Britain’s Royal Mail Celebrates 500 Years

[press release]

2016 commemorates 500 years since Henry VIII knighted Brian Tuke, the first Master of the Posts, in 1516.

As you would expect from any institution that has been around for 500 years, there are a number of significant dates in our history. The knighting of Brian Tuke was the catalyst for the creation of the Royal Mail we know today. Tuke had the influence and authority to establish key post towns across the country and build out a formal postal network.

To celebrate, Royal Mail is working in close partnership with its heritage partner, the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA), to create an online gallery of 500 objects, people and events, telling the story not only of the postal service but also of our contribution to social and political development over the last 500 years.

Moya Greene, Chief Executive Officer, Royal Mail, said: “We are proud to celebrate the heritage of this great company. The history of the postal service in the UK reflects the tremendous societal and political change that has taken us from sixteenth century Tudor England to the United Kingdom today.

“In all its guises, Royal Mail has been responsible for a number of world firsts – the Penny Black stamp and the first ever airmail flight to name just two. It has also changed almost beyond recognition, from a small group of King’s Messengers in those early days to a national network connecting consumers, companies and communities across the UK today.

“Against this backdrop of continued change, Royal Mail’s people have been a constant presence. They are the heart of this company. I hope that, through them, we will continue to deliver the Universal Service and play an instrumental role in people’s lives for many years to come.”

Origins of Royal Mail

    • 1516: Henry VIII knighted Brian Tuke, the first Master of the Posts. Tuke had the influence and authority to establish key post towns across the country and build a formal postal network.
    • Before 1635: The postal service operated only for the King and the Court
    • 1635: The postal service was opened up to the general public by King Charles I. A Letter Office was established in London, and six post roads were formalised, including Dover to London, to carry mail across the country
    • 1660: The Post Office Act created the publicly-owned postal service
    • 1711: The Post Office Act paved the way for a unified postal service across Scottish and English (including Wales) administrations following the 1707 Act of Union. Ireland followed in 1808
    • 1840: The reform – over a number of years – of the Post Office by Rowland Hill and others defined the basis of the modern postal service as we know it today and coincided with the broader social and technological changes sweeping across Victorian society at the time
    • 1883: The launch of Parcel Post reflected a growing appetite among both residential and business customers to send and receive parcels. The growth of parcels saw the term ‘Letter Carrier’ replaced with ‘postman’, which is still in use today
      Royal Mail and Social Change
    • 1840: The introduction of the Penny Post prompted an unprecedented expansion in the popularity of mail, as it became more affordable. Mail volumes rose from 67 million in 1839 to 242 million by 1844, with a further lift to more than one billion letters by 1875
    • 1840 onwards: The rise of mail was accompanied by a significant increase in literacy levels as the UK became more industrialised and there was a greater provision of early education
    • 1901: The Association of Post Office Women Clerks was founded. It was the first association in the UK civil service to represent female clerical workers
    • 1861: British entrepreneur Pryce Pryce-Jones set up the first modern mail order company. He distributed Welsh flannel catalogues across the country, allowing people to choose the items they wished and to order them via post
    • Royal Mail employees were some of the first in the UK to receive a company pension, before the introduction of the state pension by David Lloyd George in 1908
    • 1959: Postcodes were introduced on a trial basis in Norwich and then rolled out nationally from 1965-1972. The system is widely recognised as one of the most granular and precise Postcode systems in the world
      World Firsts
    • 1661: The first Bishop mark (or postmark as it is known today) was used. This identified the date of dispatch to give confidence in the speed and reliability of the mail. It was named after the then Postmaster General, Henry Bishop
    • 1840: The Penny Black, the first adhesive postal stamp, launched. As the inventor of the postage stamp, the UK is the only country in the world that does not have its country name on the stamp
    • 1840: The release of the Penny Black also marked the origins of the Universal Service, under which postal rates became uniform across the country
    • 1911: The first scheduled airmail service flew from Hendon to Windsor, as part of the celebrations for the Coronation of King George V. Aviator Gustav Hamel was at the helm for the maiden flight, which was a precursor to the opening up of the postal service overseas
      How the Mail Was Delivered
    • 1516: Busy towns kept a special stable, known as a post, ready to carry mail at a moment’s notice. Letters travelled at speeds averaging 7 to 8 miles per hour in summer and 5 miles per hour in winter. Fresh horses were supplied every 10 to 15 miles
    • 1784: Horse drawn coaches featuring the Royal Mail livery were deployed for the first time to transport the mail, following a trial run between Bristol and London. Other routes to major cities soon followed. The departure of the night mail from London was a public spectacle, with hundreds of onlookers gathering to watch the coaches depart
    • 1800s: King’s Messengers were employed by the government to carry messages from the Admiralty during wars. They were often required to board sail-driven packet ships in order to deliver messages to the theatre of conflict
    • 1821: Steam-driven packet ships were introduced to deliver mail across the British Empire and the Commonwealth, leading to the founding of Royal Mail Ships (RMS) in 1840. The ships proved popular with passengers too, as they ran to strict timetables to ensure mail was delivered on time
    • 1830: The General Post Office and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway reached an agreement that saw the start of mail being carried by train. The first route was between Liverpool and Manchester
    • 1907: The first motor vehicle, a two and a half tonne lorry called the Maudslay Stores Number 1, entered the service. The vehicle was in service for 18 years during which it covered over 300,000 miles
    • 1934: German rocket engineer, Gerhard Zucker, made the suggestion that mail could be delivered by rockets. He failed to persuade the company that they were a viable option

