Royal Postal Service

Ancient global communication relay systems

It is hardly unexpected that the earliest historical allusions to postal service were made in Egypt about 2000 bc and in China during the Chou dynasty a thousand years later, given that effective communication was vital for the administration of the ancient world’s vast empires. Under the Mongol rulers, a posthouse relay system was likely initially built in China and advanced to a high level of sophistication. The vast Persian Empire of Cyrus deployed relays of horse messengers supplied by posthouses in the sixth-century b.c. Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon viewed the system favourably. Although each city-state had its messenger corps, it was reasonable to admire the Greeks since their political differences prevented the development of a unified mail system.

The expansion of Rome from a tiny city-state to a large empire encompassing most of the known globe necessitated dependable and swift connections with the provincial rulers. This requirement was satisfied by the cursus publicus, the most advanced postal service system of antiquity. The relay stages of the cursus publicus, placed at reasonable intervals along the empire’s major routes, were a vital element of its complex military and administrative structure.

It is said that more than 170 miles (270 kilometres) could be travelled in a day and a night during the administration’s heyday, a feat that would not be surpassed in Europe until the 19th century. The upkeep of the cursus publicus needed a high level of organisation; an inspectorial system was in place to supervise its administration and prevent its exploitation for personal gain.

The fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century did not annihilate the cursus publicus. Its benefits were readily apparent to the new barbarian rulers; some, like Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, who controlled Italy from ad 493 to 526, are known to have retained the Roman postal service system’s fundamentals inside their kingdoms.

Under the Carolingian Empire, traces of the cursus publicus appeared, and post houses were preserved as late as the early ninth century. Although the service did not adhere to a regular schedule, it was frequent. All remnants of the Roman postal service system disappeared due to the ongoing deterioration of the Roman roads, the growing unwillingness of villages surrounding the highways to fund the costs of the system, and the rising political fragmentation of Europe.

The cursus publicus survived better in the Byzantine Empire since the Islamic Empire later acquired its territories. Replacing one centralised imperial rule with another allowed the cursus publicus to be absorbed into a comparable Baghdad-based Arabian postal service system.

In response to the same necessities as the imperial nations of Asia and Europe, pre-Columbian American cultures developed relay networks confined to foot couriers. The Inca Empire maintained post offices regularly throughout its magnificent road network, and a similar system likely serviced the Mayan civilisation for more than a millennium.

Middle Ages business Postal Service System expanded

The end of the rule of the last Carolingian monarch in 987 signalled the beginning of several centuries of chaos in Europe, during which it was impossible to identify a postal service system deserving of the name. As the rulers of the time frequently struggled to exert their control over their unruly feudal vassals, there was a lack of a strong central authority that supported most postal systems.

The unstable political climate did not favour establishing a controlled mail service, despite the need for regular communication between monarchs and vassals and the great princes. Along with other strong organisations, such as towns, religious orders, and colleges (particularly in Paris), they began to retain messenger corps to fulfil their specific demands.

One of the most notable developments of the late Middle Ages was the expansion of international trade, which increased commercial correspondence. Numerous organisations and guilds have built messenger networks to enable their members to keep consumer touch. Among these was the so-called Butcher Post (Metzger Post), which combined the frequent travel necessary by profession with delivering messages.

The Italian commercial enterprises supplied the most widespread and reliable mail service. From the middle of the thirteenth century, Florence, Genoa, and Siena maintained connections with six large yearly fairs held in the Champagne region in northern France. Each of these fairs received two fixed shipments: the first to transport orders and commissions and the second to conduct settlements. The service was strictly controlled. Conditions of acceptance, rates of payment, and schedules were established; the route was mapped out, and hostels were maintained along the way. Since Champagne fairs attracted European merchants from across the continent, the mail system was a vital international link.

Italian corporate interests were also responsible for the sole extra-European postal connection of this period, which connected Venice and Constantinople. The size and significance of Venetian commercial correspondence can be gauged by the fact that the monarch of Persia granted its messengers unfettered access across his realms in 1320.

In the 13th century, Russia followed the European trend toward the expansion of postal service systems. Horses and drivers for the transportation of couriers were retained at regular staging sites to supply the so-called carriage express, which evolved into a system for exchanging messages.

The postal dervice expansion as a government monopoly

Institutional postal networks that arose in the late Middle Ages also carried private correspondence, with or without official approval and for a high cost in any case. Initially, there were very few such letters. Outside of institutions with their postal service systems, few literate individuals with interests extended beyond their neighbourhoods.

In the late 15th century, however, the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press (about 1450) and education development bolstered the trend toward enhanced postal services. The increase in demand for letter delivery led to commercial enterprises, the bulk of which, like the Swiss Stumpelbotten, were strictly local. Some, like the Paar family in Austria, founded national postal organisations.

The Thurn and Taxis family, who originally hailed from Bergamo, Italy, near Milan, constructed the most renowned and comprehensive of these networks. Under the sponsorship of the Habsburg monarchs, they established a vast network of mail routes connecting the imperial territories. Over the 16th century, their system expanded to most of Europe, with 20,000 messengers operating a swift, efficient, and very profitable relay system.

Even though traces of the Thurn and Taxis postal service system existed in Germany until 1867, it was fundamentally at odds with the dominant pattern of European development, the formation of nation-states with powerful central governments. The earliest manifestation of this tendency in the postal realm was the construction of effective nationwide systems of state-controlled relay posts.

In 1477, Louis XI of France established a Royal Postal Service with 230 mounted messengers. Henry VIII appointed a Master of the Posts in 1516 to maintain regular postal delivery along the significant highways from London. These systems were neither comprehensive nor meant to benefit the public. However, the security and consistency of the service along some routes unavoidably led to an increase in the volume of non-official mail carried.

