Tag Archives: parcel post

130 years of the parcel post

Today marks the 130th Anniversary of the Parcel Post, which began on 1st August 1883. At the time, the service was regarded as the greatest revolution in the postal system since the introduction of Uniform Penny Postage some 40 years previously.

The BPMA Archives contains a wealth of material on the Parcel Post and this blog is by no means intended to be an exhaustive account. Instead, I hope to give a brief overview of the context behind the introduction of the service and some idea of its impact.

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

Cover of the first parcel delivered in the UK by Parcel Post. Sent by Mr F.E. Baines, Inspector General of Mails, who was responsible for organising the new service. (Portfolio Collection)

The idea for a Parcel Post was suggested by Rowland Hill as early as 1842 and was raised again by Hill’s younger brother Frederick in the 1860s. In the meantime, the Post Office did go some way towards a parcels service by launching the popular Book Post service in 1848 followed by the Pattern Post (a service for posting manufacturer’s samples, a sort of early version of catalogue shopping) in 1863.

It was of course possible to send a parcel before 1883 and there were several large courier companies operating nationwide parcel services using stage coaches. By 1850, the Railway Companies had monopolised the market, making them a powerful opponent to any Post Office enterprise. The Post Office had previously tried at length to negotiate with the Railway Companies during the late 1860s, but to no avail.

The impetus for the Post Office to re-enter negotiations with the Railway Companies was provided by the Universal Postal Union Conference, held in Paris in 1880. Delegates proposed the establishment of an International Parcel Post, to commence in 1882. In order to participate, the British Post Office would first need to establish an Inland Parcel Post service.

This task fell to the then Postmaster-General Professor Henry Fawcett. Fawcett was a strong advocate for Parcel Post and in a letter to his father in April 1883, he cited the Parcel Post as top of his list of 5 things he felt needed to be done within the Post Office. His main concern was to prevent any ‘dislocation of the letter service’. Fawcett was assisted in the negotiations by Mr F.E. Baines, who was appointed the Inspector General of Mails in 1882 and had the honour of sending the first parcel by ‘Parcel Post’.

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption 'Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

A newspaper cartoon of Henry Fawcett, April 1882, with the caption ‘Mr. Fawcett, the very popular and successful Postmaster-General, had explained in the House of Commons the details of the new Parcels Post arrangements, which were to convey and deliver packages up to a certain limit of weight, at a fixed charge irrespective of distance. (POST 118/5097)

The Railway Companies eventually agreed to terms which would give them 55% of the gross postage of all parcels carried by rail and The Post Office (Parcels) Act was passed on 18th August 1882, with nearly a full year passing until the service could be brought into operation in 1st August 1883. Given the scale of the preparations involved, it is rather remarkable that this was achieved in only a year!

The introduction of the Parcel Post meant rebuilding or adapting nearly 1,000 Head or Branch Post Offices, as well as arranging collection and distribution in more than 15,000 postal districts. It also meant an immediate change to the workload of the former letter carriers – now to be known at postmen.

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

A sorting office with rows of sorting baskets, there are men standing between baskets and around tables. (2010-0412/1)

Wicker baskets and handcarts were required for sorting and transporting parcels, each Post Office counter required scales and were issued with specifically designed cork handstamps to cancel the stamps on parcels. Every letter carrier’s walk had to be altered so they did not have too heavy a load and allowances were made for the use of a horse and cart, tricycle or pony to aid parcel delivery.

Crucially, the public had to be made aware of the new service and four-page handbills were distributed to every household in the British Isles notifying the changes.

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

Notice, dated 12th July 1883 providing instructions to the Sub-Postmaster of ‘Broadwood Widger’ (in West Devon) for the new Parcels Post service – known simply as ‘Parcel Post’ from 1884. (Portfolio Collection)

The scale of the task facing the Post Office was described – rather poetically – by the Telegraph in July 1883:

Never before did any Commercial House leap all at once into so gigantic a concern, with 15,000 agencies and thirty-five million possible in these three kingdoms, never before, it is thought, was a Government department put to so severe a test as that which, twelve days hence, will await the one over which Professor Fawcett presides.

The launch attracted a significant amount of press attention, with the Daily News concluding on 2nd August 1883 that:

on the whole, the very important and very anxious experiment of yesterday seems to have passed off satisfactorily.

Fawcett himself appears to have been similarly understated in his conclusion, and his account three days after the launch of the service stated that

the only difficulty has arisen from the public inexperience in the art of packing.

Parcel Post saw the introduction of variety of carts and cycles as new ways of transporting the heavy mails had to be found. It also prompted a return to long distance haulage by road and the introduction of horse-drawn parcel mail coaches in 1887, which were operated under contract. This service carried parcels overnight along the principle routes out of London, which for such heavy mails were a cheaper alternative that the railways.

