Masters of the Post

The official separation of the Post Office Limited from the Royal Mail Group in April 2012 marked the formal end of Britain’s unitary postal service, inaugurated as the Royal Mail by Charles II in 1635. Masters of the Post, published as a Penguin paperback in November 2012, traces the story of a remarkable British institution from its earliest origins to the eve of its dismemberment and is the first such comprehensive British postal history to be published for more than sixty years.

Masters Of The Post

The origins of the Royal Mail go back to the early years of the Tudor monarchy. Brian Tuke, a former King’s Bailiff in Sandwich, was acknowledged as the first ‘Master of the Posts’ by Cardinal Wolsey in 1512, and went on to build up a network of postmasters across England for Henry VIII.

Gradually opened up to the public under Elizabeth I and given a monopoly over all letters by Charles I, the Royal Mail turned an initial four Postal Roads into a network that criss-crossed Britain by Georgian times, with deliveries to most towns and cities in the kingdom. Its operations were transformed by its famous coaches from the 1780s, by trains and ocean steamships from the 1830s, and by modern aviation in the twentieth century.

In the course of this growth, it became the face of the British state for most people in their everyday lives, and grew into the largest employer in the country. In 1850 it had 25,000 staff; by 1914 it employed 230,000, and was delivering almost 6 billion items a year.

The Royal Mail in the twentieth century delivered letters and parcels with extraordinary efficiency to the front-line troops in two world wars, seconding 2,500 staff to run a sorting depot in Hyde Park for mails destined for the trenches of the Great War and participating in some of the most secret planning for the invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

It also managed the growth of a national telephone business (acquired in 1912), the rising expectations of a modern industrial labour force and the fiendishly difficult process of harnessing computers and automation to the sorting of the mails.

From the 1960s onwards, the demands of an increasingly commercial marketplace posed questions over the state’s ownership not just of the telephone business but of the postal service, too. For more than thirty years after the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the possibility of privatising the Royal Mail prompted fierce debates – and added immeasurably to the difficulties of running it.

Some of the many dominant personalities in the Royal Mail’s history included:

  • Rowland Hill, who imposed a uniform penny post and set the great Victorian expansion on its way;
  • Tony Benn, who championed the modernisation of the service in the 1960s and helped open up a new era in the design of stamps; and
  • Tom Jackson, who led the postal workers’ biggest union through fifteen frequently stormy years up to 1982.

Among many remarkable tales, Masters of the Post includes fresh accounts of how Stanley Gibbons conquered the world of stamp-collecting, how postal engineers built the first programmable computer for the wartime code-breakers of Bletchley Park and how the Royal Mail failed to avert the Great Train Robbery of 1963.

Press reviews

  1. Ian Jack in The Guardian: 26th November 2011
  2. Sinclair McKay in The Daily Telegraph: 3rd December 2011
  3. Michael Binyon in The Times: 5th November 2011
  4. Nicholas Rennison in Sunday Times Culture: 13th November 2011
  5. Martin Daunton in the Times Literary Supplement: 23rd & 30th December 2011
  6. Brian Groom in the Financial Times: 10th December 2011
  7. Harry Mount in the Mail on Sunday: 27th November 2011
  8. Jeremy Black in BBC History magazine: January 2012