From pillar to post – a short history of the Royal Mail

Since childhood I have been fascinated by our postal service and still have that sense of wonder whilst placing my letter in a postbox knowing that it will be delivered to its destination, wherever that might be.

My interest came from my father – a dedicated philatelist who put together a fine collection of British stamps. Occasionally I was permitted to mount them in albums, using special tweezers for the purpose, and recall the excitement of being shown the Imperial Crown watermark on a rare edition.


Father said that the ‘Penny Black’ was worth a fortune, (£3 – 4,000 today) but he had other brightly coloured stamps from all corners of the British Empire which I found more attractive. In those days countries on the world map were highlighted in red indicating which bits were ‘ours’ – but Dad said these stamps were of lesser value. It was only recently whilst researching this article that I discovered that the British Guyana 1cent magenta had sold for $9.4 million. Ah well….400px-Map_of_the_British_Empire_in_the_1920's.png

Imagine my excitement therefore on receiving an invitation to the Press Preview of a  Postal Museum  being launched in London.

The Royal Mail began 500 years ago when Henry V111 kept three horses in each town for delivering his letters. Their stables were called Posts – and it is this name that has survived until today – the post. Charles 1 opened the service to the public and Oliver Cromwell created a monopoly over the Postal Services in 1654. Fixed charges and the date stamp were introduced – the General Post Office became a reality.

Royal mail carriage.jpg

The first mail coach, decorated with Post Office livery, travelled between London and Bristol. The journey was hazardous because of highwaymen, so drivers carried pistols to protect themselves. Similarly dedicated sailors fiercely defended their mail cargo in ‘packet’ boats. They were attacked so often by pirates that compensation was established for death, £8 for a limb and £4 for an eye.

The mail service was initially only for the wealthy who required that public servants should be properly attired, so uniformed postmen appeared on the streets and also on the River Thames. It was Londoner George Evans and his family that rowed for 142 years delivering mail to boats moored there.

One delight of research is that I am introduced to some remarkable characters, for example, Rowland Hill – a Kidderminster born campaigner for social reform, teacher and inventor.  It was he who highlighted the inequities in the postal service. Recipients had to pay for letters on delivery, the cost calculated by the distance travelled, its size, weight and even how much paper was used. This system proved prohibitively expensive for most people who often refused to accept their mail.

Hill transformed everything by inventing the first adhesive postage stamp – a penny black with a profile of Queen Victoria. From then on a standard charge of one penny was paid by the sender, provided that the letter weighed less than half an ounce. This scheme was instantly successful and he was knighted for his service, becoming Sir Rowland Hill.

This distinguished man lived his latter 30 years in Hampstead where we now live. A plaque commemorates him at the Royal Free Hospital. Hampstead has many ‘Hills’ – Downshire, Haverstock, Parliament and Rosslyn. I was really hoping there might be a Rowland Hill to add to this list, but instead we merely have the lesser known ‘Rowland Hill Street’ – What a shame!

Rowland Hill Street.jpg

He revolutionised the postal service, but the increased demand required more facilities where people could deposit letters. It was Anthony Trollope, working as a surveyor for the Post Office, who devised the idea of placing heavy iron pillars ( to deter theft) on the roadside for this purpose – and so the pillar box was born, the first erected in Jersey in 1852.

Pillar boxes reached London by 1855. They were originally green, but merged too easily into the landscape hence the decision to alter them to red. Today there are 116,000 boxes which are protected national treasures – iconic images epitomising the British way of life.

Green vict. p:box.jpg           Elm Walk Vic p:box.jpg

two Queen Victoria post boxes.

Over the years suggestions were made as how best to transport the increasing volume of mail, but conditions in overcrowded London produced their own solution. With traffic congestion and bad weather it was decided to construct underground tunnels where unmanned electric trains operated unseen by the public. 6.5 miles of track crossed London linking sorting offices with mainline stations. They operated 22 hours a day with 2 hours for maintenance. 220 staff sorted more than four million letters daily.

This ceased during WW1 through manpower shortages as  men joined the Army. But the tunnels continued serving a useful purpose, housing valuable artworks from London museums.The tunnels reopened in 1927, running without a stop until 2003.

It is easy to forget the significant contribution that Royal Mail has made to our lives. Post offices were the ‘heart’ of every village. During WW1 75,000 Post Office staff were released to fight. The Post Office Rifles Regiment comprised 12,000 employees who  fought and suffered terrible losses on the Western Front, where 1,800 were killed and 4,500 wounded.

The postal service performed another crucial role during WW1. Outbound letters to soldiers peaked at 10 million a week in early 1918, with 19,000 mailbags crossing the Channel each day, reaching half a million at Xmas. This was the only way families could keep in touch with their loved ones and letter writing became very popular. Some of these letters are displayed at the Postal Museum – moving testimonies of what life was like for those serving abroad and those remaining at home.

In 1919 the first airmail flight left  Kent for Le Touquet, France. This facility mushroomed to the point where in 1938 91 million airmail letters were delivered abroad.

This information and much more is available at the Museum where thousands of artefacts and photographs record Royal Mail’s fascinating and sometimes quirky history such as the early home deliveries numbering up to 12 a day. Also certain items could not be sent by post, such as James Joyce’s book  ‘Ulysses’, banned as obscene in 1920. Copies found by postal workers were promptly destroyed. Today they are available free on the internet.

Tibs_the_Great.jpgAnother esoteric item was the revelation that cats were on Royal Mail’s payroll. Tibs became one such feline celebrity. Born in 1950, he gave 14 years of his life to his employers for 2s.6d per week remuneration. In 1952 there was public outrage with questions asked in Parliament concerning his minimal wage and conditions of work. After lengthy discussion the conclusion was reached that he was protected under the Equal Pay Act. Where else could this happen except Britain!

mailrailjpg.jpg mail rail

Bend in the Tracks.jpg photo: Miles Willis

The highlight of my visit was the ride on the newly restored mail rail. This mini carriage travels for 20 minutes through the original tunnels and stations where interactive displays tell of its history. This and the museum are a must for visitors of any age. For seniors it is an occasion for nostalgia, remembering so much that was central to our lives but which we mostly took for granted – how many of us remember waiting excitedly for the postman to arrive on that special day with our birthday cards?

Today’s children know nothing of this. Neither I Phones nor I Pads can begin to replace that experience. The Royal Mail was fundamentally about people, community and communication in more ways than one. I rejoice in having experienced this but can’t help feeling a great sense of loss that so much of it is being consigned to history.

To visit this museum, phone 0300 030 0700 or book on line at   Not to be missed.



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