Wargrave Local History Society

Latest News - April 2006

Postal History of Reading

The Wargrave Local History Society meeting in April was a fascinating talk by John Chapman on the Postal History of Reading. - considering postal history in general, with local examples.

The earliest posts were in the Roman era - the Romans governing from the Persian Gulf to Scotland needed an effective means of communication. One of the first things they did in Britain was to develop the network of roads - useful for troop movements, but also as routes for carrying letters across the country or to Rome. About every 15 miles would be a way station - or ‘post’ - for changing the messenger’s horses, which is the origin of the phrase ‘post office’.

After the Romans left, the post disappeared for around 1000 years, until Henry I appointed messengers to deliver the king’s letters on horseback. Edward I established a network for changing the horses. It was not only the king who had such a system, as the merchant guilds, the universities and the Church all had private networks (using the same ‘posts’) - but it was a very ad hoc system. By the 16th century, Henry VIII appointed Sir Brian Tuke as Master of the Posts, and he established a good network across the country, linking to packet boats to the continent. The first reference to Reading was in 1549, when Richard Spignall was paid £9 6s 8d to maintain the post in Reading.

James I - in 1609 - established a monopoly for domestic mail for all to use, whilst Charles I thought he could make money from the post system, and encouraged its use. It did not quite work out as he planned, but in 1635 Thomas Witheridge organised schedules on the mail roads - the Great North, the Great Dover, the Great Portsmouth, the Great West, the Great South West, and Great Chester roads (later the A1, A2, A3, A4, A30 and A5). In Cromwell’s time, the Post Office Act of 1657 set out a table of consistent regulations and charges by distance. Charles II appointed Henry Bishop as the first Postmaster General who established the General Letter Office. All the post went to London, where clerks calculated the charge to be paid by the recipient.

The post was carried by postboys - and also by stagecoach. Technically, the latter was illegal, but as they could carry ‘parcels’, a postmaster would bundle up the letters into a parcel to send by coach. In 1784, John Palmer, Bath’s postmaster, introduced a dedicated mail service, in place of the stagecoach or postboys - and thereby speeded up the post - to the speeds possible in Roman times. The coaches were carefully timed, with mail exchanged on the move - the only stops being to change the horses. The service was expensive - 3d for a single sheet to go up to 15 miles, 10d for up to 300 miles (when a labourer only earned 6d a day). For quality control, the letters were stamped to show the day (1 -31) and month I - XII). The originating office had to write on the town name, so the clerks could calculate the cost, but the Reading postmaster invented a die to stamp the town name on, and the idea was adopted across the country, with removable slugs to show the date - and later adding the mileage from London to help the clerks there.

Some local postmasters developed ‘cross posts’ such as Reading to Basingstoke to avoid the distance to London and back - everyone benefited, except the Post Office! So, another Bath postmaster, Ralph Allen, organised a system of cross posts, under Post Office control. Further reform came from Rowland Hill, who proposed a 1d rate for the post. The Post Office thought they would lose too much money, but after only a month a uniform 4d rate was so successful that in January 1840 the ‘penny post’ came into being. Hill also proposed a prepaid label, so that a transaction was not needed at the Post Office every time a letter was sent - but people soon found ways to re-use these ‘stamps’, and so a cancellation mark came into being. Originally, this was separate from the date stamp, but were later combined as a ‘duplex’ mark. Ways to mechanise the postmarking process began in 1857 - Reading getting a machine in 1910. Nowadays, machines even read the postcode, and tell the sorting machines where to send the letters.

John also detailed the provision of main post offices in Reading.