The People Made Royal Mail

  • 1665: 45 people were employed by the postal service. Employee numbers climbed to nearly half a million in the 20th century
  • 1836: Moses Nobbs was the longest serving Mail Guard in the Royal Mail, serving 55 years (1836-1891) initially on the Mail Coaches and later on the railways in Travelling Post Offices (TPOs)
  • 1880: Post Office telegraphy clerk, Charles Garland begins to campaign for better healthcare and working conditions for staff during the consumption crisis. The campaign led to development of the first healthcare fund in the country. The Post Office Sanatorium Society was founded in 1905, leading to much improved conditions across the company. The fund continues today as The Benenden Healthcare Society Limited, with almost 900,000 members
  • 1880: Henry Fawcett from Salisbury was appointed Postmaster General in 1880. With the support of his wife Millicent Fawcett, who founded the Fawcett Society, he campaigned for the employment of women
  • 1908: Mrs Elizabeth Dickson retired as a rural postwoman after 30 years and 8 months’ service. She was never late for duty and had only taken off 14 days for illness
  • 1912: Two British postal workers died aboard the RMS Titanic. James Bertram Williamson and John Richard Jago Smith were determined to save the mail as the ship went down, with a witness saying they “urged them to leave their work. They shook their heads and continued.” They died alongside US postal workers Oscar Scott Woody, John Starr March, and William Logan Gwinn
  • 1941: The General Post Office approves women’s trousers, named “Camerons” after the postwoman Jean Cameron who requested their introduction

Royal Mail and the British Empire

  • 1737: Founding father of the United States, Benjamin Franklin was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia under the British Parliamentary Post. He, alongside William Hunter, streamlined the postal system in the US to increase take up and make it profitable
  • 1847: The ‘Post Office’ Mauritius stamps were first issued. They were the first stamps to be issued in the British Empire. They are among the rarest in the world, with a value of around one million pounds. The plates were engraved by Joseph Barnard from Portsmouth, who stowed away on a ship to get to Mauritius
  • 1937: Launch of the Empire Mail Scheme, which lowered the cost of sending letters to British Empire destinations. The scheme was a success, with over 91 million letters being sent in 1938

Royal Mail’s Role in the Two World Wars
World War I

  • 1914-1918: 12,000 postal workers served in The Post Office Rifles throughout the First World War. 1,800 were killed and over 4,500 wounded
  • 1914-1918: During the First World War, Royal Mail saw a huge rise in letters and parcels sent to loved ones fighting abroad. At its peak, 2,500 staff handled 12 million letters and a million parcels in a week
  • 1914-1918: To cope with the increase, Royal Mail built the Home Depot, an enormous wooden temporary sorting office in Regent’s Park that covered several acres
  • 1914-1918: Four former postal workers were awarded the Victoria Cross – Sgt Albert Gill from Birmingham, Sgt Alfred Knight from Nottingham, Major Henry Kelly from Manchester and Sgt John Hogan, a postman from Oldham

World War II

  • 1944: General Dwight D Eisenhower wrote to the Postmaster General, thanking staff for keeping the network of communications open across the country in the run up to D-Day
  • Eisenhower wrote: ‘The build-up of the necessary forces for the current operations has involved the construction of a vast network of communications radiating from key centers of vital importance in the United Kingdom. The greater part of this work has been undertaken by the Engineers and Staff of the General Post Office
  • 1941: Airgraph, based on microfilm technology, was introduced in the Second World War as a solution to the circuitous route for air communication between Britain and the Middle East. It helped reduce the size of mail while maintaining the volume of letters sent

