General Post Office
Agency overview
Formed31 July 1635 (1635-07-31) (public service)
29 December 1660 (1660-12-29) (Post Office Act 1660)
Dissolved1 October 1969 (1969-10-01)
Superseding agency
  • 1660–1707  England & Wales
  • 1707–1800  Great Britain
  • 1800–1969  United Kingdom
HeadquartersGeneral Post Office,
St Martin's le Grand,
London EC2
Agency executives
Parent agencyHM Government

The General Post Office (GPO)[1] was the state postal system and telecommunications carrier of the United Kingdom until 1969.[2] Established in England in the 17th century, the GPO was a state monopoly covering the dispatch of items from a specific sender to a specific receiver (which was to be of great importance when new forms of communication were invented); it was overseen by a Government minister, the Postmaster General. Over time its remit was extended to Scotland and Ireland, and across parts of the British Empire.

The GPO was abolished by the Post Office Act 1969, which transferred its assets to the Post Office, so changing it from a Department of State to a statutory corporation. Responsibility for telecommunications was given to Post Office Telecommunications, the successor of the GPO Telegraph and Telephones department. In 1980, the telecommunications and postal sides were split prior to British Telecommunications' conversion into a totally separate publicly owned corporation the following year as a result of the British Telecommunications Act 1981. The postal service was transferred to Royal Mail.

Early postal services

In the medieval period, nobles generally employed messengers to deliver letters and other items on their behalf. In the 12th century a permanent body of messengers had been formed within the Royal Household of King Henry I, for the conveyance of royal and official correspondence. The messengers delivered their messages in person, each travelling on his own horse and taking time as needed for rest and refreshment (including stopping overnight if the length of journey required it).[3] Under Edward IV, however, a more efficient system was put in place (albeit temporarily) to aid communications during his war with Scotland: a number of post houses were established, at twenty-mile intervals along the Great North Road, to provide the king's messengers with fresh horses for each stage of the journey;[notes 1] in this way they were able to travel up to a hundred miles a day.[3]

Under King Henry VIII a concerted effort was made to maintain a regular postal system for the conveyance of royal and government despatches (in times of peace as well as in time of war). To oversee the system, the king appointed Brian Tuke to serve as 'Master of the Postes'. By the 1550s post roads were in place connecting London with Bristol, Dover, Edinburgh, Holyhead, and Plymouth.[3] Each post-house was staffed by a postmaster, whose main responsibility was to provide the horses; he would also provide a guide to accompany the messenger as far as the next post house (and then see to the return of the horses afterwards). In practice most post-houses were established at roadside inns and the innkeeper served as postmaster (in return for a small salary from the Crown).[4]

At Dover merchant ships were regularly employed to convey letters to and from the continent, and a similar system operated between Holyhead and Ireland (where, by the end of the 16th century, a packet service had been established).[3] Private citizens could make use of the post-horse network, if they could afford it (in 1583 they had to pay twopence per mile for the horse, plus fourpence per stage for the guide),[4] but it was primarily designed for the relaying of state and royal correspondence, or for the conveyance from one place to another of individuals engaged on official state business (who paid a reduce rate). Private correspondence was often sent using common carriers at this time, or with others who regularly journeyed from place to place (such as travelling pedlars); towns often made use of local licensed carriers, who plied their trade using a horse and cart or waggon, while the universities, along with certain municipal and other corporations, maintained their own correspondence networks.[5]

Many letters went by foot-post rather than on horseback. Footposts or runners were employed by many towns, cities and other communities, and had been for many years.[6] A 16th-century footpost would cover around 30 miles per day, on average.[7] At the time of the Spanish Armada every parish was by royal command required to provide a footpost, and every town a horse-post, to help convey news in the event of an imminent invasion.

By the early 1600s there were two options for couriers using the post system: they could either ride 'through-post', carrying the correspondence the full distance; or they could use the 'post of the packet', whereby the letters were carried by the guides from one post house to the next in a cotton-lined leather bag (although this method was only available for royal, government or diplomatic correspondence).[8] The guides at this time were provided with a post horn, which they had to sound at regular intervals or when encountering others on the road (other road users were expected to give way to the post riders).

Foreign postage

At the start of the 16th century a system for the conveyance of foreign dispatches had been set up, organised by Flemish merchants in the City of London; but in 1558, after a dispute arose between Italian, Flemish and English merchants on the matter, the Master of the King's Posts was granted oversight of it instead.[9] In 1619, James I appointed a separate Postmaster General 'for foreign parts', granting him (and his appointees) the sole privilege of carrying foreign correspondence to and from London.[3] (The separate Postmaster General appointments were consolidated in 1637, but the 'foreign' and 'inland' postal services remained separate in terms of administration and accounting until the mid-19th century).

