Delivering the Unexpected

Since 28th July 2017, the newly opened Postal Museum provides public access to its collections and a highly detailed history of the 500 years of constant progress and innovation. The original National Postal Museum in the City of London opened in 1969 but was forced to close its doors in 1998. Now situated in the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre complex in Central London, the brand-new museum offers an in-depth history of the Post Office suitable for all ages.

Shortly after the opening of the museum, a unique opportunity was unveiled that gives visitors the chance to explore the underground secrets of Britain’s communication network. Closed since 2003, the hundred-year-old Mail Rail allows humans to ride the tracks for the first time. Twenty-two miles of track lie under London that once took letters and parcels from one sorting station to the next at approximately 30 miles per hour. Although vehicles can go much faster these days, the trains sped up the delivery of mail from days to hours. Today, a tiny train is able to show visitors the insides of the narrow tunnels and travel back in time to see the workers of the past century.

The history of the British postal system begins with Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1512. Previously, individual couriers were sent from one household to another with a message. The king, however, perhaps wanting his correspondence to have more protection, employed Sir Brian Tuke (d. 1545) as Master of the Posts, later Governor of the King’s Posts. Initially, this service was only for the King and those in his palaces but in 1635, Charles I (1600-49) approved an expansion of the network to stretch as far as Edinburgh and be used by anyone, so long as they could afford it.

Postboys as young as 11 were employed to travel on foot or by horse in all weathers, sometimes travelling as far as twenty miles without a rest. Equipped with only a horn to blast every four miles to warn people of their approach, the boys were susceptible to attacks by thieves and highwaymen. Due to this, the time of delivery could not be estimated and many people began to complain about the late arrivals.

As a result of the late delivery complaints, Henry Bishop (1611-91), the Postmaster General in the 1660s, devised the world’s first postmark, or Bishop Mark. “A stamp is invented that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer my dare detayne a letter.” This helped prioritise the order the letters should be delivered.

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Unlike today where the price of sending a letter depends on the size and weight of the envelope, people were charged per sheet of paper used. Not only that, it was the receiver who was charged, not the sender. In order to cut the costs, many letters were “cross-written” where, rather than using an additional sheet of paper, people wrote on top of their writing in a different direction. Unfortunately, this made letters rather difficult to read.

Another way people tried to cut the cost was to read the letter immediately then hand it back to the postboy. Tricks like these continued until the Postal Reform in 1840, which established a better pricing system.

Postmarks were not the only thing introduced to improve the delivery of the mail. In 1782, theatre owner John Palmer (1742-1818) proposed the idea of the Mail Coach to carry all the mail and a couple of armed guards. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) approved the plan and a trial journey commenced from Bristol to London that took a total of 16 hours. Horse-drawn coaches were far quicker than individual riders and soon the Mail Coach service was extended to cover the majority of Great Britain.

One of the first things visitors see on entering the Postal Museum is one of the old Mail Coaches. Locked compartments held the letters being delivered to major cities, which were protected by armed guards who rode on the outside of the coach. A guard was recognisable from his scarlet coat with blue lapels and gold braid, and a gold braided black hat, which the museum has examples of for visitors to try on.

The guards were expected to defend the mail with their lives and were, therefore, armed with a blunderbuss to scare off potential thieves or attackers. Soon, passengers were allowed to use the Mail Coach to travel into the cities, the wealthy paying for a seat inside and the poor sitting with the guards outside. These were long journeys and not always pleasant. On one occasion in 1816, the Exeter to London Mail Coach was attacked by a lioness that had escaped from a circus. Although the guard fired his blunderbuss, it was a Newfoundland dog that eventually scared off the beast.

With the developing railways, there was less need for the Mail Coach, therefore, after a final journey in 1846, the service stopped altogether. Trains were far more efficient at transporting mail from one city to another, however, there was still an issue about how best to deliver individual post from the sorting offices to the recipient. Initially, postmen would have walked on foot or used horses for longer journeys but in the late 1800s, a number of alternatives were trialled. A few of these can be seen at the museum.

