Thursday, December 03, 2009 12/3/09 - postal service

In today's excerpt - postal service as we know it has
its origins in 16th century England, with an extra
charge if the letter contained a second sheet of

"The postal service was not originally designed for
public use. It emerged haphazardly in the 16th century
to provide horses and messengers in times of war for
Henry VIII. A major aim was to establish a government
monopoly over the gathering and censoring of
information and mail. As well as controlling the flow of
intelligence, it would oversee the delivery of diplomatic
correspondence, support foreign and domestic policy
and help to raise revenue. The king's first Master of
the Posts, Sir Brian Tuke (d.1545), selected local
postmasters and divided the six major roads from
London into stages.

"Increased literacy, trade and an interest in news soon
led merchants and the public to demand access to
the post. But it wasn't until 1635 that a London
merchant Thomas Witherings (d.1651) offered a
proposal to organize the first postal system for public
use. A Royal Proclamation for the 'settling of the Letter-
Office of England and Scotland' gave Witherings the
authority to establish fixed, regular posts. Each post
town had its own mail bag to and from London,while
foot posts carried letters further on. The central
London office at Bishopsgate co-ordinated mail on six
main roads, charging 2d a letter for up to 80 miles. ...

"After the Restoration in 1660 Charles II intensified
intelligence activities on post roads that passed
through London. Secretaries of State were given the
right to open letters. It was rumored that state
employees could take impressions of seals, imitate
writing perfectly and copy a letter in a minute by
pressing damp tissue paper over the ink. At the same
time, the Six Clerks of the Road in London were
informally allowed to frank newspapers to local
postmasters, who provided drink, gossip and horses,
as well as news. This right to send newspapers
postage-free led to profits for the six clerks and
reduced prices of papers for readers. It would have a
profound effect on the spread of newspapers.
Paradoxically, the roles of the Post Office as both a
censor and newsagent coexisted throughout the
century. ...

"Country letters that passed through London were
sorted and directed to one of the six roads. Postage
due at delivery was written across the address for the
recipient to pay. If it was suspected that more than one
sheet of paper was enclosed, envelopes were held up
to a candle and extra was charged for each additional
sheet therein."

Susan Whyman , "The Royal Mail: A Passion for the
Post," History Today, Volume: 59, Issue: 12.


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