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Great Britain


Sterling to 1971.

1971, decimal currency.

Up to 1660

Following the conquests of Edward I in the 13th century, Wales had become a principality of England, but in spite of constant wars unification with Scotland had to wait until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. The Wars of the Roses, a civil war between the Houses of York and Lancaster, prevented any real stability until after 1487, when the Tudor dynasty began. Under Henry VIII (1509-47) the first Master of the Posts, Sir Brian Tuke, was appointed in 1516. It was his responsibility to ensure that the King's messages were speedily and efficiently handled and that horses were provided at the staging posts. This was a responsibility for the Royal Post and no public mail, except from courtiers, and then only by special favour, was carried. Because of this, the merchants, particularly those with overseas connections, had to establish their own service, and before the end of the 16th century both the Merchant Stranger and the Merchant Venturers Post were operating in London.

When Elizabeth died in 1603, she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who became James I of England, and a union of the two countries was effected. This was followed by a period of growing unrest as greater control of the government was sought by the people. By restricting the King's ability to raise taxes, Parliament, when it sat, was able to exercise some control over the King. To counteract this, Charles I tried to create monopolies which would pay him for the right to produce and merchandise a particular product.

In 1635, partly to extend this source of tax, partly to defray the costs of the Royal Courier service and partly to establish an intelligence system, Charles, by proclamation, opened the Royal Post to the public. A fixed range of charges based on the distance carried was established and, in 1637, a second proclamation excluded the carriers from any monopoly. Thus for a time two quite separate postal systems operated in the country, and although the King's post went three times each week to Edinburgh, there was enough mail being carried outside the Royal Mail to warrant the publication in 1637 of a Carriers Cosmographie. This shows clearly the number of regular routes used by those who were outside the King's Post.

However, the first public post, 'To Foreign Parts', had been opened even before 1635, in 1632. At that time, by decree, Thomas Witherings was appointed as the Postmaster to Foreign Parts and the first letters carried by the British Post Office with charge marks appeared. The rate from Calais was 4d.

Within seven years of the opening of the post to the public, the Civil War broke out and continued until the King himself was executed in 1649. During this period, the posts were severely curtailed, if they ran at all, and the carriage of letters by carriers was often disrupted by seizure by opposing forces. However, normal social and business correspondence had to continue and a number of small local posts grew up. It is believed that in certain areas, notably East Anglia, the service was more or less normal during these years, but the state of affairs in the Midlands and in the other principal areas of fighting would have been very difficult.

By 1647 the situation within the country had returned more or less to normal and the posts were re-established. However, with the King defeated, the control of the mail was changed. For the first time, the post was 'farmed', that is to say it was auctioned to the highest bidder, and, after payment of a sum to the government, the successful applicant was allowed to take his profit from the postal service. That this was a lucrative source of income can be gathered from the example of the first holder of the office, John Manley, who in 1653 bid £10,000 per annum for this right. At his request the smaller posts which had sprung up had to be suppressed, and in the following year Oliver Cromwell, by then Lord Protector, passed an order in council which made it an offence for anyone else to charge for carrying letters. Although it had always been the King's original intent that the post should be a monopoly, it was thus in fact under the Commonwealth that there was the start of the monopoly system which still holds good to this day.


Under the Commonwealth, an Act for the Post Office was passed in 1657. This set up the monopoly of the post in more general form and also established the rights of those who operated the post. For the first time the position of Postmaster-General was created and the first incumbent was John Thurloe. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne and a further Post Office Act largely confirmed the Act of 1657, which had been declared illegal. The new Postmaster-General was Henry Bishop, and he was responsible for setting up the General Letter Office near the present site of the Mansion House and also for the introduction of postal markings on letters. He stated that 'A stamp is to be put on every letter', the purpose of which was that any delay in the handling of the mail would clearly be seen. This first marking, a simple circle with the date in the upper half and the month in the lower, was used for many years.

With the growth in commerce following the Restoration, the size of the Post Office increased as did the amount paid for 'farming' the post. In 1680 a local post was established in London by William Dockwra; this was speedily suppressed, though his service was used as the basis of the London post until the middle of the 19th century.

By early in the 18th century, markings for provincial towns began to appear and these clearly show the extent of commerce, and the main centres of industry as they were at that time. Special marks similar to the London Bishop Mark were used in Bristol and Exeter and straightline names without date were widely used.

Acts affecting the rates of postage were passed in 1660 and 1765, but these were all based on letters coming into London and out again. While this might have been advisable for security purposes in the 17th century, as the country became more settled it was obvious that a more equitable system would have to be devised. Ralph Allen of Bath is attributed with the bulk of the work in the establishment of the Cross Posts; although postal markings continued to carry the mileage from London as part of their general format, the speeding of the service achieved by his reforms was substantial.

The carriage of mail between post towns was a haphazard affair in the 18th century. The work was mainly carried out by postboys who rode from town to town delivering and collecting letters on their way. They were notoriously slow, drunken and insecure. The Post Office advised anyone who wished to send valuables through the post that they should cut bills or money drafts in half and hold the second half until they knew that the first had arrived.

