In 1516, King Henry VIII established a postal network — the Royal Mail — so that letters could be carried between royal households around Britain. Then, in 1635, King Charles I opened up the Royal Mail to the public. But it was a chaotic system; the person receiving the letter had to pay for the delivery. So, in 1840, the world’s first stamps were introduced. The sender could buy a stamp for a penny and use it to send a letter weighing up to 14 grams to anywhere in Britain. These stamps, which carried an image of Queen Victoria, were called Penny Blacks.
In the early days of the Royal Mail, a postboy would ride on horseback between the royal households delivering letters. Today, letters and parcels are mainly transported by road. But during the 20th century, a lot of post was transported around Britain by train.
We all think of British post post boxes as being bright red. There are currently around 115,000 of these red post boxes, also known as ‘pillar boxes’, across Britain. But the first one, introduced in 1852, was dark green.
Sometimes, special events are marked by painting post boxes a different colour. For example, in 2012, to celebrate the gold medals won by British athletes at the Olympics in London, more than one hundred post boxes were painted gold. In 2020, to mark Black history month, four post boxes were painted black and decorated with stamps depicting notable black Britons.
The Royal Mail certainly delivers fewer letters than it used to because of digital communication. On the other hand, it delivers many more parcels. During lockdown, Royal Mail deliveries of medical supplies became a lifeline for many vulnerable people in isolated areas. Five hundred years on, Henry VIII’s Royal Mail has changed a lot but is still going strong.