The General Post

'The Post Horse' (from The Life of a Racehorse, or The High-Mettled Racer) by Thomas Rowlandson, 1789.

It was not until 1635 that a general or public post was properly established, for inland letters as for foreign ones.[9] On 31 July that year, King Charles I issued a proclamation 'for the settling of the Letter-office of England and Scotland',[10] an event which 'may properly be regarded as the origin of the British post-office'.[5] By this decree, Thomas Witherings (who had been appointed 'Postmaster of England for foreign parts' three years earlier) was empowered to provide for the carriage of private letters at fixed rates 'betwixt London and all parts of His Majesty's dominions'.[3] To this end, the royal proclamation instructed him to establish 'a running post, to run night and day', initially between London and Edinburgh, London and Holyhead and London and Plymouth, 'for the advancement of all His Majesty's subjects in their trade and correspondence'. (A similar system, running between London and Dover, had already been established by Witherings as part of his administration of the foreign posts, and he himself had proposed its extension to the rest of the realm). Witherings was required to extend the new system to other post roads 'as soon as possibly may be' (beginning with the routes to Oxford and Bristol, and to Colchester, Norwich and Yarmouth); and provision was also made for the establishment of 'bye-posts' to run to and from places not directly served by the post road system (such as Lincoln and Hull).[9] The new system was fully and profitably running by 1636.[3]

In order to facilitate the new arrangement, the King commanded 'all his postmasters, upon all the roads of England, to have ready in their stables one or two horses [...] to carry such messengers, with their portmantles, as shall be imployed in the said service', and they were forbidden from hiring out these horses to others on days when the mail was due.[11] Furthermore, it was enjoined that (with a few specific exceptions) 'no other messenger or messengers, footpost or footposts, shall take up, carry, receive or deliver any letter or letters whatsoever, other than the messengers appointed by the said Thomas Witherings',[10] thus establishing a monopoly, which (under the auspices of the Royal Mail) would remain in place until 2006.[12]

Under the Commonwealth the Post Office was farmed to John Manley and John Thurloe, successively. In 1657 an Act of Parliament entitled Postage of England, Scotland and Ireland Settled set up a postal system for the whole of the British Isles (the nations of which had been unified under Oliver Cromwell as a result of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms), stating that 'there shall be one General Post-Office, and one office stiled the Postmaster-Generall of England and Comptroller of the Post-Office'.[9] The Act also reasserted the postal monopoly for letter delivery and for post-horses; and it set new rates both for carriage of letters and for 'riding post'. During the Commonwealth, what had been a weekly post service to and from London was increased to a thrice-weekly service: letters were despatched from the General Letter Office in London every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening, while the inbound post arrived early in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.[3]

After the Restoration, the Post Office Act 1660 (12 Cha. 2. c. 35) was passed (the previous Cromwellian Act being void), confirming the arrangements in place for the Post Office, and the post of Postmaster General, and emphasizing the public and economic benefits of a General Post system:[13]

"Whereas for the maintenance of mutual correspondencies, and prevention of many inconveniences happening by private posts, several public post-offices have been heretofore erected for carrying and recarrying of letters by post to and from all parts and places within England, Scotland, and Ireland, and several posts beyond the seas, the well-ordering whereof is a matter of general concernment, and of great advantage, as well for the preservation of trade and commerce as otherwise".

In 1663 the profits of the Post Office were settled on the Duke of York (later King James II), to provide for his support and maintenance; following his accession the settlement was placed upon the King, his heirs and successors.[14]

Distribution and delivery

The new postal network was not especially well publicised;[14] but in his 1673 publication Britannia, Richard Blome sought to remedy this by describing in some detail the geographical disposition of the new 'general Post-Office', which he called an 'exceeding great conveniency' for the inhabitants of the nation.[15] At that time there were 182 Deputy Post-Masters (or 'Deputies') in England [and Wales], most of whom were stationed at the 'Stages' or stops which lay along the six main post-roads;[notes 2] and under them were sub-Post-masters, based at market towns which were not on the main post-roads but to which the service had been extended. (The sub-Post-masters, unlike the Deputies, were not employed by the Post Office.)[14]

The expansion of the service beyond the main post-roads was in no small part due to the enterprise of the Deputy post-masters themselves, who were allowed to profit from branch services which they established and operated. In this way, the network of 'by-posts' greatly expanded in the 1670s:[16] in 1673 Blome could write that 'there is scarce any Market-Town of note [which does not have] the benefit of the conveyance of letters to and fro'; he went on to list, County by County, both the 'Stages' on the post-roads (of which there were over 140) and the Post-towns on the branch roads (which by then numbered over 380 in total), where members of the public were able to leave letters with a Post-Master 'to be sent as directed'.[15]