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

A postman pushes a hand cart with a large GPO basket on it along a promenade, 1938. The basket contains mail unloaded from the Canadian Pacific Railways liner Duchess of Bedford at Greenock. Beginning its journey in places such as New Zealand and China, once unloaded, the mail was then sorted in the open air ‘sorting office’ of the Princes Pier before being despatched for delivery across the United Kingdom. (POST 118/851)

Rather amusingly, it would appear that the public were quick to test the limits of the new service, with the Daily News reporting that:

At Leicester Square a colander was posted to a resident in the Temple, and one or two wooden spoons. At Euston, half a ham was found in one of the mails and at the Waterloo depot, cricket bats and tin kettles were among the articles dealt with.

Accounts also include a coffin shaped package sent from a Poplar undertaker to a workhouse master in Norfolk… Perhaps my favourite ‘strange enclosure’ tale is that of a gentleman who requested that the Post Office deliver a snake! After an initial refusal, the customer explained that the snake was in fact a pet ‘who had been on a visit’ (sadly the account does not specify where it had been!) and it was subsequently delivered by special messenger.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Parcel Post was not a financial success at first. The estimates for both the number of parcels sent and the average weight  – estimated by Baines at 7d a parcel, but on average only 5½d – were higher than those realised. By 1885, the Post Office was handling 26.5 million parcels per annum, increasing to 50 million by the 1890s.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the now Royal Mail were still the number one parcel carrier, processing and delivering 175 million packages annually, using 30 special parcel sorting centres and a fleet of 27,000 vehicles. Competition from private competitors has had a significant impact on parcel services, but many the innovations brought about by the introduction of the Parcel Post helped to shape the modern Post Office and the organisation which most of us are familiar with today.

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce's major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

A parcel delivery to Pilkington Glass at St. Helens, Merseyside, one of Parcelforce’s major contract customers. Image used in The Post Office Reports and Accounts, 1989-1990. (010-005-001)

- Sarah Jenkins, Curatorial Assistant

Visit us on Flickr to see images of the Parcel Post dating from the 1880s to the 1980s.

From Pillar to Post: GPO London Walking tour

From Pillar to Post is a London walking tour centred on the history of the GPO (General Post Office), specifically its early presence and impact in central London. It is a brilliant way to spend a weekend morning, discovering the fascinating history hidden within London’s streets. The two hour tour starts in Farringdon and ends in Bank, uncovering along the way the rich postal heritage of London’s roads and buildings, interwoven with the City’s wider history.

The tour began outside the old Metropolitan Railway Parcels office at Farringdon station. Like today, there was no monopoly on the parcel post and you could pay many different companies to deliver your parcel for you. The various disparate railway companies provided a regular, well honed parcel service, if a little complicated and expensive when utilising more than one company at a time. In an endeavour to create a nationwide service the GPO commenced its own Parcels Post in 1883. They initially made a loss having overestimated the number of parcels that would be delivered.

The Metropolitan Railway Parcels Office is still part of Farringdon station.

The Metropolitan Railway Parcels Office is still part of Farringdon station.

The telephone kiosks introduced by the GPO are well illustrated in Smithfield meat market, with an eye-catching row of the iconic K2 and K6 red kiosks. Both were designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (later Sir). Sir Gilbert Scott also designed Battersea power station and Bankside Power station, now Tate Modern. The K2 kiosk is almost certainly based on the tomb of Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect. Sir John Soane’s tomb is one of only two grade one listed tombs in London – the other tomb is that of Karl Marx.

K2 and K6 telephone kiosks in Smithfield's Market.

K2 and K6 telephone kiosks in Smithfield’s Market.

Next stop on the tour was St Bart’s Hospital, West Smithfield, where we passed an old and inconspicuous wall box. Companies would often have their own wall box for their mail that they would then pay the GPO to collect from. The large ‘A’ sized example at Bart’s not only incorporates two peculiar angled apertures, but also a door situated outside the hospital so that may can be collected even if the gates are shut.

Wall box front, St Barts Hospital.

Wall box front, St Barts Hospital.

We then came across the four huge buildings that formerly made up a GPO empire. The King Edward building, former GPO headquarters and previously a home to the National Postal Museum, is now owned by Merrill Lynch. A hint of its former GPO importance is indicated by a sculpture in the wall of the building depicting a Caduceus; a Staff with two entwined snakes, belonging to Mercury/ Hermes, messenger to the Gods. Around the corner stands the statue of a hero of the GPO, Rowland Hill – the creator of the Uniform Penny Post. This is known to most as that which gave us the 1d black postage stamp, the first in the World, helping to open the postal service to all.

