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By land, sea and air: 500 years of delivering the mail

Royal Mail / 03 May 2016

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During 500 years of the postal service, new ways of working have been embraced to deliver mail faster and more efficiently, often resulting in broader benefits to society at large.

As the postal service became a key channel for communication, deliveries were required to be as quick and efficient as possible. This led to a number of innovations from horse-drawn carriages in the late 1700s, steam-driven packet ships in the early 1800s, trains in 1911 and planes with the first overseas airmail flight taking place in 1918. These advances in technology helped open communications with the Commonwealth and drove social advances such as improvements in literacy skills.

Horse power

Under the postal system which was set up five hundred years ago, each town had to have three horses available to transport packets of royal letters, and bring back news to the Royal court. In 1512, the King appointed a Brian Tuke, the first Master of the Posts to run the system.

He ensured that busy towns had to keep a special stable, known as a post (leading to the modern day term for delivering mail), ready to carry mail at a moment's notice. Four years later, Brian Tuke was knighted - the catalyst for the creation of the Royal Mail we know today. 

Moving to wheels

As the postal service became the country’s key communication channel, pressure mounted to deliver letters more quickly. In 1784, horse drawn coaches featuring the Royal Mail livery were deployed for the first time to transport the mail. The rollout followed a trial run between Bristol and London. The coaches averaged 7 to 8 miles per hour in summer and 5 miles per hour in winter with fresh horses supplied every 10 to 15 miles. The speed of the coaches meant that the 400 mile journey time from London to Edinburgh was completed in about 60 hours compared to 96 hours by a horse.

The trial proved to be a success and in 1785 led to the launch of new routes from London to Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead and Carlisle. A service to Edinburgh was added a year later.

The introduction of mail coaches assisted with the development of one, uniform time across the UK rather than having times which varied by region. In the 1780s, local time varied from place to place, and could not be accurately maintained. The postal service played a huge role in bringing about the change as collections were governed by a uniform time regardless of where they took place. A standardised time system (GMT) was first introduced on the railways on December 11, 1847 with the vast majority of Great Britain's public clocks were standardised to GMT by 1855.

Setting sail

In the 17th century, international trade was exclusively carried out by sea. Packet ships were used for this trade and proved essential for delivering mail to and from the colonies. While officially the captains of packet ships were forbidden to engage larger ships in battle, in 1793, the packet ship Antelope successfully fired on the French Privateer ‘Atlanta’ until she surrendered. A privateer was a vessel authorised by a government to attack foreign vessels during wartime.

Prior to this attack, the Antelope had been captured twice before, by the French, and ransomed back to the English. The crew successfully defended the mail and the packets on board and were hailed as heroes when they arrived back in England.

In 1821, steam-driven packet ships were introduced to deliver mail across the British Empire and the Commonwealth. This led to the founding of Royal Mail Ships (RMS) in 1840. Only ships which were contracted to carry mail were allowed to feature the designation. The ships proved popular with passengers as they ran on strict timings to ensure that mail was delivered on time.

Rail mail

The General Post Office and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway reached an agreement that saw the start of mail being carried by train in 1830. The first route was between Liverpool and Manchester. This led to the passing of the Railways (Conveyance of Mails) Act in 1838 which required railway companies to carry mail by ordinary or special Travelling Post Office (TPO) trains.

Over 100 years later, the GPO Film Unit produced Night Mail which celebrated the London, Midland and Scottish railway mail train. The film famously includes a verse commentary written by York-born poet W.H. Auden. The verse begins: ‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border/Bringing the cheque and the postal order’.

By 1963, there were 49 mail trains in operation, with one to five TPOs carriages attached to passenger trains. Complete TPO trains ran between London and Aberdeen and Penzance. The use of railways for transporting mail declined towards the end of the 20th century and the last TPO service ran on 9 January 2004.

With rail operating above ground, the 1860s saw the start of explorations of underground rails taking place. The Pneumatic Dispatch Company built an underground tube that linked Eversholt Street with Euston Station in London. It was later extended to the Royal Mail Headquarters building at St. Martin’s Le Grand. Acting on the peashooter principle, railcars were sucked or blown through the sealed tube at speeds up to 35 mph. A pre-cursor to Mail Rail, the pneumatic railway, the project was doomed to fail and the Pneumatic Dispatch Company wound up in 1876.

Taking to the skies

Experiments with air travel took off in the early twentieth century with the first powered air flight taking place on 17 December 1903. Almost eight years later, the first scheduled airmail service flew from Hendon to Windsor. The historic flight was part of the celebrations for the Coronation of King George V.

Seven years later in 1918, the UK’s first overseas airmail service began. It was a joint venture between the Royal Air Force and the British Army Post Office (BAPO). The route operated between Folkestone and Cologne. Additional routes quickly developed and within thirty years, Britain was the world’s largest carrier of airmail.

From 10 million airmail letters per year in 1935, numbers doubled annually, reaching over 91 million in 1938. The highest total of outward bound airmail excluding parcels was in 1976-7 when 528,000,000 were carried.

Motorised mail

The first motor vehicle entered service at Royal Mail in 1907. It was a two and a half tonne lorry called the Maudslay Stores Number 1. It was in operation for 18 years during which it covered over 300,000 miles.

Since the launch of the first motor vehicle, Royal Mail’s vans and lorries have become a familiar sight on Britain’s streets over the years, changing their make and shape in line with prevailing trends. Many of these historic vehicles are now stored at Royal Mail’s archive in Debden, Essex and include the famous Morris Minor vans and the iconic Land Rover Defender.

The company now delivers to more than 29 million addresses across the country, six days a week as part of the Universal Service Obligation (USO). Today Royal Mail operates a fleet of more than 49,000 vehicles, many of which are all-terrain vehicles, aerodynamic, and utilise a Heavy Goods Vehicle telemetry system to improve the fuel efficiency of the fleet.

More unusual methods of delivery

  • In the 19th century, a postman didn’t always deliver the mail on land. The River Postman received and delivered mail to the moored ships in the Pool of London, the stretch of the River Thames from London Bridge to below Limehouse. The position continued until 1952.

  • Legend has it that between 1830 and 1850, mail was conveyed between Chichester and Arundel, Sussex, in a cart drawn by four large dogs, and that this cart was once the victim of an attempted robbery by highwaymen.

  • In the hope of speeding up postal deliveries in 1930, central London almost had its very own monorail. Railplane, the brainchild of George Benn, was designed to run above the trainline between Croydon and the Holborn Viaduct, cutting journey times from one hour to ten minutes. Although a test line was set up in Glasgow it was never progressed.

  • German businessman, Gerhard Zucker tried to convince the General Post Office that postal delivery by rocket was viable and carried out several experiments in 1934. Although initials tests were a success rockets on longer flights exploded before reaching their intended destinations and as such it has never been seen as a feasible way of delivering the post.

  • Throughout history, pigeons have been used as a means of getting messages betweenparties. Pigeon post offered a fast and reliable service and became a vital means of communication during the First World War. By the end of the war there were 22,000 pigeons in service. In 1943, the PDSA Dickin Medal was instituted to honour the work of animals in the war. 16 pigeons were awarded the medal during the Second World War for acts of bravery and courage.

  • The first ever Hovercraft mail service in the world travelled from Rhyl on the north coast of Wales to Wallasey on 20 July 1962. The original plan was to make twelve crossings a day, carrying passengers and mail from July to September every year. However, the full twelve a day services were only completed on six of the 54 days of intended operation because of strong winds and continued engine failure. Its last trip was on Friday 14 September 1962.

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