It was usual for each postmaster to employ post-boys to ride with the mail bags from one post-house to the next; the postmaster at the next post-house would then record the time of arrival, before transferring the bags to a new horse, ridden by a new post-boy, for the next stage of the journey.[3] On the outbound journey from London, the mail for each Stage (and its associated Post-towns) was left at the relevant post-house. Arrangements for its onward delivery varied somewhat from place to place. Witherings had envisaged using 'foot-posts' for this purpose (in 1620 Justices of the Peace had been ordered to arrange appointment of two to three foot-posts in every parish for the conveyance of letters),[17] though in practice precise details were often left to the local postmaster. On the return journey to London, bags of letters would be picked up from each post-house on the way, and taken to the General Letter Office to be sorted for despatch. Usually the recipient of the post paid the fee (and he had the right to refuse to accept the item if he did not wish to pay); the charge was based on the distance the item had been carried so the GPO had to keep a separate account for each item.

Packet boats and ship letters

See also: Post Office Packet Service

A Post Office blue ensign (19th century) as used on packet ships; GPO vessels had been authorised to fly flags displaying a galloping post-boy badge since 1694.[18]

With the establishment of a regular public postal service came the need for waterborne mail services (carrying letters to and from Ireland, continental Europe and other destinations) to be placed on a more regular footing. 'Packet boats', offering a regular scheduled mail service, were already in use for the passage between Holyhead and Dublin; but for letters to and from the Continent the post was entrusted to messengers, who would make their own travel arrangements.[3] This was far from reliable, so in the 1630s Thomas Witherings set about establishing a regular Dover-Calais packet service.[3] By the end of the century additional packet services had been established between Harwich (off the Yarmouth post road) and Helvoetsluys, between Dover and Ostend/Nieuport, and between Falmouth and Corunna. The packet services were generally arranged by contract with an agent, who would commit to provide a regular mail-carrying service in exchange for a fee or subsidy.[14] In the following century, packet services out of Falmouth began to sail to the West Indies, North America and other transatlantic destinations.

Packet boats, however, were not the only means of conveying letters overseas: there had always been the option of sending them by merchant ship, and coffee houses had long been accustomed to receiving letters and packages on behalf of ships' captains, who would carry them for a fee. The trade in these 'ship letters' was acknowledged (and legitimised) in the Post Office Acts of 1657 and 1660.[14] Attempts were made to levy Post Office fees on these letters and 'ship letter money' was offered to captains for each letter given to a postmaster on arrival in England in order for these charges to be applied; however they were under no legal obligation to comply and the majority of ship letters evaded the extra charges.

The London Penny Post

Main article: London Penny Post

London, Westminster and Southwark in 1682 (map by John Ogilby and William Morgan).

In 1680 William Dockwra and Robert Murray founded the 'Penny Post', which enabled letters and parcels to be sent cheaply to and from destinations in and around London. A flat fee of a penny was charged for sending letters or parcels up to a pound in weight within an area comprising the City of London, the City of Westminster and the Borough of Southwark; while two-pence was charged for items posted or delivered in the surrounding 'country' area (which included places such as Hackney, Newington, Lambeth and Islington). The Penny Post letter-carriers operated from seven main sorting offices around London, which were supplemented by between four and five hundred 'receiving houses' in all the principal streets in the area, where members of the public could post items. (Prior to the establishment of the Penny Post, the only location where letters could be posted in London was the General Letter Office in Lombard Street.)[14] The receiving-houses were often found in public houses, coffee houses or other retail premises.[19] Deliveries were made six or eight times a day in central London (and a minimum of four times a day in the outskirts).[9]

The innovation was a great success, and within two years a court ruling obliged the London Penny Post to come under the authority of the Postmaster General. Although now part of the GPO, the London Penny Post continued to operate entirely independently of the General (or 'Inland') Post until 1854 (when the two systems were combined).[9] An attempt by Charles Povey to set up a rival halfpenny post in 1709 was halted after several months' operation; however Povey's practice of having letter-carriers ring a bell to attract custom was adopted by the Post Office and went on to be employed in major cities until the mid-19th century.[14]

In 1761 permission was given for the establishment of penny-post arrangements elsewhere in the realm, to function along the same lines as the London office, if they could be made financially viable; by the end of the century there were penny-post systems operating in Birmingham, Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh and Manchester (to be joined by Glasgow and Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the 1830s).[3]

In 1801 the cost of posting a letter within the central London area was doubled; thenceforward the London District Post was known as the 'Two-penny Post' until its amalgamation into the General Post 53 years later.[3]

Expansion at home and abroad

A map showing postal routes (served by mail coaches, horse posts and foot messengers) in 1807.