Statue of Rowland Hill.

Statue of Rowland Hill.

The tour continued on the other side of the road with a walk through Postman’s Park, adjacent to another former GPO Head office – GPO North. The park has a rich history of its own but it was so called because of its proximity to the former GPO buildings and the popularity of the park with GPO workers resting there between duties. In the park is also sited a memorial established by the painter George Frederick Watts. This consists of a series of plaques that commemorate those often unheralded elsewhere, who had performed heroic deeds (some of whom were children) and all of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice. As you exit the park be sure to notice the bench dedicated to ‘the Central Telegraph Office female staff who helped keep communications open during two world wars’.

We then passed close by St Paul’s station, previously called simply Post Office. Opened in 1900, this station was named Post Office because of its close proximity to the number of large, important and impressive GPO buildings in that area. At the time, another station nearby was known as St Paul’s, and has since been renamed Blackfriars.

The guide continued with stories of the days when the mail was carried by mail coaches across the country, revolutionising mail delivery and the speed at which it travelled and could be received. John Palmer, a theatre owner from Bath, conducted a successful trial run of a mail coach travelling from Bath to London in 13 hours (with the usual time taken being nearly triple this). From then on the time gained by delivering mail by mail coaches was clear and postal delivery was revolutionised. Many of the mail coaches set off from London along the Great Roads from The General Post Office. Just prior to the First World War this office was pulled down to widespread public outcry. Already proving too small for the increase in mail volume, it had earlier proved popular as a gathering point for the public who would assemble to observe the spectacle of the departing mail coaches. Smaller mail vans were hazardous to the unwary; Charles Dickens recorded the death of a pedestrian under the wheels of a galloping mail van in a neighbouring street in Little Dorritt.

The tour also touched on the Post Office Underground Railway that runs underneath some of the areas traversed on the tour. Work on the Railway began prior to the First World War, and was then halted due to the War – with the underground tunnels used to store artworks from museums and galleries such as the National Gallery. The railway opened in 1927. It was used to transport mail using driverless trains, underneath London, to the mainline stations which provided access across the country. Built partially to avoid the traffic congestion overhead, some might argue that little has changed in London today. However, with the closure of most of the large sorting and distribution offices, routing of mail outside London and cessation of use of the London railway termini for mail purposes meant that the requirement for a bespoke underground railway, by now renamed Mail Rail, was no more.

By the time of Mail Rail, the transport revolution had been going for many years with the GPO availing themselves of the opportunities available. Mail was first carried on overland trains in 1830. Again the innovation of the GPO is evident; mail carried by trains was instituted soon after experimentation with the railways and train travel first began.

We came across quite a few pillar boxes on our journey around London. The well known novelist, Anthony Trollope, is credited with the introduction of the first British pillar box, when working as a Surveyors Clerk for the GPO. The pillar box was trialled in the Channel Islands in 1852 and similar boxes were introduced to the streets of the UK mainland by 1853. The first pillar boxes appeared in London in 1855 though no examples of these survive today. Possibly one of the most popular of all the pillar boxes is the Penfold, the only pillar box named after its designer and famously used as the name of Dangermouse’s sidekick.

Towards the end of our tour we came across Post Office Court EC3 near to where the former Lloyds coffee house is situated. Lloyds coffee house provided the shipping news and therefore was very popular with those travelling overseas. Some of the many Coffee Houses in the area acted as Letter Receiving Houses for a burgeoning postal service, though there were many accusations of improper payments and favouritism.

Post Office Court EC3 street sign.

Post Office Court EC3 street sign.

The tour ends outside the National Exchange and the imposing Bank of England, by Bank station. Here stands a First World War memorial that also commemorates the role of the London Regiment, City of London Battalions and the 8th Battalion (Post Office Rifles), providing a fitting and sombre end to the tour.

War Memorial outside the Bank of England.

War Memorial outside the Bank of England.

I would very much recommend the walking tour for its fascinating overview of the City’s streets, buildings and secret histories. I have only touched on some of the subjects and sights experienced. A subsequent visit to our museum store in Debden is a great way to complement the tour and see the actual objects that are part of this rich tapestry of postal history.

The walking tours are run in conjunction with the BPMA, and led by Cityguides. The next tour is on Saturday 26 January at 11am. There’s no need to book, just turn up on the day. For more information please see our website.

- Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

Foreign Postal Workers

Like many Museums and Archives, we have a number of items in our collection which we don’t know very much about. The recent cataloguing of lantern slides, mostly dating from the early 20th Century, brought to our attention a number which show images of postal workers from around the world. While many are illustrative of the British Post Office’s international operations (there are a few showing Indian postal workers and the Indian Post Office was under British control at this point) it is unclear exactly why these lantern slides were produced.

