in 1838.

Post Office Regulations Handbill, giving details of the Uniform Penny Post.

In December 1839, the first substantial reform started when postage rates were revised. Rowland Hill, an English teacher, inventor and social reformer, became disillusioned with the postal service and wrote a paper proposing reforms that resulted in an approach that would go on to change not only the Royal Mail, but also be copied by postal services around world. His proposal was refused at the first attempt, but he overcame the political obstacles, and was appointed to implement and develop his ideas. He realised that many small purchases would fund the organisation and implemented this by changing it from a receiver-pays to a sender-pays system. This was used as the model for other postal services around the world, but has also spilled over to the modern-day crowd-funding approach. It meant that greater changes took place when the Uniform Penny Post was introduced on 10 January 1840, whereby a single rate for delivery anywhere in Great Britain and Ireland was pre-paid by the sender. A few months later, to certify that postage had been paid on a letter, the sender could affix the first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, which was available for use from 6 May that same year. Other innovations were the introduction of pre-paid postal stationery, letter sheets and envelopes. As Britain was the first country to issue prepaid postage stamps, British stamps are the only stamps that do not bear the name of the country of issue on them. By the late 19th century, there were between six and twelve mail deliveries per day in London, permitting correspondents to exchange multiple letters within a single day. The first test of the London Pneumatic Despatch Company was made in 1863, sending mail by underground rail between postal depots. The Post Office began its telegraph service in 1870.

An ornate Pillar Box dating from the reign of Queen Victoria.

The first Post Office pillar box was erected back in 1852 in Jersey, they were then introduced into mainland Britain the following year. British pillar boxes traditionally carry the Latin initials of the reigning monarch at the time of their installation, for example: ‘VR for Victoria Regina or ‘GR’ for Georgius Rex. Such branding is not used in Scotland, due to a dispute over the current monarch’s title, because some Scottish nationalists argue that Queen Elizabeth II should have simply been Queen Elizabeth, as there had been no previous Queen Elizabeth of Scotland or of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Elizabeth I was only Queen of the pre-1707 Kingdom of England. The dispute involved vandalism and attacks on pillar and post boxes introduced in Scotland which displayed EIIR. To avoid the issue, pillar boxes in Scotland are therefore either marked ‘Post Office’ or use the Scots Crown. A national telephone service was opened by the Post Office in 1912 and in 1919, the first international airmail service was developed by Royal Engineers (Postal Section) and the Royal Air Force. The London Post Office Railway was opened in 1927 and in 1941 an ‘airgraph’ service was introduced between UK and Egypt. Over the next four years this service was extended to Canada, East Africa, Burma, India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon and Italy. Then under the Post Office Act 1969, the General Post Office was changed from a government department to a statutory corporation, known simply as the Post Office. The office of Postmaster General was abolished and replaced with the positions of chairman and chief executive in the new company. A two-class postal system was introduced in 1968, using first-class and second-class services. The Post Office also opened the National Giro Bank that same year. Postcodes were extended across Great Britain and Northern Ireland between 1959 and 1974. Royal Mail established Romec (Royal Mail Engineering & Construction) in 1989 to deliver facilities maintenance services to its business. British Telecom was separated from the Post Office in 1980 and emerged as an independent business in 1981. Girobank was sold to the Alliance & Leicester in 1990, and Royal Mail Parcels was rebranded as Parcelforce. The remaining business continued under public ownership, as privatisation of this was deemed to be too unpopular. However, in the 1990s, the then President of the Board of Trade began investigating a possible sale, and eventually a Green Paper on Postal Reform was published in May 1994, outlining various options for privatisation. The ideas, however, proved controversial, and were dropped from the 1994 Queen’s Speech after a number of Conservative MPs warned that they would not vote for the legislation.

Then, after a change of government in 1997, the Labour government decided to keep the Post Office state-owned, but with more commercial freedom and this led to the Postal Services Act 2000. The company was then renamed Consignia Plc in 2001 and the new name was intended to show that the company did more than deliver mail, however the change was very unpopular with both the general public and employees. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) boycotted the name, and the following year it was announced that the company would be renamed Royal Mail Group plc. In 1999, Royal Mail launched a short-lived e-commerce venture, ViaCode Limited, aimed at providing encrypted online communications services but it failed to make a profit and closed in 2002. As part of the 2000 Act, the government had set up a postal regulator, the Postal Services Commission, known as Postcomm, which offered licences to private companies to deliver mail. In 2001 Postwatch was created for consumers to express any concerns they may have with the postal service in Britain. In 2004 the second daily delivery was scrapped in an effort to reduce costs and improve efficiency, meaning a later, single delivery would be made. That same year, the travelling post office mail trains were also axed. Then in 2005, Royal Mail signed a contract with GB Railfreight to operate an overnight rail service between London and Scotland which carried bulk mail but without any on-train sorting and this was later followed by a London-Newcastle service.

Mount Pleasant Postal Sorting Office, London.