By the 1780s with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution the need for a quicker and more secure mail service was apparent. The man who eventually provided the spark which created the new system was another West Country man, John Palmer. He was the manager of the Theatre Royal in Bath, and Bristol was also within his responsibility. With his need to move troupes of actors to and from each place and London some better means of transport had to be devised. Against resistance from the Post Office, he managed to persuade William Pitt that the Post Office should operate a series of mail-coaches which would travel quickly and directly between centres and, as the mail guard would be armed, with security. The first trial was carried out between Bristol and London on 2 August 1784 and was followed by the development of a complete service throughout the country by 1790.

Although John Palmer was responsible for this leap forward in speed and security of the mail, his idea would not have been possible without the provision of better roads as a result of the introduction of turnpikes. So in 133 years the Post Office in Britain had moved from its beginnings to a structure which survived as a basis for its remarkable development throughout the 19th century.

Abroad, the changes had been less startling. The development of the colonial empire in the 17th and 18th centuries had meant that the giant trading concerns such as the East India Company had had to maintain continuous contact with their agents abroad. Major colonial and European wars had seen many British troops in service both at home and overseas and their needs for communication had also had to be provided for. This growth had led to the Ship Letter system and the Post Office packets, which are dealt with elsewhere.

During the War of the Austrian Succession (1739-45), British forces fighting with their German allies (the King of England had also been the Elector of Hanover since 1714) had received the first overseas postal marking on their mail. The letters AB (Armee Britannique] had been applied to their letters in 1743-44.

The loss of the American colonies following their Revolution and the American War of Independence (1776-83) had been a blow not only to Britain's worldwide prestige but also to the expansion of the colonial empire. This growth had been severely affected, although both India and Canada had been largely established as British spheres of influence by the middle of the 18th century. However, the map of Europe was about to change. The French Revolution of 1789 and the effect on Europe of the overthrow of royal power led on to the wars of Napoleon.


The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of this period had little direct effect on the British postal service at home. The mail-coach service which had been inaugurated in 1784 continued to grow and by the end of this period was in its heyday. It had proved itself to be speedy and reliable as well as secure and the robbery of the postboys, which had been a major problem before its introduction, was not repeated with the mail-coaches. Acts of Parliament led to increases in letter charges again in 1796, 1801 and 1812, partly to increase the revenue and provide funds for the continuance of the war, and partly to meet the increase in the cost of living.

The most significant introduction during this period was the local Penny Post service, which enabled mail in a small area to be collected together and passed on to the main mail routes. It was this network of receiving houses that led to the wide range of sub-post offices, which have been a feature of the British Post Office ever since.

The type of postal markings became more formalized at this time and general standard types can be found and identified. In the 1790s almost all markings included the date, and, for the first time, the year was also included as a general rule.

As Britain was not invaded, there was no disruption of the internal mails, but it was a different matter overseas. The Post Office packet service and many of the smaller, lightly armed vessels were prey to the attacks of French and Spanish privateers. Many of the smaller colonies were occupied by enemy forces. At the same time, especially in the West Indies, British forces took control of many of the French islands. Because of distance, and the length of time for intelligence to reach Britain, the public were in difficulty in knowing how best to route their letters. At the same time Britain had large forces abroad and supply lines were subject to frequent attack. Nevertheless, the service was maintained, especially to Lisbon as the base of the Peninsular Army, and mail was carried in both directions.

Early in this period the British Army invaded the Low Countries and was accompanied by Henry Darlot, the first Postmaster-General to the Forces. He set up a service with a special postmark 'Army Bag' and this was used on mail in 1799. However, the bulk of the mail from officers and other ranks in other campaigns was carried without special markings, and was placed in the Ship Letter arrival system.

The first decade of the 19th century saw the growth of what was to become one of the major abuses of the postal system - the right of free mail. This system had been established for government departments and for members of both Houses of Parliament in the 17th century, but, although the number and weight of letters were restricted, it still gave a privilege to many people who were only too glad to take advantage of it. To prevent some of the abuse, the sender was required to sign the outside of the cover, but in 1784 this was changed so that the place of posting and the date had also to be in the superscription of the address. It is fortunate that many of these 'fronts' have survived, preserved by the autograph collectors of the last century, but the volume of this free mail was a burden under which the Post Office had to struggle for many years.

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Britain: Post Routes 1677 & 1836
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Although there were many troubles in Europe during this period, Britain entered into a period of relative stability. Apart from the Crimean War and many colonial wars, it was not until 1914 that it was again required to take part in a European war. However, during these 35 years two of the most significant changes in the postal service occurred. First was the demise of the mail-coach service. This mainstay of the transmission of letters within the kingdom had been based on the turnpike roads and the provision of a fast and reliable service. However, though the coaches had been built to a Post Office specification they had been owned by the contractors who operated the service. Therefore, when railways came on the scene, there was no capital investment involved on the part of the Post Office and no vested interest in retaining the coaches. By the late 1820s coaches were at their peak and over 40 mail coaches were leaving Post Office headquarters each night. By 1846 no mail coaches were entering London and by 1855 there were no coaches at all.

The first train ran on the Stockton-Darlington railway in 1825; in 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened and in November that year it began to carry mail. The Post Office had to face a number of serious problems. There was the question of security and safety, problems over moving mail from stations to POs in the towns, and the cost of carriage itself. But all of these could be solved and the overriding advantages of quick and direct service meant that deliveries could be speeded up dramatically.

