How the postal system developed in England from the Romans to Royal Mail

The postal system has developed from early Roman messengers to the modern services we recognise today
The postal system has developed from early Roman messengers to the modern services we recognise today

The way we deliver items to one another has changed drastically throughout the years.

Over the past 2,000 years it has developed from messengers carrying letters and hand delivering them, to some of the modern services we know today, including same day urgent delivery from the likes of Let’s take a look at the fascinating journey of delivery options through the ages . . .

The beginning – 40AD

The Romans came to Britain and introduced the first method of carrying letters. A messenger would carry these letters and would ensure they got to their recipients. This was furthered by the building of a road network.

Shelters for messengers – 250AD

The Theosian Code mentions overnight shelters spaced at 12-mile intervals which provide accommodation for messengers.

The postal system has developed from early Roman messengers to the modern services we recognise today
The postal system has developed from early Roman messengers to the modern services we recognise today

King Henry I – 1100

Historians estimate that around 4,500 letters per year were sent out by Henry I’s exchequer. Messengers would convey these letters along roads and paths created by the Romans.

King Richard I – 1189

When Richard I became King, the practice of dating letters according to the number of years a monarch has ruled came into use. At this point letters were tied with string to secure them while in transit.

The first postmen – 1199

With royal departments now at Westminster during King John’s reign, it was important to keep in touch with the King as he went about his duties around the country. Around eight messengers were employed at this time to deliver important messages as well as transport money between departments. Sheriffs and bailiffs also had their own messengers, they charged a fee to deliver private messages too. These were the first postmen.

Paper becomes available – Early 1400s

Paper started to become more widely available and this made letter writing more accessible to the literate people of Great Britain. By 1450 letter writing was commonplace amongst the gentry and merchant classes.

Messenger system opens – 1500

The royal messenger system was opened up to private individuals but to begin with there was only one route which ran between Dover and Berwick.

Legislation for postmasters – 1574

A legislation for postmasters is drawn up which states that each one has to have three horses available to transport mail. ‘Posts’ are situated at 20-mile intervals and the postmaster at the next post must prepare the horses for a changeover on hearing the approaching postboy’s whistle.

The postal service is in disarray – 1630

At this point there were a number of postmasters who had not been paid and many people were calling for a reform. Charles I made the postal service fully available to the public in order to generate revenue without having to go through parliament. This was the beginning of the Post Office as we know it today. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell established the General Post Office.

The Post Office Act – 1711

The Post Office Act signalled the development of a postal system for the newly-unified England, Wales and Scotland.

The travelling Post Office – 1833

Making use of the railways, travelling Post Offices were established meaning mail could be sorted on the way to its destination.

Affordable postage – 1840

A Uniform Penny Post was approved in 1840 meaning mail could be delivered for the cost of a penny by the sender, regardless of how far the letter needed to travel. This made posting letters affordable for the first time. Later that year the first postage stamps were brought in.

The first postboxes are installed – 1853

The first postboxes were installed to make posting letters much easier for the general public.

Tricycles are first used – 1880

The first tricycle was used to deliver mail in Coventry in 1880. It was in 1897 that bicycles became widely used to deliver mail.

A fleet of vehicles – 1914

While the Post Office had used petrol-powered vehicles in the past, they were contracted out. 1914 saw the Post Office purchase its own fleet.

The first airmail – 1919

The first publicly available airmail service became available between London and Paris.

First postcodes – 1957

The first modern postal code was introduced in the Norwich area to aid in sorting.

The Post Office we know today – 1987

Royal Mail separates its operations into three businesses – Royal Mail letters, Royal Mail Parcels and Post Office Counters.

Courier Services – 2014

For urgent and fragile items that people don’t want to rely on the post service for, the increase of courier services in recent years has been notable – many offering same day delivery options, from anywhere near the country. It’s now possible to place an order in the morning and receive it by the afternoon!


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