Going TO THE POST

As it seems that we are likely to lose thousands of our rural Post Offices it would be interesting to look back at their origins. We must look back a very long way to such ancient kingdoms as China, Egypt, Assyria, Persia and the Roman Empire. All governments had to find the means of communicating with provincial officials, so they set up relay systems by which messages were carried by runners or mounted couriers. Their routes were marked by buildings where food, rest and changes of horses would be provided and fresh messages added to their load. These were marked by tall posts and came to be called Post Houses. In the time of Augustus Caesar there were thousands of post houses ail over the Roman Empire. In thirteenth century China the great Emperor Kublai Khan had 10,000 postal stations.

In mediaeval Europe private postal relays grew up through which merchants, religious groups, universities and other public bodies communicated. With the arrival of the printing press in the early 1400s leading to a great expansion of literacy, private mail systems were in demand. The German Thurn and Taxis family became fabulously rich when they organized private postal relays throughout central Europe. It was inevitable that the ruling monarchs of Europe should seek to set up their own official postal systems; and Henry VIII in England was one of the first to do so. He founded what he called the Royal Post in 1511 and established the position of Master of the Posts, who was responsible for organising relays of horses for despatch riders travelling on affairs of state. Over the next hundred years postmasters were settled in all the important towns in England, dealing with private as well as official post: and in 1657 the "Post Office of England" was established by Act of Parliament.

In 1680 William Dockwra set up a private service called the London Penny Post. He introduced postmarks to show at what time and place the letter had been posted. It proved so successful that the Government took it over in 1682.

The mail was carried on horseback by thousands of so?called postboys, who could be any age from 16 to 60, with the mailbags tied behind them on the horse. They were dressed in uniform and blew post horns to warn postmasters of their approach. During the eighteenth century roads improved tremendously and travel by stagecoach became common. All the principal inns and hotels provided changes of horses corresponding to the posting stations. It was possible to hire a fast, light vehicle called a post?chaise for private travel. Rich people owned their own post?chaises and changed horses at each stage of their journey at the posting inns. The Craven Arms at Southam was one of these posting houses, with stabling for eighty horses. The four?horse stagecoaches could travel much faster than the postboys carrying the mail on horseback. Postboys were often attacked and robbed , and the Post Office was losing money by this and also through post being illegally carried by the stagecoaches. A business man called John Palmer suggested that in future the mail should be carried in special fast coaches, and in 1784 the first Mail Coach was introduced.

All the new Mail Coaches were painted in a livery of black and maroon, with the Royal Arms painted on the door panel, proclaiming that this was the Royal Mail. They carried passengers, but the most important passenger was the guard to protect the mail.

He was smartly dressed in a scarlet coat and black breeches, and a tall hat with a gold band round it. He carried a brace of pistols, a cutlass and a blunderbuss. His seat was on top of the coach at the rear, and raised so that he could sit with his feet on the mail box. His duty was to get the mail through on his scheduled timetable and to let nothing stand in his way. Late passengers were left behind.

Many stage coaches came through Southam, stopping at the Craven Arms and the King's Head. Among them were two mail coaches per day. The London Mail arrived with post for Southam every night at twenty minutes past eight, going on via Banbury, Bicester and Aylesbury. The Birmingham Mail came through every morning at halfpast six. Up to the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign people were still writing letters in the old?fashioned way. The letter was written on a sheet of paper which was folded and sealed with a blob of sealing wax and the address written on the outside. Letters were charged according to their weight ; and the recipient, not the sender, paid the charge.

It was quite usual for people to do what was called "crossing" their letter. Having filled the page, they then turned it sideways and wrote across the lines they had just written. Some people even re?crossed and wrote diagonally. This saved ; the recipient the expense of a second sheet of paper. Then in 1837 a man of genius called Rowland Hill wrote a pamphlet entitled "Post Office Reform," in which he called for a uniform Penny Post, paid by the sender, who would buy adhesive stamps at the local Post Office. He also advocated the use of envelopes instead of folded paper with sealing wax, and official postmen to deliver the letters. The first official adhesive postage stamps, the famous Penny Blacks, were issued in 1840.

Thus began the Royal Mail as we know it today. Wall boxes and pillar boxes., mainly in the now familiar red, for posting letters appeared in even the smallest village. New houses had front doors with letterboxes for the post to be delivered. Uniformed postmen collected the letters and delivered them at stated times. There was also a parcel post. Post Offices came to be used for all kinds of official payments, including up to recent times old age pensions. Money could be sent by using Postal Orders. With the advent of the railways much of the post was carried by rail, with special coaches for sorting the letters and parcels en route. The old Royal Mail coaches gave way to motor vans. Mail going abroad was taken by air.

With the invention of the telephone people began to write fewer personal letters, preferring to speak directly to relations and friends. In the early days Southam Post Office was also the telephone exchange. Alfred Harrison was Postmaster at the time. Nowadays people communicate more and more by fax and E mail and carry out business on the Internet, although parcel post has been increased by Internet shopping. Rival postal companies have been allowed to develop, taking over functions of the Royal Mail, and we are told that it is running at a loss. Even so, the local Post Office , which is also often a shop, plays an important part in every community, especially in isolated rural areas. These are the very place where the Post Office should NOT be axed, but retained as an important social service.

This article has been kindly written by Irene Cardall

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Previous Articles Published before 2010
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> Going to the post Irene Cardall

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