Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: April 28, 2020
Webpage updated: May 12, 2021




Postmen of the British Empire, English, 1904.
From a postcard.

On Friday January 10th 1840 the Universal Penny Post was introduced.  Mail was now to be charged by weight and the minimum charge was one penny.  Postage was now to be prepaid by the sender instead of paid by the unsuspecting recipient.

In order to cope with the anticipated demand for the service, the Lords of the Treasury issued regulations requiring that 'Letter Boxes shall be closed one hour or half hour (as the case may require) earlier than at present, before the despatch of each Mail.'  The Letter Box at the Plymouth Post Office was thus closed at 8.15am for the Mail to London; 2.45pm for Falmouth, Tavistock and North Devon; and 5pm for Bath, Bristol, the North of England, Wales and Ireland.  A late posting fee was charged for anything handed in after that: one penny for the first half-hour and twopence for the subsequent half-hour.

The sending of letters was made easier by the introduction of adhesive postage stamps on Wednesday May 6th 1840.  A notice issued to the public at that time read:-

'In those cases where Adhesive Stamps are used, it is requested that they may be placed upon the right hand corner on the upper side. Should this direction not be attended to, from the rapidity with which the duty must be performed, Letters which bear Stamps will frequently be taxed, while the parties receiving them will be put to much trouble in obtaining a return of the Postage improperly charged. In all cases of complaint, whether of overcharge or of any other irregularity, the Cover of the Letters must invariably be kept and sent to the Post Office, as affording the only means of investigating the complaint. By Command.'

It seems that the Post Office tried to make the prepayment of postage compulsory but they failed and it is still a citizen's right to send a letter without postage, to be paid by the recipient at double the current rate.

The Penny Post (for a letter up to a half-ounce in weight) quickly became a success story but it seems to have presented the Post Office with a problem they had not anticipated -- post that was not deliverable.  Although streets had names there was no sign affixed to the walls as there are today.  Furthermore, houses and other properties did not have numbers or even names.  They may have been known locally by a name but it may not have been known to the sender of the letter.  By the end of April 1840 the Post Office in Plymouth was displaying a list of non-delivered letters on a list in the lobby.  First on that list was a letter for a Mr Sleeman; number 2 was for a Mr Lazarus; and number 3 for a L P Henry.  The day after the adhesive stamps were introduced the published list had risen to 48 and some of the addresses are a total mystery: where in Plymouth was Tinmouth Street, or Hommes' Tater Garden, or Brad Quay?  But then again why could not Jane Emery in Southside Street not be found, or Mrs Susannah Puckett, in Summerland Place, Union Street?  Most of the undeliverable letters were addressed only to a person, with no indication of where they lived.

Mail from Bristol, Exeter, Tavistock and North Devon was received at Plymouth Post Office at 7am, followed by that from Falmouth at 9.15am.  The post from London arrived at 3.45pm.  At 9.30pm the mail from Bath and a second post from Exeter arrived.  The town letter carriers were sent on their rounds a half-hour after the arrival of the respective mail.  At the same time Post Office messengers were also sent out to Devonport, East Stonehouse, Saltash, Compton Gifford, Knackersknowle (Crownhill), Jump (Roborough), Horrabridge, Crabtree, Oreston and Wembury.  The rural messengers would arrange to get back into Plymouth at an appropriate time before the despatch of the outgoing mails at 9.15am for London; 3.45pm for Falmouth, Tavistock and North Devon; and 6pm for Exeter, Bristol and Bath.

The Royal Mail was first brought from Exeter to Plymouth by the South Devon Railway Company on Thursday June 1st 1848, although it had to be taken off the train at Laira Green Temporary Station until the following year.

Soon larger premises were needed to deal with the increasing volume of letters.  A company of shareholders erected a large and elegant General Post Office in Whimple Street in 1848 and rented out part of it as the Post Office and the postmaster's living quarters.  The General Post Office for were to pay 100 per year for 75 years.  The building was designed by Mr O C Arthur after the style of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli and cost 3,000 to build.  The first postmaster to occupy it was a Mr Charles Markes.

Although at the time not a part of the Borough of Plymouth, the village of Tamerton Foliot, to the north of Plymouth, had a "Receiving Office" or Branch Post Office in 1851.  Mrs Sarah Hull, a 91-years-oldblind widow, was the Post Mistress.  Royal Mail arrived and was despatched via the General Post Office in Plymouth.

In 1852 the York Street Branch Post Office was opened at the premises of Mr J Willmot's York Street Medical Hall.

A significant development in 1855 was the abolition of compulsory stamp duty of a penny per sheet on newspapers.  This led to the expansion of the newspaper industry generally (both the Western Morning News and the Western Daily Mercury were established in Plymouth in 1860).  Instead, a Printed Paper postage rate was introduced.

