Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: April 28, 2020
Webpage updated: May 07, 2020




The reason the British postal system is called the Royal Mail is because that is precisely how it started, as a private means of getting the King's messages around his Kingdom.  King Henry I employed Royal Messengers and Couriers for that purpose.  In 1510 King Henry VIII appointed a Master of the Messengers and Runners, which was more commonly called the King's Posts, but again this was a service for the use of the King and his government.   Letters were sent to the mayors of boroughs and they were ordered to pass them on as speedily as possible, after writing on the front the name of the town, the date and the time.

Plymouth is first mentioned in the list of posts in 1588, when riders were to pay 2d a mile for every horse and a guide was paid a groat.  In 1590 the service between London and Plymouth was divided into fourteen stages, with rates varying according to the distance.  The dearest was 2s 6d.   Around the same period, the Widey Court Book tells us, Plymouth Corporation employed two men, Peter the Post and Russell the Post, presumably for delivering messages within the Town.

But in 1630 there came competition.   Apparently a Mr Samuel Jude from London had started his own packet service between London and Plymouth.  A good old English compromise was reached and it was agreed that there would be a weekly despatch of all letters from Plymouth to London and in reverse, with letters being delivered up to 20  miles off the route.

However, that was short-lived because in 1635 King Charles I opened up the service to anyone upon payment of a fee by the recipient, not the sender.  Five main postal routes were set up, one of which was to Plymouth.  Letters could be sent from Plymouth to Edinburgh, Norwich, Bristol or Holyhead but they had to go via London.   Postage was charged on a mileage basis, 2d for under 80 miles, 4d for up to 140 miles and 6d for journeys of over 140 miles.  The number of sheets of paper were also taken into account.  Thus a letter was folded over and the name and address written on the back of the top sheet rather than using an envelope, which would have cost extra.

In 1660, in the reign of King Charles II, an Act of Parliament established 'one general post office and one officer stiled the Postmaster-General of England and Comptroller of the Post Office'.

Mr Abraham Biggs was the first Postmaster to be appointed in Plymouth.  He was followed by Mr Samuel Northcote, who issued tokens bearing the legend S. N. Postma.  The Plymouth City Museum holds one of these tokens.   He was responsible for establishing the Town's first post office in 1658 but its location is not known.

In 1677 the Post Master was a Mr Robert Blackburne and he was paid a salary of 190 a year.  Out of that sum he had to pay personally for mail going onwards into Cornwall, however.

From 1785/86 onwards, fast mail coaches replaced the post boy on a horse and as the rather poor roads were improved by the introduction of Turnpike Trusts, so the speed of the mails was greatly increased.  These coaches were operated by contractors who were  responsible for providing the horses, coachmen, and coaches but the timetables were fixed by the Post Office.  As a result, the coaches tended to get faster and spend less and less time stopped at inns so the passengers moved to the more sedate but slower stage coaches.

The first known location of a Post Office in Plymouth was in 1794 when a Miss Mary Rivers(1737-1833) was appointed as Post Mistress.  Her salary was 108 a year and her Post Office was in her own home in Lower Broad Street, which c1827 was renamed Bilbury Street.  She operated the Bilbury Street Post office with one assistant (Mr Charles Markes (1789-1854)) and one postman.

Between 1795 and 1834 there was a "Receiving House" on the Barbican for letters to and from the Royal Navy and merchant ships moored around the Port of Plymouth.  It was known as the Navy Post office and atone time was based in the Navy Tavern in Southside Street.

In April 1801 the Postage Act 1801 increased the postal charges.  The 5th Clause of the Act allowed the Postmaster-General to set up delivery and collection arrangements with towns and villages in the neighbourhood of any post town.  Both Plymouth and \Plymouth-Dock started several 5th Clause Posts as a result.  However, from 1808 onwards there was a move away from the 5th Clause Posts to the local Penny or Two-penny Posts.

Plympton gained the status of a Post Town in 1822.

According to the "Tourist's Companion", dated 1823, the Royal Mail from London and Exeter arrived at Plymouth at 5.30am.  Letters from Truro arrived at 6.10pm while those from Saltash arrived at 7pm followed by letters from Tavistock at 7.30pm.  Outgoing Royal Mail left Plymouth Post Office at 5.30am for Truro; at 6.10am for Tavistock; at 6.10am for Saltash; and at 8.40pm for Exeter and London.  A "Two-penny Post" existed between Plymouth and Plymouth-Dock and that left Plymouth at 5.30am and 3pm and Plymouth-Dock at 11am and 6.10pm.  A Special Messenger delivered the letters to their addresses.

Although it is recorded that the first post boxes appeared in Jersey in 1852 and in London in 1855, it is interesting to note that what were called Receiving Boxes were listed in Plymouth as early as 1836.  They were located at the Royal Hotel; at the junction of Old Town Street and Drake Street; and at the Post Offices in Saint Aubyn Street, Devonport, and Union Street, East Stonehouse.  The one in Old Town Street was presumably close to the sub-post office run by Mr J Smyth, the chemist, at nunber 32.

Money Order Offices had been introduced as a private business within the Post Office in 1792 to prevent embezzlement of cash from letters.  It became an official Post Office service in 1838.

From the introduction on Friday January 10th 1840 of the Uniform Penny Post the use of the postal service in the United Kingdom expanded in leaps and bounds.  The story continues .....