Linked with the advance in the means of transport was the advantage of being able to pre-sort mail while in transit. As early as 1826 Rowland Hill, whom we shall discuss later in this section, had proposed that letters could be sorted on mail-coaches to save time and improve the service. This proposal was not followed through because coaches could not provide the space which would be required, and, more important, any loss of passenger accommodation would adversely affect the contractors. However, the same constraint did not apply to the railways. By 1838 a trial was run on the Grand Junction Railway between Birmingham and Warrington using a modified cattle truck. It was an immediate success and it was claimed 'that it enabled the travelling and sorting to be done at the same time'. Immediately, the Post Office ordered four special carriages to be run from Euston. In the early stages these ran to Bletchley and mail went on by coach to Birmingham, but by 1842 the service was through direct from London to Preston. The days of the Travelling Post Offices (TPOs) had arrived.

The second change was much more far reaching, with implications not only in Britain but throughout the world. This was Rowland Hill's reform, which was introduced in 1839-40. Before we look at the far-sighted changes he proposed, it is as well to be clear on the system as it stood in Britain in the mid-1830s. The Act by which the Post Office had been founded and on the basis of which it had developed over 200 years since Charles I's proclamation had calculated all charges for carriage on the distance carried and the number of sheets of paper used. As an envelope counted as another sheet of paper, this system had delayed the introduction of commercial envelope manufacture for over 50 years. A further problem was that it was difficult for the sender to assess the distance that the letter had to be carried and, unless he wished to visit the nearest post town, it was usual for the recipient to pay for the letter on arrival.

Rowland Hill, a schoolmaster in North London, proposed a series of changes to this procedure: free franking should be abolished, a uniform postage rate should apply to all parts of the kingdom, the sole increment should be dependent on the weight of the item and payment should be made by the sender. It was part of his plan that all letters would have to be prepaid - but this was not accepted. In none of his early papers was the question of adhesive stamps mentioned, but this appeared later and led to the introduction of the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, on 6 May 1840.

The reforms proposed by Rowland Hill were debated throughout the land. The growth in the volume of mail, which had reached 50 million items in 1838, was a result of the need for commercial contact during the Industrial Revolution and the growth of literacy in the population. It was now a period of social as well as commercial correspondence and cost was an important factor.

As a trial, the 4d Uniform Post was introduced on 5 December 1839, but as it was public knowledge that the cost was soon to be reduced to 1d, pressure led to the introduction of 1d postage on 10 January 1840, four months before the stamps were ready. During the interim period between January and May many handstamps were introduced to indicate the prepayment of postage until these were replaced in May by the new stamps.

In April 1840 it was discovered that the red cancelling ink provided for marking the stamps to prevent re-use could be removed too easily. As a result the recipe was modified and a Post Office notice issued on 28 April 1840 gave details of the way in which the ink was to be mixed. The cancellation to be used and issued to each of the post towns was a so-called 'Maltese Cross', though this had rounded corners and is not strictly as described. This cancellation was first struck in red on the black stamp, but in early 1841 this was replaced by a black ink which was more difficult to remove. The colour of the stamp was changed to red. All the early stamps were printed by Perkins Bacon, who held the contract for all values up to and including 2d until 1880. The Maltese Cross continued as the cancellation until 1842. Many of these crosses, which appear to have been made locally, are distinguishable from each other and can also be found struck in a variety of colours, though red and black were the only ones officially approved.

In 1842 a series of numbers was issued on an alphabetical basis to the post towns in England and Wales with a further series for Scotland. These styles of markings and numbers were used until the end of the century.

By 1846 a demand for higher value stamps had been created, although few other countries had so far issued stamps. The Post Office, as previously, was worried about the re-use of stamps and, as a result, selected the embossing process for the 1s value (1847) and 10d value (1848). In the recommendation it was stated that 'the Queen's head being free from ink, and thus unvarnished, readily imbibes the cancelling ink'.

As part of Rowland Hill's original scheme the public was to be able to purchase envelopes and letter sheets with the postage prepaid. These were produced in 1840 as the Mulready envelopes. They met with universal criticism and as a result were quickly withdrawn and replaced by envelopes with a 1d or 2d stamp embossed. The former remained in use until the turn of the century.

Although the changes and reforms had major and far-reaching effects on the internal post, the impact on overseas post, which was affected as much by industrial and technical development as it was by new postal systems, was less dramatic. The interchange of mail for foreign destinations was still regulated by individual treaties and the methods of accounting were both complex and costly. But the development of steam for ships meant that more regular and reliable services could be devised. Linked with this was the growing need for Britain to be able to communicate quickly and reliably with the colonies which were beginning to provide the raw materials on which the new affluence was to be based.

Under Rowland Hill's postal reforms, the Ship Letter Office was closed, but during this period the Post Office packets had disappeared and been replaced by contract shipping lines, which undertook to make regular trips to specified destinations. The most important of these were Cunard on the Transatlantic service, and Peninsular and Orient to the Mediterranean and beyond Egypt to India, Australia and the Far East.

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British Numeral Postmarks used abroad

Britain: Railways 1843 & 1850
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During these years, only overseas wars impinged on the boundaries of Empire. Europe was going through a period of nationalistic change, but Britain remained aloof and avoided any of the European wars. The stability which was gained enabled Britain to develop its resources and the growth of commerce led to massive increases in the volume of post carried. This was compounded by the growth of literacy and the fact that cheap postage had made the post available to all but the poorest.