During the reign of King William III, the General Post Office created a network of 'receiving-houses', in London and the larger provincial towns, where senders could submit items.[20]

A Scottish Post Office was established in 1695 (although the post-road to Edinburgh continued to be managed from London); in 1710 the Scottish and English establishments were united by statute.[9] By virtue of the same Act of Parliament (the Post Office (Revenues) Act 1710), the functions of the 'general letter office and post office' in the City of London were set out, and the establishment of 'chief letter offices' in Edinburgh, Dublin, New York and the Leeward Islands was enjoined. The Irish post at this time operated as part of the GPO under a Deputy Postmaster General based in Dublin; but in 1784 an Act was passed by the Parliament of Ireland providing for an independent Post Office in Ireland under its own Postmaster General[21] (an arrangement that remained in place until 1831).

The established post roads in Britain ran to and from London. The use of other roads required government permission (for example, it was only after much lobbying that a 'cross-post' between Bristol and Exeter was authorised, in 1698; previously mail between the two cities had to be sent via London).[22] In 1720 Ralph Allen, who had a vision for improving the situation, took over responsibility for the cross-posts (i.e. deliveries and collections via routes other than the main post roads out of London) and bye-posts (i.e. 'letters not going or coming from, to or through London').[23] He greatly expanded the network of post towns served by the General Post, and at the same time did much to reform its workings.

New modes of transport

North Country Mails at the Peacock, Islington by James Pollard (1821).

In the 1780s, Britain's General Post network was revolutionised by John Palmer's idea of using mail coaches in place of the longstanding use of post horses. After initial resistance from the postal authorities, a trial took place in 1784, after which the conveyance of letters by mail coach, under armed guard, was approved by Act of Parliament.[24]

In 1830 mail was carried by train for the first time, on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway; over the next decade the railways replaced mail coaches as the principal means of conveyance. The first Travelling Post Office was introduced in 1837, and these began to be widely used enabling mail to be sorted in transit.[24]

The Money Order Office

In 1838 the Money Order Office was established, to provide a secure means of transferring money to people in different parts of the country (or world), and to discourage people from sending cash by post.[25] The money order system had first been introduced as a private enterprise by three Post Office clerks in 1792, with the permission of the Postmaster General. Alongside money orders, postal orders were introduced in 1881, which were cheaper and easier to cash.[26] Postal orders and money orders were vital at this time for transactions between small businesses, as well as individuals, because bank transfer facilities were only available to major businesses and for larger sums of money.[23]

Uniform Penny Postage

Main article: Uniform Penny Post

See also: Postage stamps and postal history of Great Britain

In 1840 the Uniform Penny Post was introduced, which incorporated the two key innovations of a uniform postal rate, which cut administrative costs and encouraged use of the system, and adhesive pre-paid stamp. Packets (weighing up to 16 ounces (450 g)) could also be sent by post, the cost of postage varying with the weight.[27] The reforms were devised and overseen by Rowland Hill, having been initially proposed in Parliament by Robert Wallace MP.[3]

A book post service was introduced in 1848, and parcel post in 1883;[28] that same year the term 'letter-carrier' was replaced with 'postman' in the GPO's official nomenclature.[29]

By the 1850s the postal system was described as having become 'universal all over the three kingdoms: no village, however insignificant, being without its receiving-house'.[20]

Financial services

A Post Office Savings Bank deposit book, dating from 1869.

The Post Office Savings Bank was introduced in 1861, when there were few banks outside major towns. By 1863, 2,500 post offices were offering a savings service. Gradually more financial services were offered by post offices, including government stocks and bonds in 1880, insurance and annuities in 1888, and war savings certificates in 1916. In 1909 old age pensions were introduced, payable at post offices.[30] In 1956 a lottery bond called the Premium Bond was introduced. In the mid-1960s the GPO was asked by the government to expand into banking services which resulted in the creation of the National Giro in 1968.[30]

New communication systems

When new forms of communication came into existence in the 19th and early 20th centuries the GPO claimed monopoly rights on the basis that like the postal service they involved delivery from a sender and to a receiver. The theory was used to expand state control of the mail service into every form of electronic communication possible on the basis that every sender used some form of distribution service.[citation needed] These distribution services were considered in law as forms of electronic post offices. This applied to telegraph and telephone switching stations.


