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Royal Mail and the TS Royalist

Royal Mail / 18 August 2016

As part of its 500 year celebrations, Royal Mail and Sea Cadet training ship ‘TS Royalist’ have recreated the voyage of a historic mail ‘packet’ ship.

Having set sail from Greenock in Scotland on Sunday 14 August 2016, Sea Cadets delivered mail to postal workers in Liverpool’s Canning Half Tide dock on the morning of Thursday 18 August. The TS Royalist flew a specially commissioned sail showing Royal Mail’s 500th anniversary logo.

Alongside the dock was a replica mail coach and horses, similar to the London to Holyhead coach which began operation in 1785. These mail coaches played a vital role in opening up the mail network, connecting London to Holyhead in a little over 24 hours. 

The history of packet ships and post

Packet boats were small boats designed for domestic mail, passenger, and freight transportation in European countries and their colonies, including North American rivers and canals. Packet craft were used extensively in European coastal mail and gradually added passenger accommodation. 

From 1660, packet ships ran regularly from Harwich to Holland. This is because Holland was a major international trade partner for Britain. Both the ships and crew were contracted, not directly employed by Royal Mail. These times were often not safe for travel by sea and the packets and mail were attacked. There were official compensation rates for death or injury - £8 for a sailor's arm or leg, £4 for an eye.

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. They were also used extensively to convey postal packets and passengers within UK coastal waters, between the UK and Ireland and Internationally.

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.

Packet sailing ships were replaced by the advent of steam packets, which were used todeliver mail across the British Empire and the Commonwealth. This led to the founding of Royal Mail Steam Packet  (RMSP) company in 1839 by a Scot, James Macqueen. A year later, the Royal Mail Ships (RMS) designation was introduced. 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.

RMSP company operated 14 specially built steam vessels designed to carry Queen Victoria’s mail to Barbados in the West Indies from Southampton and Falmouth. The ships set sail twice a month. Facing competition from the new luxury Blue Star Line, RMSP introduced 22,200 gross register tonnage (GRT) liners - the largest motor ships in the world. After running into financial difficulty, RMSP was formally taken over by the newly formed Royal Mail Lines Ltd (RML) in 1932. In 1965, RML was bought by British transport company, Furness, Withy & Co.

Celebrating 500 years of the postal service

During its 500 years celebrations, Royal Mail is recreating several historic journeys, from some of the earliest routes of the Mailcoach to the first Airmail flight. The TS Royalist’s sea voyage has been made possible thanks to the co-operation of the Sea Cadets, a national charity which provides life changing nautical adventure for young people  together with personal and professional development opportunities for seafarers with the Marine Society.

Royal Mail Operations Director Geoff Braden said, “Advancements in global travel make it very easy to forget the romance – and the very real danger – of delivering mail hundreds of years ago. This voyage honours the dedication of all the individuals – from mailcoach drivers, to pilots, to sailors – who have delivered letters and parcels over the centuries. In addition to celebrating this prestigious milestone, this voyage is about connecting the people who deliver day in day out for this great company.  We are indebted to TS Royalist for their co-operation and thank the cadets on board for transporting the mail!”

Martin Coles, CEO Sea Cadets said, “We’re delighted to be helping Royal Mail.  The Sea Cadet movement is all about giving young people life changing experiences and building opportunities for young people to learn new skills and forge friendships.  This is another great chance for cadets to be part of something special and put it on their CV.’

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