The first stamps had appeared in 1840, with higher values being issued before the end of the decade. The convenience which the use of adhesives and the prepayment of. postage had brought led to new values being required as time progressed. Many of these were issued to meet specific overseas requirements, as with the 4d stamp of 1854, which was designed to pay the new reduced rate for France. At the same time, the method of production of stamps had to be reconsidered. The system used in the 1840s, line engraving for values up to 2d and embossing for the higher values, was expensive and, in the latter case, slow. When the new Act controlling the use of fiscal stamps was introduced in 1853, De La Rue - a firm of playing-card manufacturers - obtained the contract for surface-printing the new issue, largely owing to the friendship between Ormonde Hill and Thomas De La Rue. Their production was so quick, efficient and low-priced that they were also given the opportunity to provide the values above 2d. Therefore until 1880 when De La Rue began to print all British stamps, they printed all values above 2d, and during this period a wide range of colours and values were used.

Major problems during this period for the internal mail service were, first, the establishment of a means of mechanically separating stamps and, second, securing a better and quicker means of cancelling the ever-growing volume of letters and, by the end of 1871, postcards.

Early stamps were not perforated. They were cut from sheets by the clerks, usually in horizontal strips (vertical strips are much scarcer) and sold singly or as required by the customer. It is known that a machine for the separation of a single stamp from a strip of 20 or more by use of a small guillotine was displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851 but no such machine has survived.

In 1848, Henry Archer had patented a machine for perforating sheets on a flatbed system and trials led to the introduction of perforated stamps in 1850, though early roulettes had been tried in 1848. This was followed in 1854 by a modified design by W. Bemrose and Son, who invented a rotary perforating machine. In the interim other trials had been carried out with a roulette machine of the Treasury, which produced a distinctive serpentine edge to the stamps.

When postage stamps were first introduced, the handling of letters continued on much the same basis. The initial volume increases were coped with and hand-cancelling of the stamps continued as the only means of preventing the re-use of stamps. However, the continuing increase in the number of letters posted led to the need for some quicker means of cancellation. The first machine trials were held in London in 1857 on a machine designed by Pearson Hill, the son of Rowland Hill. This type was not fully successful, but a revised design using the 'parallel motion' system was successful and was brought into use in a number of POs in the 1860s. Other designs and types of hand-operated machines were introduced after trials but the Pearson Hill machine remained the first choice with British and colonial administrations until the introduction of electrical or power-driven machines later in the century. Most of these were developed in Scandinavia or the USA and were imported or made under licence in Britain.

In October 1869 the Austrian P0 introduced postcards, a pre-printed card with an impressed stamp which passed through the post at a reduced rate. The demand for the issue of similar items in Britain was instantaneous and the new cards were introduced on 1 October 1870, the same day as the new printed paper rate. This service was an immediate success and 70 million of the new cards were sent in the first 15 months. It should be emphasized that there was nothing new in being able to send cards through the post. It had been quite usual for many years. The innovation was the reduced rate and it was this service which was to revolutionize the writing and collecting habits of the nation in the first decade of the 20th century.

During this whole period the growth in the number of letters continued to give problems to the Post Office. In 184O-l, the first full year after the introduction of 1d postage, the number was 169 million. By 1871 this figure had risen to 917 million. At this time, the number of letters delivered to individual houses was probably less than 50 per cent but the percentage was growing rapidly, and was up to 97 per cent by the end of the century.

Abroad, the complications of new countries issuing stamps, together with the growth of international trade, made the archaic system of individual treaties and conventions almost impossible to administer. In 1863 a postal congress was held in Paris to attempt to rationalize the situation. Although this congress provided few concrete results, the personal contacts which were made led to a substantial easing in the regulations and highlighted the need for a permanent body. Work to this end carried on during this period and a date was set in 1870. However, the Franco-Prussian war prevented the meeting from taking place and it was not until 1874 that the General Postal Union met for the first time.

In 1854 the Crimean War broke out, initially between Russia and Turkey. France and Britain came to the aid of Turkey and an expeditionary force was sent to the Dardenelles, ostensibly to drive the Russians out of Silistria. The Russians retreated, but it was decided to destroy Sebastopol on the Crimean peninsula and the war dragged on for a further 18 months. On the postal side, a Post Office official was sent out as postmaster-general to the forces and, again, a special cancellation was used to cancel the forces mail. At the same time a number of supporting Army POs were established, including one in Constantinople; this was subsequently the basis for the British POs in the Turkish Empire (q.v), which were in operation until World War I and even later in the case of Constantinople.

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This was a period of stability for Europe and for Britain. At the start, having been free from major wars for 65 years, Britain had benefited from the constant growth in national and international trade, the reduction in the power of France, and the development of the British Empire. The volume of mail through the Post Office in the Jubilee year of 1890 was 2000 million items, approximately 50 per person per year or one letter each week for every person in the country; this was 40 times more than in 1838. The increase in volume had led to the need for new techniques for cancelling the mail and, following the trials of the period up to 1870, these were taken, in the years up to World War I, to their completion, with the installation of high speed machines in all major POs.