Telegraph sent in 1907

Main article: Electrical telegraphy in the United Kingdom

In 1846, the Electric Telegraph Company, the world's first public telegraph company, was established in the UK and developed a nationwide communications network. Several other private telegraph companies soon followed. The Telegraph Act 1868 granted the Postmaster General the right to acquire inland telegraph companies in the United Kingdom and the Telegraph Act 1869 conferred on the Postmaster General a monopoly in telegraphic communication in the UK. The responsibility for the 'electric telegraphs' was officially transferred to the GPO in 1870. Overseas telegraphs did not fall within the monopoly. The private telegraph companies that already existed were bought out. The new combined telegraph service had 1,058 telegraph offices in towns and cities and 1,874 offices at railway stations. 6,830,812 telegrams were transmitted in 1869 producing revenue of £550,000.[31]

Telegraphic Operating Room in the Central Telegraph Office (GPO West), St Martin's Le Grand, London.

London's Central Office in the first decade of nationalized telegraphy created two levels of service. High-status circuits catering to the state, international trade, sporting life, and imperial business. Low-status circuits directed toward the local and the provincial. These distinct telegraphic orbits were connected to different types of telegraph instruments operated by differently gendered telegraphists.[32]

1909 saw the establishment of the Research Section of the Telegraph Office, which had its origins in innovative areas of work being pursued by staff in the Engineering Department.[33] In the 1920s a dedicated research station was set up by the GPO seven miles away in Dollis Hill; during the Second World War the world's first electronic computer, 'Colossus', was designed and constructed there by Tommy Flowers and other GPO engineers.[34]

The Telegraph Office was slightly damaged by a German bomb in 1917 and in 1940, was set alight during the London Blitz, destroying much of the interior. It reopened in 1943. By the 1950s, the volume of telegraph traffic had declined and the Telegraph Office closed in 1963. In 1984 the new British Telecom Centre was opened on the site.[35]


See also: GPO telephones

Telephone kiosk and Edward VII pillar box

The Post Office commenced its telephone business in 1878, however the vast majority of telephones were initially connected to independently run networks. In December 1880, the Post Master General obtained a court judgement that telephone conversations were, technically, within the remit of the Telegraph Act. The General Post Office then licensed all existing telephone networks.

The effective nationalisation of the UK telecommunications industry occurred in 1912 with the takeover of the National Telephone Company which left only a few municipal undertakings independent of the GPO (in particular the Hull Telephones Department (now privatised) and the telephone system of Guernsey). The GPO took over the company on 1 January 1912; transferring 1,565 exchanges and 9,000 employees at a cost of £12,515,264.

The GPO installed several automatic telephone exchanges from several vendors in trials at Darlington on 10 October 1914 and Dudley on 9 September 1916 (rotary system), Fleetwood (relay exchange from Sweden), Grimsby (Siemens), Hereford (Lorimer) and Leeds (Strowger).[36] The GPO then selected the Strowger system for small and medium cities and towns.

The telephone systems of Jersey and the Isle of Man, obtained from the NTC were offered for sale to the respective governments of the islands. Both initially refused, but the States of Jersey did eventually take control of their island's telephones in 1923.


On 27 July 1896, Guglielmo Marconi gave the first demonstration of wireless telegraphy from the roof of the Telegraph Office in St. Martin's Le Grand.

The development of radio links for sending telegraphs led to the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1904, which granted control of radio waves to the General Post Office, who licensed all senders and receivers. This placed the Post Office in a position of control over radio and television broadcasting as those technologies were developed.

The GPO in the twentieth century

A 6d postal order dating from 1935.

By 1900 house-to-house mail delivery was taking place across England (and was close to being in place in Scotland and Ireland).[3] Employing over 250,000 people and with an annual revenue of £32 million, the Post Office in 1914 is said to have been 'the biggest economic enterprise in Britain and the largest single employer of labour in the world'.[37] The GPO ran the nation's telegraph and telephone systems, as well as handling some 5.9 billion items of mail each year, while branch post offices offered an increasing number of financial, municipal and other public services alongside those relating to postage.[37]

In 1900 there were nearly 22,000 post offices operating across the United Kingdom: 906 were classified as head post offices and 255 as associated branch offices, in addition to which there were 4,964 town sub-offices and 15,815 country post offices.[19]


The GPO on Sackville Street, Dublin, in 1837

In 1831, the office of Postmaster General of Ireland had been amalgamated with the equivalent office for Great Britain; for the next 90 years the GPO operated throughout Great Britain and Ireland. Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, responsibility for posts and telegraphs in most of Ireland (but not in Northern Ireland) transferred to the new Provisional Government and then, upon the formal establishment of the Irish Free State in December 1922, to the Free State Government. A Postmaster General was initially appointed by the Free State Government, being replaced by the office of Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in 1924. An early visible manifestation was the repainting of all post boxes in the new Free State in green instead of red. In 1984, the Department of Posts and Telegraphs ('the P. & T.') was replaced by the separate Irish state-owned companies An Post and Telecom Éireann.

