The History of Royal Mail Through the Ages

13th February 2019

Last week saw the celebration of ‘National Thank a Mail Carrier Day’, so to help commemorate the occasion, we have taken a look back on Royal Mail’s evolution through the ages…

We have been writing messages to each other in some form since the beginning of time. The Lascaux Cave paintings in France, which date from 17,000 years ago, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, that date from the Bronze Age up to 4th century AD, are evidence of this.

But it wasn’t until Charles I reign in the 1600s that sending messages to someone to another part of the country became possible in England.The first public postal services began back in 1635, when mounted post-boys carried letters delivered to the local postmaster, who exchanged mailbags and provided fresh horses for the post-boys.

During the next two centuries, England would continue to have some form of public postal service, where letters were couriered around on horseback.

Mail on the move

Fast forward to the 1800s, and this was the century that would witness the birth of industrialisation, the introduction of the railways and the continual transformation of the postal system.

Steam boats marked the new era in postal services in 1821. The first boats set sail from Anglesey’s Holyhead, followed shortly by those in Dover, Milford Haven, Portpatrick and Liverpool.

Seventeen years later and the rapid advancement in the postal delivery service truly began.


During the next 50 years the postal service would undergo great reform:

  • In 1838 the first Travelling Post Office was born – a special railway carriage, (a converted horsebox) was used for the sorting of mail whilst en-route;
  • Stamps were brought in in 1839 alongside unified postage rates that meant letters and parcels were costed based on weight rather than the distance they were being sent, and generally required the sender to pay up front, not the receiver;
  • The Penny Black was the first adhesive stamp introduced in May 1840, and more than 68 million were sold in the first year;
  • The first Pillar Box, devised by the famous Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, was erected in 1852, which meant people no longer had to travel for miles to send a letter. They were subsequently painted in the famous colour red in 1874 and eventually given listed status in the 1960s;
  • Taking over five private telegraph companies, the Post Office created a state-operated telegraph service in 1870;
  • In 1883 the parcel post service started for the first time. Before this, the railways were used to transport parcels, but not Royal Mail. Letter carriers were renamed as postmen and started carrying parcels as well as letters;
  • In 1885 special mail trains, exclusively for Post Office use, were introduced between London Euston and Aberdeen;
  • By 1895 67 cycle posts had been established throughout the country, using both bicycles and tricycles.

1900s onwards

Several years before the WW1 broke out, the Post Office bought its first van a ‘Maudslay No. 1’ in 1907, costing £727, which covered 300,000 miles during its first 18 years on the road.

Shortly after the First World War ended in 1919, the first public overseas airmail service began flying between London and Paris initially, and then latterly to Holland, Belgium and Morocco.

Airmail would eventually revolutionise communication around the globe, connecting communities from far flung corners of the world. This service would prove invaluable during the Second World War.

Despite the outbreak of WW2, the postal service continued to operate and the postal engineers played a significant part in aiding the D-Day victories.

Post-war period

The post war period brought in new changes to the postal service. Postcodes were introduced in 1959 (which would take until 1974 to complete), and a new mechanical way of sorting the post was designed to overcome the labour-intensive task which was completed manually up until that point.

In the 1980s the system was given another overhaul as the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) system was introduced. This meant computers could now read addresses and handwritten envelopes to sort tens of thousands of letters an hour.

The birth of modernisation

Like every indstry, the postal service enhanced as each new technology emerged. During the 1980s and 1990s the sector would witness the increased reliance on computers, such as Integrated Mail Processors introduced in 1997, to automate systems and processes to make it more efficient.

The dawn of the new millennium saw in a state-of-the-art AI-powered sorting office at Heathrow, that contains over seven miles of conveyors linking eight integrated mail processors, three flat sorting machines and a purpose build packet sorting machine. This machine uses voice-coding technology to sort packets – a first in the world.

2010 to present day

Since the appointment of Moya Greene, Royal Mail Group’s first female CEO in 2010, the organisation has undergone significant change.

The Post Office separated from Royal Mail; and after a few hundred years of Government ownership, Royal Mail listed on the London Stock Market at 8.00am on 15 October, with the first shares trading at 478.00p.

Despite competition from new methods of communication in the form of social media, Royal Mail is going strong, and in 2016 it marked its 500th year in operation.

But like any organisation, has not been immune to the seismic shift in consumer trends, and as a result the business has diversified and is continually adapting its services to meet the needs of the modern age.

For a more comprehensive look into Royal Mail’s history, visit Royal Mail Heritage.

Despite technological advances, mail is and always has been a powerful method of communication. Find out how you can use mail to your advantage and contact us on 01322 414 000 or click here to send us a message.