12/3/09 - postal service

In today's excerpt - postal service as we know it has its origins in 16th century England.  The service originally charged extra if the letter contained a second sheet of paper:

"The postal service was not originally designed for public use. It emerged haphazardly in the 16th century to provide horses and messengers in times of war for Henry VIII. A major aim was to establish a government monopoly over the gathering and censoring of information and mail. As well as controlling the flow of intelligence, it would oversee the delivery of diplomatic correspondence support foreign and domestic policy and help to raise revenue. The king's first Master of the Posts, Sir Brian Tuke (d.1545), selected local postmasters and divided the six major roads from London into stages.

"Increased literacy, trade and an interest in news soon led merchants and the public to demand access to the post. But it wasn't until 1635 that a London merchant Thomas Witherings (d.1651) offered a proposal to organize the first postal system for public use. A Royal Proclamation for the 'settling of the Letter-Office of England and Scotland' gave Witherings the authority to establish fixed, regular posts. Each post town had its own mail bag to and from London, while foot posts carried letters further on. The central London office at Bishopsgate co-ordinated mail on six main roads charging 2d a letter for up to 80 miles. ...

"After the Restoration in 1660 Charles II intensified intelligence activities on post roads that passed through London. Secretaries of State were given the right to open letters. It was rumored that state employees could take impressions of seals, imitate writing perfectly and copy a letter in a minute by pressing damp tissue paper over the ink. At the same time the Six Clerks of the Road in London were informally allowed to frank newspapers to local postmasters, who provided drink, gossip and horses, as well as news. This right to send newspapers postage-free led to profits for the six clerks and reduced prices of papers for readers. It would have a profound effect on the spread of newspapers. Paradoxically, the roles of the Post Office as both a censor and newsagent coexisted throughout the century. ...

"Country letters that passed through London were sorted and directed to one of the six roads. Postage due at delivery was written across the address for the recipient to pay. If it was suspected that more than one sheet of paper was enclosed, envelopes were held up to a candle and extra was charged for each additional sheet therein."


Susan Whyman


The Royal Mail: A Passion for the Post


History Today


Vol: 59, Issue: 12
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