Control of broadcasting

In 1922 a group of radio manufacturers formed the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), which was the sole organisation granted a broadcasting licence by the GPO. In 1927, the original BBC was dissolved and reformed by royal charter as the British Broadcasting Corporation.

From the start the GPO had trouble with competitive pirate radio broadcasters who found ways to deliver electronic messages to British receivers without first obtaining a GPO licence. These competitors were well aware of the fact that the GPO would never grant them such a licence. To police these unlicensed stations the GPO evolved its own force of detectives and "detector vans".

The radio regulation functions were transferred to the Independent Broadcasting Authority and later Ofcom. Due to its regulatory role, as well as its expertise in developing long-distance communication networks, the GPO was contracted by the BBC, and the ITA in the 1950s and 60s, to develop and extend their television networks. A network of transmitters was built, connected at first by cable, and later by microwave radio links. The Post Office also took responsibility for the issuing of television licence fees (and radio, until 1971), and the prosecution of evaders until 1991.

Growth in telecommunications

See also: TXK and TXE

British (BPO) Type 232 phone of 1932

The GPO wished to standardise on the Strowger switch (also called SXS or step-by step) but the basic SXS exchange was not suitable for a large city like London until the Director telephone system was developed by the Automatic Telephone Manufacturing Company in the 1920s. The first London Director exchange, HOLborn, cutover on Saturday 12 November 1927, BIShopgate and SLOane exchanges were to follow in six weeks, followed by WEStern and MONument exchanges. The London area contained 80 exchanges, and full conversion would take many years.[38]

All London customers were given seven-digit numbers, with the first three digits spelling out the (local) exchange name. In March 1966 after all London (and other Director) exchanges were automatic, all-figure dialling was introduced. The Director system enabled the London network to operate with both automatic and manual exchanges in the local network until the 1960s and it was subsequently installed in other large British cities; starting with Manchester (1930), then Birmingham (1931), Glasgow (1937), Liverpool (1941), and Edinburgh (1950).[39]

A typical mid-20th century telephone exchange building in Lark Lane, Liverpool.

After the Second World War, there began to be an unprecedented demand for telephone services. In addition, there was the need to make comprehensive repairs, and upgrades to a network which had been severely degraded by war, and lack of investment. Waiting lists for new telephone lines quickly emerged, and persisted for several decades. To alleviate the situation, the Post Office began to provide shared service residential lines, each known as a party line, which could share a cable pair. Most of the line was shared between two subscribers usually splitting off to each within sight of the houses, and both lines attracted a small discount; however, this arrangement had its disadvantages.

At this time, the majority of lines in rural, and regional areas (particularly in Scotland and Wales) were still manually switched. This inhibited growth, and caused bottlenecks in the network, as well as being labour and cost-intensive. The Post Office began to introduce automatic switching, and replaced all of its 6,000 exchanges. Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) was also added from 1958, which allowed subscribers to dial their own long-distance calls.

Telecommunications services in the United Kingdom were reorganised as Post Office Telecommunications in October 1969; and then as British Telecom in 1980, although remaining part of the GPO until 1981.

1930s reviews and innovations

The first GPO logo (1937–1950)

The Bridgeman Committee, chaired by Lord Bridgeman, was set up in 1932 to investigate criticisms of the General Post Office and reported the same year.[40] It highlighted defects in the structure of the organisation and recommended creation of a new Board (to be chaired by the Postmaster-General) and a new official: the Director-General, who would serve as vice-chair 'with the duty of ensuring that board decisions were made effective and that continuity and unity of policy were maintained'.[41]

In 1933 Sir Stephen Tallents was appointed to head up a new public relations department.[42] Among other things he established the influential GPO Film Unit, while his acumen in the field of graphic design led to the Post Office becoming a leader and trend setter in its use of posters for the purposes of marketing, information and publicity.[43]

The Gardiner Committee, chaired by Sir Thomas Gardiner, was set up to investigate improvements in efficiency and reported in 1936. The report recommended the setting up of eight provincial regions outside London,[notes 3] and the introduction of the London Postal Region and London Telecommunications Region for the capital and surrounding area. The changes were implemented between 1936 and 1940.


A 1960s vintage Royal Mail post van.

Under the Post Office Act 1969, the assets of the GPO were transferred from a government department with a royal charter to a statutory corporation named the Post Office (the word 'General' being dropped from the name). Responsibility for telecommunications was given to Post Office Telecommunications, the successor of the GPO Telegraph and Telephones department, with its own separate budget and management.