Although the telephone had by now been invented, it was not until the period between the world wars that it made any significant impact on the passing of personal messages. However, with the increasing sophistication of the population and the growth of commerce there was a need to develop faster communications. Individual telegraph and cable companies had been established in the 1850s and the Post Office quickly found that they were beginning to win a lucrative portion of the mail market. In 1870 the Post Office took over the existing telegraph companies by Act of Parliament and incorporated them into their service (there they remained until the split between the Post Office and British Telecom in the 1970s). This went some way towards responding to the public's need, but with a minimum cost of 1s, an even cheaper means which could carry a longer message was required. The answer was the introduction of the Express Service in 1891. By this means, letters could be carried specially to an address at a cost of 3d per mile; largely used by commercial interests, it provided a means of transmission which though it has been varied in many ways, still exists today.

These two services - telegraph and express post - helped the public to communicate more quickly, but the most significant increase in volume was in postcards. When these were introduced in 1870 only pre-printed cards were accepted and this led to constant friction with the stationers who wanted to introduce their own cards. It was forbidden to stick stamps on cards so manufacture was effectively vested in the Post Office. Following pressure from Parliament and public alike, the Post Office modified the rules in 1894 and the picture postcard was introduced. The effect was instantaneous. In the next 15 years it seemed that everyone collected cards. By 1913 almost 1000 million postcards passed through the post, though this was probably less than half the actual number of cards sold because of the number which people would buy to place, unused, in their collection.

A number of significant changes occurred in stamp production. In 1880 De La Rue attained a monopoly of supply to the British Post Office and they maintained this position until 1910. At the end of that year, part of the contract passed to Harrison & Sons (½d, ld, 2½d, 3d, and 4d), and the rest was produced by Somerset House, the headquarters of the Board of Inland Revenue.

Colours of stamps were also varied during this period for a number of reasons. The General Postal Union, which met for the first time in 1874, became the Universal Postal Union in 1878, and at its first Congress in Paris suggested to members that certain stamps - in Britain's case, ½d, 1d and 2½d - should be green, red and blue respectively. The Post Office tried to comply and by 1880, with the first De La Rue printing of the two lower values, this was achieved. However, the Treasury had made other changes which meant that the situation could not last.

The first involved telegraph stamps. When the Post Office telegraph service had started in 1870, special stamps had been issued for pre-payment of the charges. In 1881 the Treasury decided that these stamps were no longer necessary and that postage stamps could also serve for the payment of telegraph charges. This increased the need for higher value stamps though most of these were used telegraphically.

The second and more far-reaching change was to make postal stamps also available for fiscal or revenue purposes. From 1881 most British stamps were inscribed 'Postage and Revenue'. This simple change in principle meant that the Post Office could no longer control the ink used to cancel stamps. When cancellation had been done by postal officials there had been little difficulty, but once this cancellation could be applied by anyone, often with simple writing ink, the stamps could become prone to cleaning and re-use. To avoid this the Post Office had to resort to special inks, known as 'doubly fugitive', which were more susceptible to cleaning agents. In 1881 there were only two such inks, lilac and green. It became impossible to remain with the UPU-recommended colours: blue (International letter rate), red (International postcard rate) and green (International Printed paper rate).Thus, by 1884 all values were changed to one or other of these colours. This was the situation until 1902, when the stamps of King Edward VII were issued: as by then ink technology had improved to the stage where less fugitive inks could be used, these were amended to green, red and blue. These changes in colour and design produced a series of interesting issues and paved the way for new colours and standards with the first stamps of King George V's reign in 1911.

In 1883 the Post Office parcel post service had been introduced. From the inception of the postal service in the 17th century, carriers had been allowed to continue the carriage and delivery of parcels and by the middle of the 19th century a number of special parcel companies had been introduced. Some of their business had been taken by the Post Office book post, which was introduced in 1847. This service was both quicker and cheaper than the carriers, but it was limited by weight. Inevitably, the system was subject to abuse and on 1 August 1883 the Post Office parcel service began. Although there was no monopoly, packages were prepaid with stamps on special forms and many of these rates had to be prepaid with a single adhesive. This led to new values being issued the 10d in 1890, 4½d in 1892, 7d in 1907, 8d in 1913.

Overprinted stamps for Government departments had begun in 1883 to meet the requirements of the Inland Revenue. Similar overprints were also used for Government parcels. As time went on, other departments were included: Office of Works, Army, Admiralty and Board of Education. In these series exists the rarest of all British stamps, the 6d IR Official of 1904. The overprints were discontinued in 1904, but they had started a pattern which was also implemented for use in overseas territories. The reasons for these issues will be discussed under each country, but during this period overprinted stamps were released in British Levant (1885), British Bechuanaland (1887), Bechuanaland Protectorate (1888), Oil River Colonies (1892), East Africa (1890), Morocco Agencies (1907) and Zululand (1888).

The overseas post of this period was overshadowed by the early work of the Universal Postal Union. Although delayed by the Franco-Prussian War, the UPU was eventually established in 1874. Its first decision was to regularize the postage rates between the 22 founder members, which were set at 25 gold centimes (or 2½d in Britain), with postcards at half that rate. This agreement was effective from 1 July 1875, which was the first time that a postcard rate had been introduced for cards going abroad.

Apart from easing the accounting and all other aspects of the transfer of international mail between member countries, a number of new international services and consolidation of postal rates took place under the auspices of the UPU. International Express mail was introduced in 1885, though the British Post Office did not follow suit until 1892; insured mail followed in 1899, and the introduction of International Reply Paid Coupons in 1907-8.

