Above: The typical scene of the country Post Office some time around the 1800s.
When did post offices start? Where does the name come from? Who used the early mail services? These and other similar question will be answered as we take a look at how the postal services started in Britain. The reason this topic is being discussed is that the Royal Mail celebrates 500 years of existence this year – yes, that’s half a millennium of the Royal Mail !
A ‘post road’ is a road designated for the transportation of postal mail. In past centuries, only major towns had a post house and the roads used by post riders or mail coaches to carry mail among them were particularly important ones or, due to the special attention given them, became so. In various centuries the ‘post road’ became more or less equivalent to a ‘main road’, ‘royal road’ or ‘highway’.
Henry VIII created the Royal Mail in 1516, appointing Brian Tuke as ‘Master of the Postes’, while Elizabeth I appointed Thomas Randolph as ‘Chief Postmaster’.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) there was a system of Post Roads. The messengers (called Post-boys) either went by foot or on horse-back. A huge number of horses were involved in this operation as each stage was only about 10 miles in length, after which a fresh horse was used. In most cases the horses were kept at inns or hostelries.
Originally most mail was sent by or on behalf of the Government – frequently on military matters. There would have been very little private mail because the ordinary people were often illiterate and the educated nobility would have used their own servants to deliver local messages.
The term ‘post office’ or ‘post-office’ has been in use since the 1650s – shortly after the legalisation of a private mail service in England in 1635. In early Modern England, post riders – mounted couriers – were placed (‘posted’) every few hours along post roads at ‘posting houses’ or ‘post houses’ between major cities or towns (sometimes called ‘post towns’). These stables or inns permitted important correspondence to travel without delay.
It is rather sad to have to observe that, for all the technology being used today to sort and carry mail, a letter often takes longer to travel from the sender to the recipient today that it did when it was carried on horseback!