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The History of the Portuguese Postal Service

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The necessity for a postal service in Portugal first arose in the 12th Century, when students started to attend foreign universities. They needed to be able to send letters home, requesting funds to further their studies; and then required some kind of messenger service to return these to them securely.

The Royal Monopoly

Royalty and the nobility had their personal couriers and servants to supply this service for them, but in 1520, King Manuel I instituted the office of the King's Postmaster General. The first to hold this position was Luis Homem, a knight of the Royal Household, who was already in charge of the King's couriers.

The Postmaster General had to reside in Lisbon and, if not present himself, had to offer a trustworthy substitute, for whom he stood surety. He had to have couriers at hand to go on any journey as required by the King, or others; to regulate the prices of the services provided, to arrange transport and rest stops for the couriers and to establish post-houses and post-horses to support the service in the most convenient locations.

The couriers had to provide a rapid, discreet, confidential service and were not to run any post other than that ordered by the Postmaster General. In return they benefited from certain privileges. They were clothed and armed from the Royal purse and could carry both sword and dagger; they were exempt from taxes and they could be neither stopped nor imprisoned for any but the most serious of crimes.

The Postmaster took ten percent of the fee charged and the courier received the remainder.

The king nominated this officer from a very small group of people, so quite often the post became hereditary. If not inherited by a direct descendant, it seemed to remain within the same family. In 1606 the office was sold to the family Gomes de Mata for the sum of 70,000 cruzados1.

A fairly regular service was soon established to all the major cities and towns throughout the kingdom. The first overseas couriers journeyed to Africa and South America in 1657, using a fleet of caravels and galleons.

After the 1755 earthquake, which destroyed much of Lisbon, the postal palace was constructed in the Largo do Caldas, and this included the residence of the Postmaster, as well as a depot and a sorting office.

State Control

In 1797, the post reverted to nominees of the Crown and a law was passed determining that postal services become the prerogative of the state, as was now becoming the rule in other European countries. The state saw this monopoly as a form of security; controlling the post was highly sensitive. The postal service became truly public, and by now covered the whole country.

1798 saw the introduction of the first mail-coaches, between Lisbon and Coimbra. The coaches ran three times a week on a journey that took forty hours. Because of the extent of the journey, half-way houses were established, where the mail-coach passengers could eat a substantial meal and then were conducted to their rooms by the postmen, for a lengthy rest. These post-houses were considered so important that their employees could not be pressed for military service. Forty hours was only approximately the shortest time that the journey could take. The state of the roads was, as usual, atrocious. The heavier the carriage, the more likely it was to get bogged down and the threat of assault was always present. The perils were so great that most travellers took the precaution of calling a notary to make out their last testaments before embarking on such a hazardous enterprise. Those whose journey coincided with a particularly valuable or urgent shipment were less liable to be the victims of highway robbery as they were accompanied throughout the run by an armed band of troopers.

Local Post

Some 25 years later, the 'little post' was started, to bring the postal services to the villages. This saw the naming of streets and the numbering of houses to make the postman's job easier. However, the price of correctly-addressed mail reaching its destination, the sum of 5 reis2, was payable by the recipient. This caused many people to refuse to accept it, or pretend that they were not the addressee, so it was returned to a central depot where it could be collected later. Some enterprising fellows would go to the depot, collect all the mail for a particular village and then redistribute it at the cost of a few testões for their trouble.

By 1834, to keep the monopoly, it became obligatory to deliver the mail as addressed.

The Mail Train

Construction was started on the railway line between Lisbon and the Spanish frontier. The post was soon to be sent by this most modern of conveyances. In a few years the first 36 kilometres of railway line between Lisbon and Carregad was completed, followed by a grand inauguration ceremony.

There were still many kilometres to go until the whole country could benefit from the rail network, so further stagecoach routes were opened and improved. The Lisbon-Porto mail was now being run in thirty-six hours, which included four stops for meals. The price for a passenger was 45 reis per kilometre when riding first class and 30 reis for second class.

Stamps and Post Boxes

The first issue of postage stamps in Portugal was of 5 reis and 25 reis - these bore the head of Queen Maria II and were sold on the 1st of July 1853.

The first commemorative postage stamps were issued in 1894, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the birth of Prince Henry the Navigator.

To receive letters for the post red boxes are affixed to walls, or they can be posted in red pillar boxes, as can be seen in the United Kingdom.

The time of the last collection on weekdays is indicated on the post box. There is no post on Saturdays and Sundays. The first collection after the weekend is around 7am on Monday morning.

The Travelling Post Office

Nowadays the Postal Service is provided in outlying villages by the Red Post (Correios) Van. These vans open at the back to provide the mobile service counter, where all post office transactions can be carried out - letters posted, parcels collected, as well as the payment of service bills, such as electricity and telephone, and the distribution of benefits and pensions. This is extremely useful for the elderly and to those unable to travel to the main offices.


  • Based on a Portuguese magazine article found in a waiting room. Author Unknown.

  • Murray's Handbook to Portugal, 1875. 3rd Edition. Rev. JM Neale

1Several currency changes make it difficult to comment on this now almost unrecognisable quantity.2The reis was the theoretical smallest unit of currency in the 19th century. The smallest coin was the copper 5 reis. One English gold sovereign was equivalent to 4,500 reis in the 1890s.

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