After initial efforts to prohibit this activity in France, its monetary benefits were recognised, and private letter delivery was authorised in about 1600. The foundation for a genuine public service was not formed until 1627, when fees and schedules were set, and post offices were constructed in the largest cities. By royal proclamation in 1635, a distinct public service was established in Britain “for the settlement of the letter-office of England and Scotland.” Along the main post routes, Thomas Witherings, a London merchant, was tasked with establishing regular daytime and nighttime services.

In both nations, these state systems inevitably evolved into monopolies, as such an evolution was viewed as good for both the security of the state and its profits. In England, the installation of state posts along important roadways was accompanied by the abolition of private and municipal posts under the royal monopoly. However, “common carriers” could still transport mail on routes not covered by the royal system.

In 1672, France designated postal services as a governmental monopoly for which operating rights were auctioned. Private enterprises that had secured legal rights in this industry were permitted to continue. Still, private messenger services were eventually put out of business or acquired by the government due to governmental competition. In exchange for hefty compensation, the University of Paris, the most significant private rival, handed up its remaining postal powers in 1719.

There was still room for private industry to prosper by developing services not supplied by governmental systems at the time. The creation of local collection and delivery services in the large cities of London and Paris represented a significant stride in postal history. In 1680, when William Dockwra established Penny Post, London was the first city to profit from an urban service.

The plan was distinguished by the fact that letters were pre-paid and postmarked to identify the place of mailing and the time of dispatch. Deliveries were made nearly every hour. Docker was tried for violating the governmental monopoly, and his service was shut down in November 1682 before being revived by the government. In Paris, a similar local service was not started until 1759. Similarly, it was swiftly absorbed into the national postal system, although its inventor, Claude-Humbert Pierron de Chamousset, was compensated. Thus, the state monopolies broadened their scope, combining improved public service with increased profits.

During the latter half of the eighteenth century, rapid economic expansion and the resulting need for improved mail services to expanding commercial and industrial centres spurred the development of the English postal system. In 1765, a large-scale road construction programme was initiated, laying the way for the age of the stagecoach. The post office originally utilised these in 1784 and quickly replaced mounted postboys on the most important routes.

In the 1830s, the average speed increased from six or seven miles per hour to ten miles per hour due to roadways and vehicle design advancements. As a result of the stagecoaches enabling a broad reform of the entire postal distribution system, letters could be delivered the morning after posting to locations more than 120 miles from London. Mail service with exceptional speed, frequency, and security requirements was developed during this period.

Despite the disruptions caused by the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, substantial progress was made throughout Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to improve the speed and regularity of postal service and to provide internal delivery services to most of the larger cities. Even in the United States, postal services expanded at an astounding rate: in 1789, there were only 75 post offices, but forty years later, there were over 8,000.

The reforms of Rowland Hill

Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, published in 1837 by British educator and tax reformer Rowland Hill (later Sir Rowland Hill), is justly recognised as one of the most significant milestones in postal development. It was proved decisively, based on a thorough analysis of the cost structure of postal operations, that conveyance fees constituted a negligible part of the total cost of handling a letter.

The then-current elaborate distance-based charge scales proved irrelevant: they raised operational expenses by necessitating many clerks to apply them and generate complex interoffice accounts. In addition, he saw that another significant component of the present cost structure – the collecting of cash on delivery — was completely unnecessary.

Hill’s answer was a standard postage rate regardless of distance and prepayment of postage with adhesive stamps sold by the post office. Hill advocated a standard charge of one cent per half an ounce, estimating that the “natural cost of distribution” would be slightly less. The cheapest postal rate was four cents, while the average rate was six and a quarter pence (11.56 cents).

Not unexpectedly, Hill’s plans quickly received widespread support: public agitation for the “penny post” overcame early political apathy. The uniform rate and a prepayment system by stamps were implemented in 1840. The originality of Hill’s suggestion for a self-adhesive postage stamp has been questioned. However, this is immaterial when evaluating the work’s overall quality.

The significance of his reforms lies not only in the fact that they brought the post within the financial reach of the majority of the population but also in the less obvious way that they equipped the postal system with the technical capacity to meet the resulting vastly increased demand for postal service. The dramatic simplicity of postal structure and processes that characterised Hill’s innovations are key to the speed and efficiency with which current postal systems in many nations process tens of millions of letters daily.

In 1843, Switzerland and Brazil were the first countries to embrace Hill’s method to differing degrees progressively.

The implementation of further reduced tariffs for newspapers (carried for free in certain countries) and printed content (such as the British “Book Post” of 1848) preceded the introduction of uniformly low postage rates for letters. Under intense pressure from entrenched interests, these lowered prices rapidly expanded to include all types of business papers, advertising material, periodicals, etc., despite their original intention of promoting the spread of education. The postcard, introduced by Austria in 1869 as a low-cost means of communication, was quickly adopted by most nations.

The comprehensive postal reforms of the mid-19th century maximised the benefits of technological advancements in transportation during the golden age of the railroad and steamship. These new forms of transportation enabled quicker, more consistent, and more dependable domestic and international postal delivery. Instead of just using trains to transport mailbags more quickly, postal administrations quickly adopted the technique of sorting letters in transit, utilising specially modified rail carriages.

This considerably increased the advantages of railroad transportation. In 1838, the first mobile or railroad post offices travelled between Birmingham and Liverpool, as well as London and Preston. By the end of the 19th century, Britain, many continental European nations, the United States, and India had established a complex network of such services, enabling the delivery of letters the day after mailing at distances three or four times greater than had been possible with the stagecoach, in some cases exceeding 400 miles.

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