The Role of Animals

  • 1868: Cats were first officially appointed by the Post Office to catch rodents. Three cats worked at the Money Order Office in London, with an allowance of one shilling a week
  • 1950: Probably the most famous feline is Tibs who lived in the Royal Mail Headquarters refreshment club in the basement of the building. After Tibs died on 23 November 1964, his obituary in the January 1965 Post Office Magazine was headed “Tibs the Great is No More”
  • 1898: Horses harnessed to coaches were used to deliver a growing amount of mail. As a valuable part of the delivery process, the horses were entitled to sick leave. A note from 1898 states that ‘Mr T C Poppleton’s horse…is suffering from sore shoulders and unable to perform his official duties’
  • 1943: During the Second World War, there were 22,000 pigeons in service

The “Royal” in “Royal Mail”

  • Starting with Henry VIII, the UK postal service has operated under 21 monarchs
  • 1840: Queen Victoria was the first monarch in the world to appear on a postage stamp with the launch of the Penny Black
  • 1840s: Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and the second son of Queen Victoria begins the Royal stamp collection, with the ‘Kirkcudbright Cover’ bearing ten Penny Blacks
  • 1853: Postboxes first appear with the insignia, or cypher, of the monarch reigning at the time of placement
  • 1966: Queen Elizabeth II approved Arnold Machin’s design of her to be used on what came to be known as the ‘Machin series’ of British definitive postage stamps. Her Majesty’s image has appeared more than 180 billion copies produced to date


  • 1840: The introduction of the Penny Black meant postage was paid by the sender and the price set by weight. Before this point, recipients usually had to pay postage, and were charged by the number of sheets in the letter and distance travelled
  • 1940: Following the outbreak of the Second World War, and the resulting greater co-operation between Britain and France, there were many calls for a joint stamp issue. The plans were eventually abandoned
  • 1951: The plan to celebrate the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 with a Festival was accompanied by a request for a complete new range of stamps. The stamps were issued on 3 May 1951, the day the Festival was officially opened
  • 1965: The then Postmaster General, Tony Benn, worked with designer David Gentleman to modernise stamp design. The reason for the creation of Special Stamps was to celebrate events and commemorate anniversaries relevant to UK heritage and life. The stamp of Sir Winston Churchill, issued in July of that year, was designed by Gentleman and was the first under Benn’s administration
  • 2012: Twenty nine stamps were produced to commemorate Great Britain’s gold medal winners at the London 2012 Olympic Games
  • Images of The Queen form the most frequent subject on Royal Mail Special Stamps (in addition to Her Majesty’s silhouette which can be found in the corner of every stamp). The next most popular individual to feature is The Duke of Edinburgh. He is followed by William Shakespeare
  • Christmas
  • 1843: The postal service played an important role in defining the archetypal Victorian Christmas. Henry Cole launched the first Christmas card with an initial print run of 1,000. The cards originally cost a shilling each, the equivalent of about £36 today. In 2001, an original card sold at an auction for £25,000
  • Mid 1800s: Robins began gracing the front of Christmas cards. This change was a result of the bright red waistcoat that Royal Mail postmen and women wore
  • 1963: Royal Mail was appointed by Santa to reply to letters addressed to him. In the first year, Royal Mail replied to over 8,000 letters. It was such a success, the Postmaster General, Reginald Bevins – was labelled ‘Santa Bevins’
  • Royal Mail today
  • As the UK’s sole designated Universal Service Provider, Royal Mail delivers the ‘one-price-goes-anywhere’ service to more than 29 million addresses, across the UK, six-days-a-week
  • Royal Mail handles more than one billion parcels and more than 16 billion letters a year¹
  • With a workforce of more than 140,000 people, the company is one of the UK’s largest employers
  • On average, one in 180 employed people in the UK works for Royal Mail
  • Royal Mail made the 6th largest contribution to the UK economy of all UK corporations in 2014¹
  • The organisation has a fleet of more than 49,000 vehicles delivering mail to all parts of the country
  • In 2004, The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) is established as an independent charity to care for five centuries of Royal Mail history. 2017 will see the new rebranded The Postal Museum open in central London, bringing a wealth of stories from British social and communications history to life
  • In 2014, Royal Mail introduced around 30 new services, products and promotions to enhance its customer offering
  • Royal Mail red – which features on the vans, uniforms and post boxes – is part of the DNA of Royal Mail as well as part of the fabric of UK life
  • In 2015, Royal Mail was named as the global leader in its sector in the prestigious Dow Jones Sustainability Indices

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