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Royal Mail's future remains to be seen

Apr. 19, 2013 @ 09:56 AM

Before coming here to America I worked for many years as an industrial engineer for Royal Mail, the British Postal Service. It was a good career, I began as a mail carrier, a job very different to our own USPS mail carrier's in that our routes were called 'walks' and that is literally what we did, there was no delivery truck and we walked several miles each day carrying a heavy mail bag. I was fitter and many pounds lighter in those days!

Royal Mail had been around for a long time before I joined them, in fact the British postal service began in the reign of King Henry VIII only 24 years after Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World. In that year Henry established the "Master of the Posts" whose task was to ensure the safe delivery of messages.

Just over a hundred years later, a Scottish King, James VI, came to the English throne and in order to help maintain control of his two kingdoms, he established the Royal Postal Service between London and Edinburgh. His son, Charles I, liked the system, expanded it, called it the Post Office and made it available to the public.

Charles gave the monopoly on delivering mail to Thomas Witherings and the service was not only expanded to foreign destinations, but Witherings was also ordered to construct "six great roads" to connect the various parts of the country. That did not last long; within a decade Charles was at war with his own Parliament in the English Civil Wars and eventually they chopped off his head.

Communications are an essential of war and one thing the Civil Wars did was bring improvements to the mail service. In the 11 years after the fighting stopped there was no king, Parliament governed Britain and the mail service was quite efficient although it was controlled by the government's Spymaster General, whose agents liked opening and reading other people's mail. The other drawback was that the fee for carrying the letters was paid by the recipient so, if the person to whom it was addressed refused to accept it, the Post Office did not get paid.

The monarchy was eventually restored, rescinded all of Parliament's ordnances and re-established the General Post Office. The mail system slowly expanded over the next 170 years. Mail coaches were introduced, making enticing targets for highwaymen but speeding the delivery of mail.

Unfortunately, over the years corruption also grew and by 1839 the British postal system was expensive, old-fashioned and unreliable. Along came Sir Rowland Hill who proposed drastic changes.

At that time the cost of posting a letter depended on how far it had to go and how many sheets of paper were used. Postage was either paid by the sender and indicated by a hand stamped impression on the outside of the letter, or by the recipient. In 1838, Hill sent a paper to Parliament in which he proposed "the postage on all letters received in a post-town, and delivered in the same, or any other post-town in the British Isles, shall be at the uniform rate of one penny per half ounce".

Parliament liked the idea and in 1840 they passed an Act that made the Uniform Penny Post law. As part of his proposal, Hill also suggested the use of adhesive pieces of paper to indicate postage had been paid. These were to be called "stamps" after the hand stamps they were replacing and the first of them became known as Penny Blacks because of the color. They bore an image of Queen Victoria's head to indicate where they came from and even today Britain is the only country in the world that does not have its name on its stamps.

Financially the new penny post was a disaster. Traffic went up, revenue went down and it was thirty years before the post office became profitable again. What it did do however was improve communication links, education, business and social discourse.

Things gradually improved over the years. When I joined Royal Mail at a young age they were still very heavily reliant on manual labor but during my time with them major mechanization was introduced. They now have machines that will sort 40,000 letters an hour and with remote coding, a letter can be posted at one end of the country and delivered at the other the next morning with the only person touching it being the delivery mail carrier, everything else is done automatically.

That should mean Royal Mail's future looks rosy but there are other forms of technology and the advent of email, social websites and electronic billing means that the letter traffic has dropped a huge amount since its peak. Fewer people are now writing letters but more packets and parcels are being sent. Can the old firm cope with the changing times, especially now that they no longer have me to help guide them? We will have to wait and see.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.