History of the post office

The fascinating history of British post offices - how did they get where they are today?

Britain’s post offices as we know them today began life in 1660 with the founding of the General Post Office by King Charles II. Predating this was the establishment by Henry VIII of the position of “Master of the Posts”, later to become Postmaster General; but it was not until 1635 that Royal Mail was made available to the paying public. The Royal Mail was so-called because its original purpose was to convey royal and government documents across the country.

The General Post Office, overseen by the Postmaster General, was to see a postal network formed throughout the country, with Bath’s Postmaster, Ralph Allen, playing a particularly prominent role in its development between 1719 and 1763. Over the coming centuries the General Post Office was also taken overseas, with branches being established throughout the empire for effective communications with the colonies. The General Post Office became a statutory corporation in 1969, when it was abolished and had its assets handed over to The Post Office; this was separated from Royal Mail in 1986 when it became Post Office Counters Ltd (and simply Post Office Ltd. in 2001).

Offerings from the Post Office today have developed vastly from its historical function of delivering royal documents. Though the services on offer may differ from branch to branch, the larger branches of the Post Office will provide a comprehensive range of services which are by no means limited to delivering mail. Many offer banking in conjunction with ‘partner banks’ such as Lloyds TSB or Alliance and Leicester, including cash withdrawal and paying in services. The Post Office’s long-running collaboration with National Savings and Investments allows it to offer transactions relating to NS&I products, and it also offers its own savings products including the Post Office ISA, launched in 2008. Recently it established itself as an insurance provider and mortgage lender, and in addition to this, landline telephone, mobile phone top-up and broadband internet services are available. Government services such as passport and driving licence applications can be made through the Post Office, as well as a number of other miscellaneous transactions such as National Lottery tickets and currency exchange.

The position of the Post Office as a wholly owned subsidiary of Royal Mail Group Ltd means that only 373 of the 12,000 UK branches of the Post Office are directly managed by Post Office Ltd, with the remaining branches managed by local subpostmasters or franchise partners. Those wishing to buy a post office should seek the services of a reputable business agent when initially in search of post offices for sale. The considerations to bear in mind when purchasing one are essentially the same as those in buying a shop or newsagent – such as the location, competition, client base and so forth. However, as seen above, post offices do offer a wide range of different services, so there will inevitably be more to learn than in a straightforward corner shop. The National Federation of SubPostmasters is a good source of information to help you with your purchase. Note that, when buying a post office, the Post Office Ltd must approve the appointment of a new subpostmaster; even if you have already made an agreement with the vendor, the deal cannot be finalised without this approval.

Rachel is a freelance blogger on a variety of business topics, from business history to buying and selling a business.