The History of Delivery: a Retrospective on 500 Years of UK Postal Service History

Go back 16 Jun 2022
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The History of Delivery

The postal service has been around for about 500 years and, in this time, new and innovative ways have been created to make mail deliveries faster, more efficient, and offer a range of benefits to society as a whole. 

The postal service rapidly became a key channel for communication throughout society, and deliveries were needed to be as quick and efficient as possible in order to get up-to-date correspondence where it needed to go fast enough to remain fresh and relevant. 

Under the postal system set up five hundred years ago, each town was required to have three horses available for the transport of royal letters to and from the royal court. The reliance on the postal system as the country’s key communication channel led to a number of innovations to improve the postal system. 

From horse-drawn carriages in the late 1700s, steam-driven packet ships in the early 1800s trains in 1911, and planes with the first overseas airmail flight taking place in 1918, these technological advances not only helped to open communications with the Commonwealth but also drove societal advances even further – such as improvements in literacy skills throughout the country. 

Nowadays, with the rise of the internet allowing for the development of eCommerce, an unfathomable number of deliveries occur each day. Options are available for the customer too, no longer are deliveries left to chance with your delivery person on a random day, but you can choose tracked, next day, and even same-day deliveries to ensure your item gets to you exactly when you need it.

Horse Powered Deliveries

Under the postal system which was established by Charles II over five hundred years ago, each town throughout the United Kingdom owned three horses – each of which was delegated to the transport of packets of royal letters and the retrieval of information to the Royal Court. In 1512, the king appointed Brian Tuke, the first master of the posts, to run the entire system. 

Brian ensured that more busy towns had to keep a special stable, known as a post, ready to carry mail at a moment’s notice. This post became the etymology for the modern-day term of delivering mail, “post”, and, with the knighting of Brian Tuke in 1516, this became the progenitor for the establishment of the Royal Mail service that we know today. 

Mail on Wheels

a delivery driver fulfilling a customer's online order

With the postal service becoming the primary communication channel for the entire country, pressure began mounting for faster mail deliveries. In 1784, following a trial run between Bristol and London, the horse-drawn coaches featuring the livery of the Royal Mail were deployed for the first time as the very first innovation to the country’s mailing system. 

These coaches averaged up to 8 miles per hour in the summer and 5 miles per hour in the winter – with fresh horses being supplied every 15 miles at most. The speed of these coaches meant that the 400-mile journey from London to Edinburgh was completed in about 60 hours rather than 96 hours by a horse. 

In 1785, the launch of new routes for coaches to deliver mail was introduced following a successful trial period. These include London to Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead and Carlisle. A service to Edinburgh was added a year later, in 1786.

This development in the mailing system also assisted with the implementation of one uniform timezone across the UK, rather than having times which varied by region. 

Before this system was introduced, local time varied from place to place and could not be accurately maintained or measured – thankfully, the postal service brought about the change to a standardised timezone, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as mail collections were then governed by one single uniform time regardless of the location they took place in. 

GMT was first introduced on the railways on December 11, 1847 with the vast majority of Great Britain’s public clocks becoming standardised to GMT across the next 8 years by 1855.

Traversing the Waves

International trade was exclusively carried out via ocean travel during the 17th century and, for the mail delivery trade, packet ships were used for the delivery of mail to and from the colonies. 

In 1821, steam-driven packet ships were introduced for the efficient delivery of mail across the British Empire and the Commonwealth.
This development led to the founding of Royal Mail Ships (RMS) in 1840, with ships that were contracted for the delivery of mail being allowed to feature the designation.
These were extremely popular innovations, as the ships ran on strict timings which ensured that mail was consistently delivered on time. 

Mail by Rail

In 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway reached an agreement that saw the beginnings of mail being carried by train. Naturally, the first route was between Liverpool and Manchester; and this led to the passing of the Railways (Conveyance of Mails) Act in 1838 – requiring railway companies to carry mail by ordinary or special Travelling Post Office (TPO) trains. 

More than 100 years later, by 1963, there were 49 mail trains in operation across the country – with up to five TPOs being attached to passenger trains. Complete TPO trains, meaning TPO trains not attached to passenger trains, ran between London, Aberdeen, and Penzance.

Towards the end of the 20th century, we saw a decline in the use of rail for the transport of mail; and the last TPO service ran on 9 January 2004.

Taking Flight

international hand delivery services

Taking off in the early twentieth century were experiments with air travel, and the first air flight took place on the 17th of December 1903. Around 8 years later, the first scheduled airmail service flew from Hendon to Windsor as part of the Coronation celebrations for King George V. 

In 1918, the first overseas airmail service from the UK began as a joint venture between the Royal Air Force and the British Army Post Office (BAPO). The first route operated between Folkstoke and Cologne, with additional routes being developed within 30 years – rendering Britain as the world’s largest carrier of air mail with 528,000,000 air mail letters being sent outbound in 1976-7.

Bringing in the Motors

TDG Truck

The first motor vehicle to enter service at the Royal Mail was in  1907: a 2.5-tonne lorry called the Maudslay Stores Number 1. This beast of a lorry was in service for 18 years, during which it traversed over 300,000 miles. 

Since the launch of the first Royal Mail delivery van, delivery vehicles of all brands, shapes, and sizes are a common sight on the streets of Britain; many of which adapt to changing consumer trends and economic states in order to deliver to millions of households and businesses across the UK every single day.


The Delivery Group – Your Reliable National & Global Delivery Service

For a delivery service that isn’t stuck travelling 400 miles in 60 hours like they were 500 years ago, The Delivery Group is at your service. We are experts in our field, delivering parcels across the nation and around the world quickly, efficiently, and all at cost-effective pricing, ensuring your items are delivered safely where they need to go. 

Ready to start shipping with The Delivery Group? Contact us today.