During this period the British Army was involved in several campaigns abroad, and in 1882 the Army Postal Service was established. This was based on the 24th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers (the Post Office Rifles). The unit was raised originally in 1868 as part of the Volunteer force and comprised employees of the Post Office. On the suggestion of its commanding officer, they were to be made available to the War Office for deployment with the army when expeditions were sent abroad. The first of these was to Egypt in 1882, followed by the Sudan in 1884, where they were also joined by a telegraph company. The Army Postal Corps were also heavily involved in the Boer War of 1899-1902 and the many army manoeuvres in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908, the Territorial Army was created, and at that time the Army Postal Corps became part of the Royal Engineers, (as the Army Postal Service), and the Post Office Rifles became an infantry unit, the 8th Bn, the London Regiment.

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Following discussions at the Washington Congress of the UPU it was agreed that small 'local' Unions could be formed to promote tariffs lower than those allowed by the UPU. The British Post Office inaugurated the Imperial Penny Post on 25th December 1898. This limited Union operated throughout the Empire and, subsequently, the Commonwealth until it was abolished in March 1975.


The war had little effect on the internal mail service. Although there were some early German attempts to shell towns on the East Coast and some raids by zeppelins, the strength of the Royal Navy and the ineffectiveness of aerial assault prevented any prolonged attacks. The main effect on internal services was a dramatic reduction in the number of postcards in the mails. From 1000 million in 1913 the figure had fallen to less than half when the next return was published in the mid1920s. The volume of mail had increased but the 'craze' for postcards had gone, never to return to the same extent.

The use of high-speed cancellation machines, which was well established by the outbreak of war, continued and in 1917 for the first time a slogan advertising BUY WAR BONDS NOW was included in the cancelling die. Three different designs were used in the last year of the war but these were then withdrawn and no new designs used until 1922.

The work of the UPU had been largely suspended by the war, but many countries continued to implement the agreements reached at the Rome Congress of 1906, the last one to have been held. When the British Post Office increased the rates for internal postage in 1917, the overseas rates were retained until the next Congress of 1920.

The war created major disruption in the overseas mail service. The introduction of censorship on a wide scale for the first time led to many major delays as did the submarine campaigns and the sinking of many ships. The problems of censorship led to the introduction of a unique service in 1915 which enabled the public to have letters accelerated through the censor by pre-payment of a fee of 2s 6d. This applied particularly to mail for the Americas and neutral Europe.

The Army Postal Service was involved in all the many campaigns fought during the war. Numbered Field P0 handstamps were issued down to brigade level, and in general terms, the original number issued was the number of the brigade itself. Detailed summaries of the allocation of numerals have been published.

In 1915 Army Intelligence discovered that, from a similar system used by the Germans, they were able to establish the order of battle. As a result, on the Western Front the numbers were interchanged as a security measure. Such systems did not apply in other theatres of war. British troops served in Italy, Greece, Egypt and Palestine as well as France. In 1919 an expeditionary force was sent to Russia to assist against the Bolsheviks. All of these had Field POs allocated. In addition the Army operated a number of TPOs in areas where transport by road had became too difficult or dangerous.

During unrest in Egypt in 1919 an aerial service was established to fly mail within Egypt and from Palestine to Cairo, the beginning of a new service which led to the establishment of the first international airmail service between Sofia and Salonika in 1918, was followed by the service to Germany after the war had ended. The improvement in the reliability of aircraft during the war was quickly noted by forward-thinking members of the Government and the Post Office. Although the Air Ministry refused all proposals on the grounds that aircraft were required for war purposes, the demand for an air service across the Channel was established and would operate once the war was over.

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Improvements in technology occasioned by the war led to improvements in the handling of mail. As we have seen, it had never been the policy of the Post Office to own its vehicles. Whether the carriage of mail was based on mail-coaches, railways, or motor vehicles, the use of contractors had avoided a massive investment in machinery and people. However, attitudes were changing, and from the 1920s onwards the Post Office began to purchase its own vehicles and the black bonnetted red vans became a feature of the roads of the country.

The volume of mail continued to grow but the complementary increase in the number of telephones owned by the public began to reduce the interchange of short personal messages on paper.

Within the United Kingdom a number of changes occurred during this period. Ireland, which had been part of Great Britain and Ireland since the Act of Union in 1707, became independent as the Irish Free State in 1922. The organization of the Irish post was no longer under control from Britain, but initially the stamps of Britain were used overprinted.

Although three postal slogans had been used in the war, no further examples were introduced until 1922. The first commemorative stamps were issued in Britain in 1924 for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. These were repeated in 1925 when the Exhibition was continued for a further year owing to bad weather and resulting low attendances in the opening year. Further sets of stamps were issued in 1929 for the UPU Congress, in 1935 for the Silver Jubilee of King George V and in 1937 for the Coronation of King George VI.

Although many European countries suffered from serious inflation in the inter-war years, Britain was affected to a much lesser extent. However, many changes of postal rate occurred during the first few years after the war; it was not until 1923 that stable charges were reestablished and these remained in force until 1940.

In 1928 a special airmail conference of the UPU was held in Holland. During the conference a delegation paid a visit to a firm which was manufacturing a machine for automatic sorting of letters. As a result, one of these machines, a Transorma, was installed in Brighton in 1935, the start of automatic sorting in Britain.