On 1 January 2006, the Royal Mail lost its 350-year monopoly, and the British postal market became fully open to competition. Competitors were allowed to collect and sort mail, and pass it to Royal Mail for delivery, a service known as ‘downstream access’. Royal Mail introduced Pricing in Proportion for first and second class inland mail, whereby prices are affected by the size as well as weight of items. It also introduced an online postage service, allowing customers to pay for postage online. In 2007, the Royal Mail Group plc became Royal Mail Group Ltd, in a slight change of legal status. Royal Mail ended Sunday collections from pillar boxes that year. On 1 October 2008, Postwatch was merged into the new consumer watchdog Consumer Focus. Also in 2008, due to a continuing fall in mail volumes, the government commissioned an independent review of the postal services sector by the former deputy chairman of Ofcom. The recommendations in the review led to the Business Secretary to seek to part-privatise the company by selling a minority stake to a commercial partner. However, despite legislation for the sale passing the House of Lords, it was abandoned in the House of Commons after strong opposition from backbench Labour MPs. The government later cited the difficult economic conditions for the reason behind the retreat. On 6 December 2010, a number of paid-for services including Admail, post office boxes and private post boxes were removed from the Inland Letter Post Scheme (ILPS) and became available under contract. Several free services, including petitions to parliament and the sovereign, and ‘poste restante’, were removed from the scheme. Following the 2010 general election, the new Business Secretary in the coalition government asked for an expansion on a previous report to account for EU Directive which called for the postal sector to be fully open to competition by 31 December 2012. Based on this review update, the government passed the Postal Services Act 2011 which allowed for up to 90% of Royal Mail to be privatised, with at least 10% of shares to be held by Royal Mail employees. As part of the 2011 Act, Postcomm was merged into the communications regulator Ofcom on 1 October 2011, with Ofcom introducing a new simplified set of regulations for postal services on 27 March 2012. On 31 March 2012, the Government took over the historic assets and liabilities of the Royal Mail pension scheme, relieving Royal Mail of its huge pensions deficit. On 1 April 2012, Post Office Ltd became independent of Royal Mail Group, and was reorganised to become a subsidiary of Royal Mail Holdings, with a separate management and board of directors and a ten-year inter-business agreement was signed between the two companies to allow Post Offices to continue issuing stamps and handling letters and parcels for Royal Mail. The Act also contained the option for Post Office Ltd to become a mutual organisation in the future. In July 2013 it was announced that Royal Mail was to be floated on the London Stock Exchange and that postal staff would be entitled to free shares. On 12 September 2013, a six-week plan for the sale of at least half of the business was released to the public, though the Communication Workers Union (CWU), representing over 100,000 Royal Mail employees, said that 96% of Royal Mail staff opposed the sell-off. A postal staff ballot in relation to a nationwide strike action was expected to take place in late September 2013. Applications for members of the public to buy shares opened on 27 September 2013, ahead of the company’s listing on the London Stock Exchange on 15 October 2013. The government was expected to retain between a 37.8% and 49.9% holding in the company. A report on 10 October 2013 revealed that around 700,000 applications for shares had been received by HM Government, more than seven times the amount that were available to the public. At the time of the report, Royal Mail staff continued to ballot regarding potential strike action. The initial public offering (IPO) price was set at 330p, and conditional trading in shares began on 11 October 2013, ahead of the full listing on 15 October 2013. Following the IPO, 52.2% of Royal Mail had been sold to investors, with 10% given to employees for free. Due to the high demand for shares, an additional 7.8% was sold via an over-allotment arrangement on 8 November 2013. This left the government with a 30% stake in Royal Mail and £1.98bn raised from the sale of shares. The CWU confirmed on 13 October 2013 that strike action would occur in response to the privatisation of Royal Mail but this was called off whilst negotiations took place and on 6 February 2014 the CWU confirmed that Royal Mail staff had voted to accept the settlement. Share prices rose by 38% on the first day of conditional trading, leading to accusations that the company had been undervalued. Six months later, the market price was 58% more than the sale price, and peaked as high as 87%. The Business Secretary defended the low sale price that was finalised, saying that the threat of strike action around the time of the sale meant it was a fair price in the circumstances following questioning from the House of Commons Business Committee in late April 2014. On 4 June 2015, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that the government would sell its remaining 30% stake. A 15% stake was subsequently sold to investors on 11 June 2015, raising £750m, with a further 1% passed to the company’s employees. The government completed the disposal of its shareholding on 12 October 2015, when a 13% stake was sold for £591m and another 1% was given to employees. In total the government raised £3.3bn from the full privatisation of Royal Mail. During its Annual General Meeting in 2022, the company announced that the holding company responsible for both Royal Mail and GLS would change its name to International Distribution Services. It was also suggested that the board of directors might look to separate GLS in order to distance the profitable company from Royal Mail, as they are currently in negotiations with the CWU over both pay and future changes to ways of working. It seems that some things never change, or perhaps some things always will. Either way, it is a good bit different to when it first started!

This week…
Some folk just like to be awkward and seem to enjoy an argument. They may even try to be what they think is ‘clever’, so if someone says to them “May I ask you a question?”, they reply “You just did!”. Therefore I always start such conversations with the statement “I have a question for you”.

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