Uniforms had been issued to London's postmen as early as 1793 but this was not extended to the larger provincial offices until 1856.   The purpose of a uniform was not 'corporate image', as it might be today, but in order to detect postmen 'loitering and mis-spending their time in ale houses'.  In Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport the postmen first showed off their new uniforms on Sunday June 21st 1857.  It consisted of a scarlet coat and royal cockades in their hats.  For wet weather they were provided with an oil case cape.  At the same time the postmen received a two shilling a week increase in their wage packet.

The introduction of prepaid stamps back in 1840 had made it unnecessary to go to a Post Office every time and this allowed the general introduction of Wall Boxes and Pillar Boxes.  The first of the latter were introduced into Plymouth and East Stonehouse in April 1856.  They were described as 'of an octagonal form, between four and five feet in height, and nearly three feet in circumference, with a hole of a sufficient size on one of the sides to admit a newspaper, having on the inside a spring, which yields to a gentle touch, but falls back to its former position when the letter is dropped in, thus making it perfectly safe'.   Painted in white letters on a black background a short distance below the aperture were the specified posting times: viz. 'North Mail, 10.30am; Cornish, 12.45pm; London, 5.30pm; and Cornish 9pm.  On Sundays at 5.30pm only'.

Four Pillar Letter Boxes were provided, one on the Parade, one in Clarence Street, one in Princess Square, and one at North Hill.  

Some apprehension had evidently been expressed that they were not sufficiently safe so the "Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal" tried to reassure its readers by pointing out 'that they are about a ton in weight, therefore, there can be no fear of their being carried away'.

A further Pillar Box was installed during mid-April 1858 at the head of North Street.

Always on the look out for new enterprises, the Post Office Savings Bank was started in September 1861, with interest on deposits paid at 2%.  Deposits were transferred to the National Debt Commission, where they were invested in government securities.  There was a great deal of discussions nationally on whether to turn this service into a Giro Bank, on the pattern of that established in Austria at the time, but this proposal did not succeed.  It was felt that the Post Office wanted to keep people's money in the Bank, not allow them to withdraw it just when they felt like it!

Another new facility followed in 1870, when half-penny Postcards were introduced as a cheap alternative to letters.  By this time it cost one penny to send a letter up to one ounce in weight, which was cheaper than for the previous thirty years.

In that same year, the private telegraph companies were transferred into the Post Office, although they remained separate units at least until 1876.

In 1874 a pamphlet was circulated in Plymouth complaining about the inadequacy of the old General Post Office in Whimple Street and it was stated that at that time there was a staff of 45 plus 34 postmen, 55 telegraph officers and 30 messenger boys.  A bit different from Miss Rivers and her 1 assistant and 1 postman.

Plymouth had five "Receiving Offices" in 1878, although they did Money Order business, Savings Bank business and Telegraph Office work so they were in effect Branch Post Offices.  They were at: The Exchange; Cecil Street; Hastings Terrace; North Hill; and at Union Street.

In an attempt to encourage children into the habit of saving money, a scheme was introduced in 1880 whereby they could affix a penny stamp to a card, which , when full, could be credited to a savings account.  Teachers were encouraged to promote this scheme in elementary schools throughout the country after 1902/03.

It was felt that the Money Order business started back in 1838 were largely used by wealthy people for sending large cash sums around the country and that a system was needed to give the same opportunity to the poorer part of the population.  This was achieved in 1881 by the introduction of Postal Orders.

As a result of the controversy caused by the 1874 pamphlet mentioned earlier, the site of the Saint Andrew's Hall in Westwell Street, opposite the Guildhall, was purchased in 1881 for a larger General Post Office building.  The foundation stone was laid by Mr P S Macliver, a former Member of Parliament for Plymouth.   Designed by Mr E G Rivers of Bristol, a surveyor to HM Commissioner of Works, it was constructed of Portland stone and Cornish granite in the Gothic style.  The contractor was Messrs Lapthorn and Goad of Plymouth and the cost of the site and building amounted to 16,500.

Plymothians were able to take urgent Royal Mail letters to Plymouth Station and hand them to the sorters on the mail train.  But on and after November 1st 1882 the mail had to be placed in letter-boxes on the train, thus relieving the sorting clerks from being disturbed.  Because letters had to be posted by 7pm in Plymouth General Post Office, or 7.15pm at East Stonehouse, the Western Morning News argued for the Night Mail train to leave Plymouth later in the evening.

The Parcel Post service was introduced in 1883, following the Royal Assent to the Post Office (Parcels) Act of 1882.


Mr William Power Reed was the Post Master at Westwell Street in 1889, supported by his Chief Clerk, Mr William Jennings, the Postal Superintendent, Mr William J James, and the Telegraph Superintendent, Mr Charles Collings.