Towards the end of World War I, demand had arisen for the use of aircraft to carry mail. After the collapse of the German Army in 1918, the British army of occupation in the Rhineland found it difficult to get the mail to and from Germany because of the damage to roads and railways. As a result, an airmail service was established; initially from Marquise near Boulogne to Cologne with a number of stops, it was eventually opened direct from Hawkinge near Folkestone to Cologne.

Although this service ended after some eight months because the roads and railways had been improved and the size of the occupation force had been reduced, its success in its later stages inspired confidence to start the first direct service from London to Paris in November 1919. Throughout the early stages of the growth of the airmail service up to 1930 the mail was always charged an additional fee for carriage. This varied from country to country and ranged from an initial rate of 2s 6d to Paris in 1919 (reduced to 2d in 1920) to 8d to Russia. Similar charges to other continents were introduced as links were established to Africa and through Asia to Australia.

In the mid-1930s a proposal was made for an 'all-up' mail service to the Empire which was designed to bring airmail charges within the reach of everyone. As early as July 1930 a consolidated rate for mail to Europe (4d) had been introduced and this was followed by the 'all-up' rate of 1½d, which gradually spread across the air links of the Empire. It reached India in February 1938 and Hong Kong later the same year. The 'all-up' service was discontinued on the outbreak of war.

No direct air service existed to the USA until 1939. Attempts to fly the Atlantic from Newfoundland after 1920 had varying success, but the services in the reverse direction were not possible until flying boats were introduced from the west coast of Ireland. The service was barely started before it was closed by World War II.

The UPU had not met since 1906 when it assembled for the first time after the war at Madrid in 1920. The main outcome was the increase in the freedom to amend overseas rates. This enabled a number of anomalies to be removed and the subsequent Congresses at Stockholm (1926), London (1929) and Cairo (1935) all continued the work of the Union. In addition, a number of meetings were introduced on the international transfer of airmail, a growing problem.

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War was declared in September 1939 (the dates differed throughout the Commonwealth but in Britain the date was 3 September). It was the first total war to be fought in Europe, except for the Spanish Civil War of 1936-8, and brought the danger of death through bombing to every corner of the nation. For the first time for centuries there was a real danger of invasion and the whole country was affected by the blitz.

The Post Office had to face up to massive disruption within the country. In past wars the post at home had been almost unaffected, but this time the damage to transport systems, destruction of POs and the deployment of national assets to the general good all led to major changes in the usual patterns. Additionally, large numbers of the staff enlisted or were called up and new staff had to be recruited and trained.

The comparative calm of the first nine months of the war gave the necessary breathing space to enable the planning to commence, but when the bombing of London started in earnest in the autumn of 1940, delays were inevitable. In December 1942 the PO at Moorgate in the City was destroyed in a night raid; by mid-January a temporary P0 had been set up in an open space in Eldon Street and the service was back. This means of showing the nation that, despite all, there was a superficial normality did much to maintain the morale which was one of the highlights of this period of the war.

Before the war, steps were in hand, for the celebration of the centenary of the first postage stamp in May 1940. The intrusion of the war prevented any major exhibition, but a special set of stamps was issued. At much the same time the rates were increased for the first time since 1921. Before this there had been some discussion on the possibility of a special surcharge on internal postage rates to help pay for the war effort, but with the increase this plan was dropped.

Restriction on the supplies of raw materials led to changes in the inks used for printing stamps. The deep colours used for the common values were reduced in content, and lighter versions were issued in 1942. At the same time essays were produced for smaller stamps, though these were never issued.

The TPOs were discontinued but mail continued to be carried and delivered despite all the damage; constant reviews of the ways in which the mail routes could be shortened or improved continued throughout the war.

The foreign and colonial mail were greatly affected. In the early days of the war the only major changes were the increase in rates (the all-up service was discontinued in September 1939) and the re-introduction of censorship; however, this did not last long. With the fall of France in June 1940 the main routes to Africa, the Far East and Australia were closed, as was the service to South America, which had been flown via France. Mail was then flown to the USA and thence via Clipper across the Pacific. This route, though expensive, was even used for mail to Cyprus and Palestine almost circumnavigating the globe.

When Japan entered the war at the end of 1941 many services were interrupted or ceased altogether. Several alternatives were tried as the improvement in the range and reliability of aircraft enabled new routes to be considered. Through all these problems, which affected both sides in the war, the UPU based in Berne remained neutral and continued to provide help to both sides on the most suitable routes which were available.

The Forces Postal Service operated throughout and had Field POs in all theatres of war. Although some concessions in postal rates continued, the airmail services were charged. Later in the war the Airgram service was introduced, which enabled messages to be microfilmed, carried to the UK, enlarged and delivered. This enabled vast numbers of servicemen to maintain contact with home, a vital element for their morale.

Britain: 1939-1945
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1946 to date

When World War II ended, Britain was faced with an enormous task of reconstruction. This was accompanied by a period of austerity which, in terms of rationing, was more severe than during the war. The return to some degree of normality allowed the Post Office to introduce its own plans for expansion and development.

To the public the most obvious changes were in the telecommunications field. The development of the telephone service had by now begun to erode the use of postcards and short letters. The boom in industry balanced this loss, but over the next 25 years the continued improvement in verbal communications eventually led to the end of the internal telegraph service in 1982.