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a group of men and women Post Office officials. (2012-0030/19)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a group of men and women Post Office officials. (2012-0030/19)

One theory is that they could have been shown to students at the London Postal School (LPS), which trained postal workers in a variety of duties. Perhaps the slides were used to highlight to the trainees that by working for the General Post Office (GPO) they were part of a global communications network? However, this does seem a little counter to the very practical emphasis at LPS, where a typical lesson saw students role-playing various scenarios, including counter transactions.

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a Landes postman on stilts delivering a letter to a woman, France. There is another woman standing on the door-step behind and a man seated in front of a spinning wheel in the bottom right hand corner. (2012-0030/04)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a Landes postman on stilts delivering a letter to a woman, France. There is another woman standing on the door-step behind and a man seated in front of a spinning wheel in the bottom right hand corner. (2012-0030/04)

Another theory is that the slides were used in magic lantern slide shows, which were a very popular form of entertainment at the turn of the 20th Century. Lanterns shows could cover a variety of subjects, and slides such as the ones in our collection may have been produced for GPO lantern shows or acquired from other shows due to their postal connection.

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a parcel postwoman standing beside the horse of the horse-drawn mail coach, Germany. (2012-0030/02)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a parcel postwoman standing beside the horse of the horse-drawn mail coach, Germany. (2012-0030/02)

Whatever the reason for their existence, these slides give us a fascinating insight into postal operations around the world, including the myriad of uniforms and modes of transport employed by different postal administrations. One particularly nice example shows a postman in a top hat riding a donkey!

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a rural postman in Dominica, British West Indies, wearing a light blue top hat, white trousers and a blue jacket whilst riding a white donkey. (2012-0030/16)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a rural postman in Dominica, British West Indies, wearing a light blue top hat, white trousers and a blue jacket whilst riding a white donkey. (2012-0030/16)

In addition to the images illustrating this blog we have uploaded a number to our Flickr site. Search our online catalogue to see more of our lantern slides.

New Wilkinson Collection Records: Cigarette Cards

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

Amongst the records recently added to our online catalogue were groups of cigarette cards that are part of the Wilkinson Collection. These had previously been kept as part of the Secondary Collection however, after doing a bit more research it was decided that they would be a welcome addition to the catalogue. Whilst the quality of the images on these cards is, inevitably, not always the best, they are often very interesting, giving a flavour of life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Cigarette cards are trading cards introduced by tobacco companies to stiffen cigarette packaging as well as to advertise different brands of tobacco. On one side of the cards would be a picture, ranging from the famous actors or sports personalities of the day, through to city views and landscapes. Cards were normally produced in sets of 25 or 50 for customers to collect and you could also buy albums to put the cards in. These cost just a shilling, which would have been viable at least for the middle classes, and possibly for some of the working class as well.

It may surprise some readers to learn that quite a few of the sets released had postal themes. These cards showed a range of subjects relating to the postal service both in Britain and across the British Empire, including historical events or figures, stamps from different countries, as well as technological advances in delivering the mail. This range can be shown in the following cards from our collection.

Number 31 of a series of 50 Wills cigarette cards, entitled ‘English Military Post Office (Foreign Service)’

Number 31 of a series of 50 Wills cigarette cards, entitled ‘English Military Post Office (Foreign Service)’ (2010-0383/31)

The first card shows a Foreign Service Post Office with men dressed in khaki military uniform opening mail bags in front of their tents. This is probably a depiction of a Post Office from either the Boer or First World War. On the back of each card there is always some information about the subject depicted and I think this one speaks for itself:

No one realizes the benefit and blessing of Post Office activity and resource more than the soldier and his relatives in war time. The Post Office enables him to keep in touch with the old home…the postal officials share the hardships, inconveniences and dangers of the campaign.

Number 16 of the ‘Romance of the Royal Mail’ series entitled ‘An Early Mail Van’

Number 16 of the ‘Romance of the Royal Mail’ series entitled ‘An Early Mail Van’ (2010-0384/16)

The second card I’ve chosen is part of the ‘Romance of the Royal Mail’ series produced jointly by Royal Mail and W.H. & J. Woods Ltd which shows an early motorised mail van. The Post Office was among the first of the public services to take advantage of motor transport. In 1898 motor vans were tried on the London to Brighton services and by 1911 had superseded horse vehicles on all the Parcel Coach Services between London and provincial towns. They also enabled longer distances to be covered.

These are just two from almost 190 cigarette cards in the Wilkinson Collection so please do take a look at some of our others on the online catalogue – pictures to be uploaded soon!