Although still known as "Receiving Offices", Plymouth had a lot more Branch Post Offices in 1889.  In addition to the Cecil Street Branch Post Office, the Deptford Place Branch Post Office, the Exchange Branch Post Office, the North Hill Branch Post Office, the Tracey Street Branch Post Office and the Union Street Branch Post Office there were now the Barbican Branch Post Office, the Cattedown Branch Post Office, the Exeter Street Branch Post Office, the Holborn Place Branch Post Office, the Laira Branch Post Office, the Millbay Branch Post Office, the Mutley Branch Post Office, the Old Town Street Branch Post Office, the Russell Street Branch Post Office, the York Street Branch Post Office, and the West Hoe Branch Post Office.  The Milehouse Branch Post Office, which was actually in Devonport, received its Royal Mail from the General Post Office, Plymouth, so it was included as a Plymouth Branch.  A new Branch Post Office was opened in March 1889 at Durnford Street, East Stonehouse.  There were now also the Compton Gifford Branch Post Office, the Oreston Branch Post Office and the Turnchapel Branch Post Office.

In 1890 horse-drawn mail carts were introduced nationally for rural deliveries but I am not sure at the moment as to how this affected the Plymouth area.

The cost of posting a letter was at an all-time low in 1897, when up to 4 ounces in weight could be sent for one penny.  The cost of postage never fell that low again.

In July 1903 some interesting statistics were given showing how the use of the postal service had greatly increased since 1882.  For a start the number of employees working in the main post office had risen from 301 to 803.  The weekly average of letters posted had increased from 137,267 to 275,757.  There were seven town post offices in 1882 and 45 in 1902 while the number of pillar and wall boxes had risen from 53 to 189.

The General Post Office in Westwell Street, Plymouth, was enlarged in 1903 to cover the whole of the site they had bought in 1881.

Wages rates paid to workers in the Post Office were very varied and a postman in Plymouth was probably on different pay from his opposite number in Exeter.  In 1907 the rates in the provinces were unified into seven "classes", class 7 receiving between 15s at age 19 to 24s at age 51 and those at class 1 receiving between 19s and 36s.

The Great War

During the Great War it once again cost a penny to post a letter up to one ounce in weight.  The four ounce letter of 1897 cost 2d.  The Penny Post came to an end on June rd 1918, when the minimum cost went up to 1 pence although the minimum weight went up to 4 ounces.

When the Great War ended in 1918 there were a large number of motor vehicles up for disposal by the military authorities and it may have been this that spurred the Post Office to purchase its first motor vans in 1919.   There were 48 of them at first so they were probably confined to the London area.   The introduction of motor vehicles throughout the provinces seems to have been a subject of tremendous argument as it was not felt that it was saving any expense, except on the rural services.

1920s and 1930s

In 1920 postage cost 2 pence but that covered a letter of anything up to three ounces in weight.  In 1922 an intermediate 1 pence rate was introduced for letters up to one ounce and in 1923 that was increased to two ounces.

A major event took place in Plymouth in 1928, although without any ceremony.  On Sunday March 25th the sorting office was transferred from the General Post Offices in both Plymouth and Devonport to a new Postal Sorting Office in Cemetery Road, Pennycomequick.  It opened the following day.

Motor-cycles were introduced nationally in 1932 for the use of the telegram boys or messengers, who had to be aged 17 years at minimum.

Following the transfer of sorting facilities to Pennycomequick, the opportunity was taken to reconstruct the interior of the main General Post Office in Westwell Street.  When this was finished, the building had an inlaid floor depicting Drake's ships and the "Mayflower".   The building was re-opened for business by Sir Kingsley Wood, Postmaster-General, on May 17th 1933.

Second World War

Unfortunately all that expense was wasted for on the night of March 20th/21st 1941 the building was destroyed by bombing.  The Post Office moved to temporary premises at 10 Tavistock Road, known as Spear's Corner.

It was announced on Saturday August 9th 1941 that the General Post Office had made ready a fleet of motor vans fitted out as mobile post offices to be rushed to any location in the South West where the post office had been put out of action by enemy raids.  Also ready for use was a prefabricated building with more facilities and even spare sets of post office furniture that could be rushed anywhere it was needed.


Premium Bonds were launched in 1956.  Plymouth's General Post Office, Spear's Corner, remained open until close of business on September 10th 1957, when Mr Ken Thompson, Assistant Postmaster-General, officially opened the post-war General Post Office at Saint Andrew's Cross.  The new premises opened for business the following day.  Postcodes were introduced between 1966 and 1974.

As from October 1st 1969 the General Post Office ceased to be a government department run by the Postmaster-General and staffed by civil servants and instead became a public corporation.  By this time the postage for a letter up to 4 ounces was 5 pence.

The Royal Mail's sole right to carry letter post in the United Kingdom ceased after 350 years at midnight on December 31st 2005.