The shadow of inflation began to appear in the 1960s but it was not until the 1970s that the increase in the postal charges began to be seriously affected. The main letter rate had remained at 2½d from 1940 until 1958 and was still only 4d in 1968, when two-tier postage was introduced. This new system of first- and second-class services, which were initially introduced at 5d and 4d, most seriously affected the postcard service. There was no longer a special reduced rate and the volume slumped to less than 80 million cards in the early 1980s.

In 1971 the currency was decimalized: 100 new pence to £1. The rate at the time of the introduction was 13p and 2½p (7.2d and 6d), but the pressure of inflation caused all costs to increase rapidly. The rates were increased regularly on an annual basis until some degree of stability was achieved in 1982-3, when the first-class rate was raised to 16p. From 1984 onwards the ½p coin was demonetized and increments of increase had to be in units of 1p.

The public face of the Post Office had changed in many other ways. The number of collections and deliveries had been reduced. Partly this was due to union pressure and partly because the channels of communication had changed. The telephone was increasingly used for contact and the letter service suffered accordingly. The increasing costs of labour also had implications for the Post Office, which had always been a labour-intensive industry. The introduction of post codes as an aid to automatic sorting was a feature of the 1960s, and by 1978 the use of phosphor dots on covers and phosphorized paper on stamps led to an increased ability to sort letters electronically.

However, the pressures on the Post Office following its final separation from telecommunications in 1981 led to a modification in the Post Office monopoly. For the first time deliveries of Christmas cards could be organized on a local basis and Express Delivery services were also opened to competition. Nevertheless, the strength of the Post Office was not seriously affected and it still remains as an important social force in the nation.

Overseas the main changes were in the continued transfer of mail from ships to aircraft. This had been foreshadowed by improvements in the performance of long-distance flying during the war. By 1951 the mail to Europe was all carried by aircraft and no supplement was paid; the Atlantic service was no longer a problem and the whole world was criss-crossed by airmail carrying services. The time taken for mail by ships became increasingly unacceptable.

The UPU continued to meet regularly every five years but, although its importance for the standardization of international rates continued, its effect on new services began to decline. Its most important contribution continued to be the regularization of international accounting systems and simplification of the transfer of mail between countries.

Militarily, the post-war period witnessed many minor campaigns in which British troops and the Forces Postal Service were involved. Field POs were operating throughout the world, and most notably in Hong Kong, Korea, Kenya, Aden, Cyprus, with British Forces in Germany, and, more recently, in Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands. This was followed in 1990-91 by the Gulf War and more recently by the Peace Keeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo.

In 1985 the Post Office celebrated the 350th anniversary of the opening of the inland Post Office to the public. Over three and a half centuries it has changed from a largely social and political intelligence network to a major force in the transmission of commercial information. It has been the spearhead of many technical innovations and, despite the many changes in the size and format of the service, has faced up to the needs of the public in peace and war alike.

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After 1990
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Britain: MLOs 1985
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For details of the Gulf War 1990-1991, see the section on Kuwait, under the Persian Gulf.


FIRST STAMPS British stamps from 1840.


Independent kingdom in the north of Britain which became unified with England and Wales when James VI of Scotland became James I of England on the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. Although the culture of the country has remained separate, government operations have been integrated, and apart from the Jacobite revolts of 1715 and 1745 control has been vested in London. Attempts to establish a separate devolved government in the 1 970s failed on a referendum. Scotland has a Postal Board, which is responsible for the postal service.

Early posts in Scotland followed much the same pattern as their English counterparts and, although different styles of postmark were used, the method of operation between the two countries remained the same. One slightly different feature in the pre1840 rates was the additional ½d tax, which was applied to all vehicles with more than two wheels that crossed the border. This tax was instituted to help pay for the maintenance of roads.

Agitation for different stamp designs for the region started in the 1940s and received support from the Post Office. However, these did not appear until the general issue of regional stamps in 1958. They now take the form of the standard 'Machin Head' design with the inclusion of the 'Lion of Scotland'.

This continued until devolution in 1999 when a more specifically Scottish series of designs for the First and Second class rates, the 'E' rate and the 64p double airmail letter rate were introduced.


FIRST STAMPS British stamps from 1840.


Principality in the west of Britain which was subdued by Edward I in 1283-4. His son, subsequently Edward II, was the first Prince of Wales. Despite subsequent revolts, the Welsh have remained part of Britain ever since.

Wales has remained part of the British Post Office since its inception. It has generally used British types of marking and has been particularly important as the base for Irish mail. The first regional issues for Wales and Monmouthshire were introduced in 1958 and now show the 'Machin Head' incorporating the 'Dragon of Wales'.

This continued until devolution in 1999 when a more specifically Welsh series of designs for the First and Second class rates, the 'E' rate and the 64p double airmail letter rate were introduced.

Northen Ireland

FIRST STAMPS British stamps from 1840.


Separated from the rest of Ireland (q.v.) in 1922 when the Irish Free State was formed. Has remained an integral part of the United Kingdom and is one of the Regions of the British Post Office.

Integrated with Ireland before 1922, Northern Ireland, or Ulster, has been part of the British Post Office for more than 200 years. Complete sets of special stamps have not been issued but a selection of the most popular values have been released with the insignia of the 'Hand of Ulster'.

Unlike Scotland and Wales there was no devolution in Northern Ireland by direct election. For a limited period a form of devolved Government was in existence but owing to the problem of disarmament, control was returned to Westminster after a very short period.

Since 1970 British Forces POs have operated to provide the service for the garrison which has been stationed there.

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