Jersey Post and Guernsey Post became independent in 1969, followed by Guernsey and Jersey Telecom in 1973. Isle of Man Post also commenced operation on 5 July 1973.

In 1969, the Post Office Savings Bank was transferred to the Treasury, and renamed the National Savings Bank.[44]

A 1970s vintage Post Office Telephones van.

The British Telecommunications Act 1981 split off the telecommunications business to form the British Telecommunications corporation, leaving the Post Office corporation with the Royal Mail, parcels, Post Office Counters and National Giro businesses. British Telecommunications was converted to British Telecommunications plc in 1984, and was privatised. Girobank was divested to Alliance & Leicester in 1990.

As part of the Postal Services Act 2000, the businesses of the Post Office were transferred in 2001 to a public limited company, Consignia plc, which was quickly renamed Royal Mail Holdings plc. The government became the sole shareholder in Royal Mail Holdings plc and its subsidiary Post Office Ltd.

Finally, on 5 April 2007, the government published The Dissolution of the Post Office Order 2007 under which the old Post Office statutory corporation was formally abolished, with effect from 1 May 2007.

Post Office Headquarters

Main article: General Post Office, London

Blue plaque by Threadneedle Street, marking the former site of the General Letter Office.

The head office of the General Post Office was firmly established in the City of London by 1653, in a sizeable building at the lower end of Threadneedle Street (by the junction with Poultry, Cornhill and Lombard Street).[45] Prior to this date there is evidence of the posts having been administered at various times either from the house of the chief postmaster or from one of the City's post houses. The office in Threadneedle Street was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, after which various temporary locations were used up until 1678, when a new office was established in Lombard Street.[45] The General Post Office remained there for the next 150 years.

St Martin's Le Grand

The 19th-century headquarters of the General Post Office in St Martins-le-Grand in the City of London

Having outgrown its premises in Lombard Street, the General Post Office purchased slums on the east side of St. Martin's Le Grand and cleared them to establish a new headquarters, Britain's first purpose-built mail facility. The new General Post Office building, designed with Grecian ionic porticoes by Sir Robert Smirke, was built between 1825 and 1829, ran 400 feet (120 m) long and 80 feet (24 m) deep, and was lit with a thousand gas burners at night.[46] Afterwards 'St. Martin's Le Grand' began to be used as a metonym for the General Post Office (a usage which continued well into the 20th century).[28]

In the 1840s there were, in addition to the chief office at St. Martin's Le Grand, four branch offices in London: one in the City at Lombard Street (in part of the old headquarters building); two in the West End at Charing Cross and Old Cavendish Street near Oxford Street; and one south of the Thames in Borough High Street.[47]

GPO North at 1 St Martin's Le Grand: Post Office Headquarters from 1895-1984.

In 1874, a new headquarters building ('GPO West') was opened on the western side of the street, containing a suite of public rooms and offices for the Postmaster General, the senior officials and all their administrative staff. This left Smirke's building ('GPO East') to function mainly as a sorting office. The upper floors of the new building housed the GPO's newly-acquired telegraph department; but as this fast expanded, more space was needed and in the 1890s a separate new headquarters building was opened ('GPO North'), immediately to the north of the telegraph building. This remained the headquarters of the GPO, and then of the Post Office, until 1984.[48]

In the early 20th century various different departments of the General Post Office (most of which had begun their days in St Martin's Le Grand) were provided with their own headquarters in different parts of London: the Post Office Savings Bank was in Blythe House, West Kensington; the Postal and Money Order office in Manor Gardens, off Holloway Road; the Stores Department was in Studd Street, Islington and the Telephone Department in Queen Victoria Street (in what became the Faraday Building).[28] In 1910 the King Edward Building was opened on King Edward Street (immediately to the west of GPO North) to serve as the new 'London Chief Office' in place of Smirke's GPO East; the latter was then demolished two years later.

Links to the intelligence services

The practice of intercepting letters for intelligence purposes was well-established by the Commonwealth period, and it continued after the Restoration. In the early 18th century the authority of Ministers of the Crown to open and read letters for reasons of public safety had been clearly established by statute, drawn up by Lord Somers. Warrants were frequently applied for in the 18th-century, sometimes on trivial premises, and by the 1730s a permanent office had been established, in which a number of cryptanalysts were employed (as 'His Majesty's Post-Office decipherers'), among them the Revd Dr Edward Willes.

