The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History
The reason the British postal service is called the Royal Mail is because that is precisely how it started, as a private means of getting the King's messages around his Kingdom. King Henry I employed Royal Messengers and Couriers for that purpose.
In 1512* King Henry VIII appointed a Master of the Messengers and Runners, which was more commonly called the King's Posts, but again this was a service for the use of the King and his government. Letters were sent to the mayors of boroughs and they were ordered to pass them on as speedily as possible, after writing on the front the name of the town, the date and the time. 
A post was laid from London to Exeter in 1574. 
Plymouth is first mentioned in the list of posts in 1588, when riders were paid 2d a mile for every horse and a guide was paid a groat. 
In 1590 the service between London and Plymouth was divided into fourteen stages, with rates varying according to the distance. The dearest was 2s 6d. Around the same period, the Widey Court Book tells us, Plymouth Corporation employed two men, Peter the Post and Russell the Post, presumably for delivering messages within the Town. 
But in 1630 there came competition. A Mr Samuel Jude from London had started his own packet service between London and Plymouth. A good old English compromise was reached and it was agreed that there would be a weekly despatch of all letters from Plymouth to London and in reverse, with letters being delivered up to 20 miles off the route. 
A Royal Proclamation was issued by HM King Charles I on July 31st 1635 which authorized ‘the Settling of the Letter-Office of England and Scotland’ and the maintenance of six Post Roads . This date is regarded as the official founding of the Royal Mail and was when it became possible for anyone to use the Royal Mail upon payment of a fee by the recipient of the letter, not the sender. Five main postal routes were set up, one of which was to Plymouth. Letters could be sent from Plymouth to Edinburgh, Norwich, Bristol or Holyhead but they had to go via London. Postage was charged on a mileage basis, 2d for under 80 miles, 4d for up to 140 miles and 6d for journeys of over 140 miles. The number of sheets of paper were also taken into account. Thus a letter was folded over and the name and address written on the back of the top sheet rather than using an envelope, which would have cost extra. 
It is said that it was during his year as Mayor in 1658 that Samuel Northcott established the first Post House in Plymouth but its location is not known [3.
Around 1785/1786 mail coaches were introduced and these replaced the post boys. Also the roads were turnpike and new ones were constructed to help speed the Mails. 
By 1787 there was a Sub Post Office at Plympton which received its Mail from the main Post Office at Ashburton. 
Until 1792 Plymouth Dock received its Royal Mail by private messenger from the Postmaster at Plymouth. However, in that year the leading residents petitioned the Postmaster-General to be recognized as a Post Town in its own right. The Post Office Surveyor recommended that Dock be made a Receiving House but under Plymouth. As luck would have it the Surveyor withdrew his recommendations and thus in 1793 it became a Post Town in its own right with a Plymouth Dock (Devonport from 1824) Post Office. 
Around the same time, in 1794, a Miss or Mrs Rivers was appointed a Postmistress in her own private residence in Lower Broad Street, Plymouth. After street renaming circa 1827 this became the Bilbury Street Post Office.
Between 1795 and 1834 there was a Receiving House on the Barbican for letters to and from Royal Navy and merchant ships moored around the Port of Plymouth. It was known as the Navy Post Office and at one time was based in the Navy Tavern. [4a]
In April 1801 the Postage Act 1801 increased the postal charges. The 5th Clause of the Act allowed the Postmaster-General to set up delivery and collection arrangements with towns and villages in the neighbourhood of any post town. Both Plymouth and Plymouth Dock started several 5th Clause Posts as a result. 
In 1822 Plympton gained the status of a Post Town .
Money Order Offices became an official Post Office service in 1838, the same year that carriages for sorting letters were introduced on the railways. 
On Friday January 10th 1840 the Universal Penny Post was introduced. In order to cope with the anticipated demand for the service, the Lords of the Treasury issued regulations requiring that 'Letter Boxes shall be closed one hour or half hour (as the case may require) earlier than at present, before the despatch of each Mail.' 
The sending of letters was made easier still by the introduction of adhesive postage stamps, also known as postage labels, on Wednesday May 6th 1840. 
The Royal Mail was first brought from Exeter to Plymouth by the South Devon Railway on Thursday June 1st 1848, although it had to be taken off the train at Laira Green Station until the following year. [7a]
Until now the Post Houses, or Receiving Houses, were, literally, in the private houses owned or tenanted by the local Postmasters. But the increased use of the postal service since the introduction of the Universal Penny Post induced investors to propose the erection of more modern premises and thus the Whimple Street Head Post Office was opened in Plymouth in 1848 and was followed the next year by the even more magnificent Devonport Head Post Office.
In 1852 the York Street Branch Post Office was opened at Mr J Willmot's York Street Medical Hall. [7b]
A significant development in 1855 was the abolition of compulsory stamp duty of a penny per sheet on newspapers. This led to the expansion of the newspaper industry generally (both the Western Morning News and the Western Daily Mercury were established in Plymouth in 1860). Instead, a Printed Paper postage rate was introduced. 
Uniforms had been issued to London's postmen as early as 1793 but this was not extended to the larger provincial offices until 1856 . The purpose of a uniform was not 'corporate image', as it might be today, but in order to detect postmen 'loitering and mis-spending their time in ale houses' . The postmen of Plymouth first appeared in uniform on Sunday June 21st 1857 .
The first pillar boxes were introduced into Plymouth and East Stonehouse in April 1856. 
Always on the look-out for new enterprises, the Post Office Savings Bank was started in September 1861, with interest on deposits paid at 2½%. Deposits were transferred to the National Debt Commission, where they were invested in government securities. There was a great deal of discussions nationally on whether to turn this service into a Giro Bank, on the pattern of that established in Austria at the time, but this proposal did not succeed. It was felt that the Post Office wanted to keep people's money in the Bank, not allow them to withdraw it just when they felt like it! Further innovations followed in quick succession: half-penny (½d) postcards in 1870; penny (1d) savings cards in 1880; Postal Orders in 1881; Parcels Post in 1883, and a brand new Westwell Street Head Post Office in 1884. 
Mutley Branch Post Office was opened in 1871 and the Barbican Branch Post Office commenced business in 1889.
The cost of posting a letter was at an all-time low in 1897, when up to 4 ounces in weight could be sent for one penny. The cost of postage never fell that low again. 
In June 1918 the Universal Penny Post came to an end after over 70 years when the general postage charge was increased from 1d to 1½d.
During the Blitz of March and April 1941 the Westwell Street Head Post Office was destroyed and the Devonport Post Office was damaged. It was announced on Saturday August 9th 1941 that the General Post Office had made ready a fleet of motor vans fitted out as mobile post offices to be rushed to any location in the South West where the post office had been put out of action by enemy raids. Also ready for use was a prefabricated building with more facilities and even spare sets of post office furniture that could be rushed anywhere it was needed. 
Post-war developments included the launching of Premium Bonds in 1956, the opening of the Saint Andrew's Cross Head Post Office in 1957 and the introduction of Postcodes between 1966 and 1974. 
As from October 1st 1969 the General Post Office and Royal Mail ceased to be a government department . From January 1st 2006 the monopoly for carrying letters enjoyed by the Royal Mail for 370 years came to an end.
|© Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK|
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