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History of the Postal Service

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Although the first stamp was not introduced until 1840, the long and interesting history of postal services began in the 17th Century.

Royal Beginnings

Originally, the only letters carried were those to and from the King and the Royal Court. In 1626, the service was extended to run between London and Plymouth; at the time, Plymouth was one of Britain's most strategically important ports. Soon, other postal services began and a network grew between the main cities. On 31 July, 1635, King Charles I issued a proclamation extending the use of the Royal Mail to the public.

The First Postmark

The Post Office was reorganised in 1660 and Henry Bishop was made Postmaster General. Bishop is remembered as the man who introduced the first postmark, issued in 1661. The Bishop Mark, as it is called, only showed the day and month of the posting; its purpose was to ensure that the letter carriers did not delay the mail, either for espionage purposes or simply due to laziness. At this time, all letters were taken to London, Edinburgh or Dublin before being sent to their destinations and Bishop marks were used in these cities (Edinburgh's being red). Similar postmarks were simultaneously being used in America, notably in Philadelphia and New York; they are still often referred to as American Bishop marks or Franklin marks (after Benjamin Franklin, the one-time Deputy Postmaster General).

Postal Rates and Routes

Early postal rates were very complicated. They were calculated according to the distance travelled and the number of sheets of paper included in the letter. The whole process was very time-consuming and expensive, so that only businesses and the wealthy could afford to send letters.

Over the years there were many improvements to the postal system. During the time when all letters were carried to London, Edinburgh or Dublin, there were six post roads around London. To improve the system, a series of additional routes was established, which increased the network. Cross posts ran between two different post roads. By-posts ran between a post road and a town some distance from it. A way-letter went between two towns on the same post road. Instructions were put on the bottom left corner of letters, hence early covers often arrived with 'Cross post' or 'X-post' written on them.

Dockwra's Penny Post

A special local penny-post was introduced in London in 1680 by William Dockwra. His service also introduced the first pre-payment of letters - previously it had been the custom for the recipient to pay for the cost of the letter. This cheap local post was soon used in other major cities and was later adopted by many provincial towns.

The revenue from the postal service went to the Government. This London penny post was increased to tuppence in 1801 to help finance the war against Napoleon.

Rowland Hill's Reforms

It was Rowland Hill who instigated the greatest reform of the postal service. His dream, which he was finally able to fulfil, was to have a cheap and efficient postal system which everybody could afford to use. He was also keen to introduce a convenient method of prepaying the postage and suggested 'a bit of paper just large enough to bear a stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash'. He demonstrated that the cost of transporting a letter from one post town to another was almost negligible. He also showed that it would be far better to charge by weight rather than by the number of sheets. He suggested that there should be a uniform charge of one penny per half ounce made on all letters delivered within the United Kingdom and that payment could be prepaid by using a label or special stationary.

These recommendations were eventually approved. In 1839 a competition was organised for suggestions for types of adhesive labels and stamped paper. Although there were over 2,500 entries, none was entirely suitable. The best of these ideas were refined by Rowland Hill himself, with the help of the printers Perkins, Bacon and Petch. However, the public demand for a uniform penny post was so great that the new rates were introduced on 10 January, 1840, months ahead of schedule and well before any postage stamps were ready. Special head-stamps had to be made for use by the post offices to indicate that the penny postage had been paid. Finally on 6 May, 1840, the famous Penny Black stamps and some stamped wrappers designed by William Mulready were on sale at post offices.

The two-penny stamp was not ready until 8 May. It was thought that Mulready's stamped wrappers would be used most frequently, but the design was ridiculed by all and the penny and two-penny stamps were by far the most popular.

Rowland Hill was knighted in 1860 by Queen Victoria for his services to the Empire.

Overseas Post Offices

After the issue of these first stamps, many of the British colonies expressed a wish to issue their own postage stamps. However, the General Post Office (GPO) in London dismissed this idea, claiming it would be too confusing if more than one country were to use them. They believed that the postal workers would not be able to cope if hundreds of different postage stamps were available. So the first stamps which these colonies were allowed was a standard hand-stamp applied in red on letters. It showed a crown on top of a circle with the words 'paid at' and the name of the city or country.

Other countries were not so restricted, and it was not long before adhesive stamps were appearing elsewhere. Brazil followed Great Britain on 1 August, 1843, with the issue of the famous 'Bull's Eye' stamps. The cantons (states) of Switzerland came next with their first issues in 1843 and 1845. These were followed by the United States of America and Mauritius in 1847, and France, Belgium and Bavaria in 1849.

The Postcode

The postcode, in its present form as a mixture of six letters and digits, was first used in Norwich in October, 1959. This was the world's first experiment with postal address codes, designed to allow sorting by machine. By 1974, the postcode system covered Britain.

The earliest form of postcode was introduced in London in 1857. Sir Rowland Hill, the inventor of the penny post, divided London into districts denoted by compass points, 'N' for north, 'S' for south and so on. The first provincial city to be divided into postal districts was Liverpool in 1864.

Numbers were added to the London postal districts to divide them up more specifically into NW1, SW2, etc during the First World War, in 1916.

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