In 1844 it was revealed in the House of Commons, in response to an enquiry by Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, that the Home Office had issued a warrant for the Post Office to intercept and investigate correspondence pertaining to Giuseppe Mazzini. The Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, admitted the interception but did not divulge the reason for it.[9] Duncombe contended that warrants for intercepting mail were being issued at the request of foreign governments, in a way that was both unconstitutional and unlawful. The accusations prompted widespread expressions of disapproval and further questions in Parliament. In response to public disquiet, a select committee was set up 'to inquire into a department of Her Majesty's Post-Office commonly called "the secret or inner office", the duties and employment of the persons engaged therein, and the authority under which the functions of the said office were discharged'.[9]

During the Second World War, and for some years after, a department called the GPO Special Investigations Unit was responsible for intercepting letters as part of British intelligence service operations. The unit had branches in every major sorting office in the UK and in St Martin's Le Grand GPO, near St Paul's Cathedral. Letters targeted for interception by the Special Investigations Unit were steamed open and the contents photographed, and the photographs were then sent in unmarked green vans to MI5.[49]

Military links

In 1868, as part of the Volunteer Movement, John Lowther du Plat Taylor, Private Secretary to the Postmaster General, raised the 49th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers Corps (Post Office Rifles) from GPO employees, who had been either members of the 21st Middlesex Rifles Volunteer Corps (Civil Service Rifles) or special constables enrolled to combat against Fenian attacks on London in 1867/68.[50]

The regiment was restyled 24th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers Corps (Post Office Rifles) in 1880 as part of the Cardwell Reforms.

‘M' Company, 24th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers Corps, was formed by royal warrant in 1882 as the Army Post Office Corps (APOC). This newly formed Army Reservist company saw active service providing a postal service to the British military expeditions to Egypt (1882), Suakin (1885) and the Anglo Boer War (1899–1902).[51] The APOC was eventually subsumed by the Royal Engineers in 1913 to re-emerge as the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) Special Reserve. The Postal Section provided the Army Postal Service (now British Forces Post Office) in the First and Second World Wars and in 1993 became the Postal & Courier Service Royal Logistic Corps.

In the second week of December 1869 the War Office declared that 22nd Company RE, commanded by Capt Charles Edmund Webber RE, was to be seconded to the GPO on telegraph duties. The first draft took up their appointments with the GPO in June 1870; Webber as South East District divisional engineer based in New Cross, London, his subalterns as district superintendents of the divisional engineer and the NCOs and sappers as inspectors and linesmen/signallers respectively. They received training at both the School of Military Engineering and the London School of Telegraphy and were for a time billeted at St John’s Woods Barracks, London. The following year the Chatham based 34th Company RE joined 22nd at the GPO. It deployed detachments to GPO offices in Inverness, Ipswich and Bristol. The Company HQ was principally based in Ipswich, but later moved to Bristol. The two companies operated the telegraph services in their respective districts. Exploiting the ‘wayleave’ agreements, struck for the laying of rail tracks forty years earlier, they further developed the national telegraph network by laying new lines to the more remote parts of the British Isles [50]

In 1883 the regiment raised 'L’ Company as a Telegraph Corps, a year later it was redesignated as the Telegraph Reserve Royal Engineers. Its role was to supplement the Regular Army's telegraph services operated by the Royal Engineers.[50]

After the Haldane Reforms the regiment kept its association with the Post Office and continued to recruit postal workers into the Territorial Force under its new title '8th (City of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Post Office Rifles)' in 1908. It served as an infantry regiment in the First World War (1914–18). Sergeant Alfred Joseph Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in the Capture of Wurst Farm (20 September 1917). The regiment was disbanded in 1921.

Soldiers of the National Army of the Irish Free State searching through the remains of a fire at the Rotunda Rink, Parnell Square, which was the sorting office of the General Post Office in Dublin (5 November 1922)

In 1916, during World War I, the General Post Office, Dublin was a focus of the Easter Rising, during which the GPO served as the headquarters of the uprising's leaders. It was from outside this building on the 24th of April 1916, that Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.[52] The building was destroyed by fire in the course of the rebellion, save for the granite facade, and not rebuilt until 1929, by the Irish Free State government.

During World War II the generation of engineers trained by the GPO for its telecommunications operations were to have important roles in the British development of radar and in code breaking. The Colossus computers used by Bletchley Park were designed and built by GPO engineer Tommy Flowers and his team at the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill.

See also


  1. ^ The original meaning of 'post' in this context comes from the horses being placed or 'posted' (Latin positi) at regular intervals along the route.
  2. ^ Ireland at about this time had three post roads (the Connaught road, the Munster road and the Ulster road) likewise staffed by Deputy Post-Masters (45 in number).
  3. ^ Home Counties; Midland; Northern Ireland; North-Eastern; North-Western; Wales and Border Counties; Scotland; South-Western


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Further reading