In 1880, the GPO Carrier Tricycle was trialled in Coventry, which consisted of a large basket on a metal frame supported by three wheels. The postman sat behind the basket and pedalled along. At a similar time, a pentacycle or Centre-Cycle was trialled in Horsham, Sussex. Consisting of five wheels and two baskets, the postman sat high up in the middle to pedal the machine forward. Unsurprisingly, neither of these contraptions were used for long, however, the bicycle was a very popular method of transportation. By the 1930s, postmen were collectively covering 200 million miles a year on their bicycles, a feat they kept up until the bikes were phased out in 2014.

“On a perfectly smooth and level surface, the ‘Centre-Cycle’ may be everything that can be desired – but for ordinary travelling, it is said to be an impractical machine.”
– Feedback from Mr Phillipston, 1882

At the beginning of the 20th century, motorbikes were used to reach the less accessible areas of the country, for example, the rural routes that were more difficult to navigate by bicycle. The First World War brought an end to their use due to petrol rationing, however, they came back into use for a short time at the end of the 1940s.

Prior to Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) reign, sending a letter could be extremely costly, often costing as much as 12 loaves of bread. This all changed after the 1837 Post Office Reform proposed by Rowland Hill (1795-1979). On his suggestion, postage was paid by the sender, not the recipient, based on the weight of the letter. The only issue was working out how to establish a pre-payment method. A competition was held inviting suggestions from the public, from which the proposal of an adhesive stamp was selected. Only letters containing a stamp would be delivered, so they needed to be designed in a way that would be difficult to counterfeit.

Hill wanted the stamps to be “as beautiful a specimen of fine art as can be obtained.” He suggested a profile illustration of the 18-year old Queen’s head based on a medal that had been minted in 1838. In May 1840, the first stamp in the world was issued. Named the Penny Black, the stamp cost one penny and revolutionised the postal system. A year later, the stamp was reprinted in the colour red so as to be easier to detect. Due to the success of this endeavour, another stamp, the Two Penny Blue was printed for larger and heavier letters.

From here on until the 1960s, stamps featured the reigning monarch’s profile on a variety of different coloured background depending on the cost. In 1965, however, Postmaster General Tony Benn (1925-2014) introduced special commemorative stamps to mark anniversaries or events of national importance, for example, the Olympics, jubilees, charity events or Christmas. Designers were given free rein to experiment with designs so long as the monarch’s head was incorporated in some way and the stamp’s value was clearly shown. Finally, the Queen must approve of the design.

A brief video at the museum shows how the stamps are printed. They also have on display the plaster cast of Queen Elizabeth II’s (b.1926) head produced by Arnold Machin (1911-99) that was used to produce the iconic portrait that has adorned Britain’s stamps since 1967.

Until July 2019, the Postal Museum is exhibiting special Christmas editions of British stamps featuring the iconic duo Wallace & Gromit. With initial drawings from the creator Nick Park (b.1958), the display reveals the design process of these particular stamps. From drawing to photographic production shots, an enormous amount of effort and work is put into making the tiny stamps for people to buy in order to send their Christmas cards.

With no need to collect payment, a postman’s job was far easier and quicker than it had once been. Yet, with more people able to afford to send letters, queues at post offices were considerably long and often in inconvenient places for people who did not live in a town or city. Something needed to be done to improve this situation. The solution came from a Surveyor’s Clerk, Anthony Trollope (1815-82), more famous for his novels, for instance, He Knew He Was Right (1869), who suggested the idea of roadside posting boxes. In order to trial these boxes, green hexagonal pillars were set up in various places on the Channel Islands. After their success, Britain established its first postbox in Carlisle in September 1853.

The colour of postboxes quickly changed from green to red in order to make them more visible in leafy areas. Since then, all British postboxes have been red and contain the regnal cypher of the reigning king or queen at the time they were produced. Attempts to revamp the original design have occurred over the past century and a half, for instance, the economic Wall Box that was introduced in 1857. Pillar boxes were expensive to produce, so these were preferable in some areas of the country.

The first cylindrical postbox was introduced in 1859, although it still had a hexagonal lid. A couple of years later, another hexagonal model was designed, named after its creator John Penfold (1828-1909). Whilst aesthetically pleasing, it was too expensive to produce, thus the production of cylindrical pillar boxes began again. The red and black models known as Victorian Type A and Type B, were the first to combine a cylindrical body with a convex circular lid, just like the ones still used today.

Despite finding a design that worked well, the Post Office continued to try and improve their post boxes, gradually working their way through the alphabet until they reached Type K. The Type K Pillar Box was considered to be a very modern design at the time of production in 1980. Unfortunately, the “cigar-shaped” body was not very popular and was discontinued in 2000. The Type F Pillar Box proved to be more popular, however, its rectangular shape meant it was prone to rust. The last of these boxes were removed in 2002.

The Postal Museum displays many of the different types of post boxes that have been seen in Britain since the 1850s. These include a blue pillar box intended for air mail post and a red cylindrical box with the regnal cypher of Edward VIII (1894-1972). Production began on boxes featuring Edward VIII’s name as soon as his father died, however, only a few had been produced by the time he abdicated, making these boxes very rare.

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London Postal District Map

The invention of the post box encouraged more people to write and send letters. Whilst this was something to encourage, the more post there was, the more difficult it was to sort, especially in London. London was a growing city and was receiving roughly 100 million items of mail a year. Today, London is approximately 607 square miles, meaning that mail sent to the city could be for addressees many miles apart. To tackle this problem, Rowland Hill came up with yet another new idea.

Taking a map of London, Hill drew a 12-mile radius around central London and then divided this into ten sections. Each segment was given an initial relevant to its position on the compass, e.g. N, NE, E, SE and so forth. These he called Postal Districts. People were encouraged to add the relevant area code when addressing letters to London. This was of particular help to the workers on the London Mail Rail which began operating in 1927.

It was not until the 1930s that other cities in Britain began to copy London’s Postal District system. The rest of the country, however, had not yet been introduced to this way of operating. The first modern postcodes were trialled in Norwich in 1959, however, it was not until 1974 that the entirety of Britain was included.

The Postal Museum contains more history than imaginable about the development and continuation of the General Post Office. From early beginnings, through wars and many other changes, the Post Office has continued to function and has had a great impact on modern society not just in Britain but throughout the world. Posters, interactive stations, games, fancy dress and displays of old items help to tell the remarkable story of a service that originated with a king who wanted his correspondence to remain private.

Today, the world would not function without the thousands of post workers and delivery drivers that help to deliver our mail. The popularity of postmen, post boxes and so forth has become ingrained in our culture; they have seamlessly been incorporated into our books and televisions. The 1980s saw the arrival of Postman Pat (1981) who with “his black and white cat, Early in the morning, Just as day is dawning … picks up all the post bags in his van.” In the same year, the cartoon spy Danger Mouse (1981) began operating from a London pillar box.

The Jolly Postman (1986), whose portrait accompanies children around the museum, was the first in a series of books written by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Whilst the story follows the Postman on his daily round, children can open miniature envelopes and read the letters inside.

A more recent book, however, focuses on a particular Post Office employee. This is Tibs the Post Office Cat (2017), a story based on the life of a real cat who lived in the Royal Mail Headquarters at St Martin’s-Le-Grand. Famed for his tremendous weight – he was 10kg at the time of his death in 1965 – Tibs spent his time keeping the building free of mice.

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Benugo cafe at the Postal Museum

The Postal Museum is a place suitable for all ages to visit. There are plenty of things to keep children entertained for hours whilst adults enjoy learning about the history of the Post Office. Make sure to book a place on the Mail Rail to avoid disappointment.

Admission to the Museum and Mail Rail costs £17.05 per adult and £10.45 per child. Those wishing to only visit the Museum can pay a reduced entry fee of £11 with free entry for children. See website for more details.

One thought on “Delivering the Unexpected

  1. Hazel akways creates such an atmosphere in her writing that you want to visit every exhibition she attends. The masterpiece on the postal museum is no exception. Cleverly written with so much information you feel totally educated when you finish reading. Indeed you probably have to read her work 2 or 3 times to obtain maximum benefit. Thank you Hazel for sharing your extraordinary talent.

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