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The General Post Office (GPO)[1] was officially established in England in 1660[2] by Charles II and it eventually grew to combine the functions of both the state postal system and telecommunications carrier. Similar General Post Offices were established across the British Empire. In 1969 the GPO was abolished and the assets transferred to The Post Office, changing it from a Department of State to a statutory corporation. In 1981 the organisation was split into separate Post Office and British Telecommunications corporations. For the more recent history of the postal system in the United Kingdom, see the article Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd.

Originally, the GPO was a monopoly covering the despatch of items from a specific sender to a specific receiver, which was to be of great importance when new forms of communication were invented. The postal service was known as the Royal Mail because it was built on the distribution system for royal and government documents. In 1661 the office of Postmaster General was created to oversee the GPO.

Contents

Early postal services

Clerks at work at the post office in London circa 1808.

The GPO created a network of post offices where senders could submit items. All post was transferred from the post office of origination to distribution points called sorting stations, and from there the post was then sent on for delivery to the receiver of the post. Initially it was the recipient of the post who paid the fee, and he had the right to refuse to accept the item if he did not wish to pay. The charge was based on the distance the item had been carried so the GPO had to keep a separate account for each item. In 1840 the Penny Post was introduced, which incorporated the two key innovations of a uniform postal rate, which cut administrative costs and encouraged use of the system, and adhesive pre-paid stamps.

Headquarters

The 19th century headquarters of the General Post Office in St Martins-le-Grand in the City of London.
The Inland Letter Office at the General Post Office in 1845.

In the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, the GPO was based in a succession of locations in the City of London. A new GPO headquarters was built on the eastern side of St Martins-le-Grand in the City of London between 1825 and 1829 to designs by Sir Robert Smirke. It was in the Grecian style with ionic porticoes, and was 400 feet (120 m) long and 80 feet (24 m) deep. In the 1870s a new building was added on the western side of the street to house the Telegraph department, and the General Post Office North was constructed immediately to the north of the Telegraph building in the 1890s as the GPO continued to expand. When the Central London Railway was constructed in 1900 its nearby station was named Post Office. Smirke's building was closed in 1910 and demolished soon afterwards and the current headquarters of BT, a post World War II building, is on the site of the old Telegraph Office.

In the mid 19th century there were four branch offices in London: one in the City at Lombard Street; two in the West End at Charing Cross and Old Cavendish Street near Oxford Street; and one south of the Thames in Borough High Street.[3]

New communication systems

Telephone Box and Edward VII Pillar Box

When new forms of communication came into existence in the 19th and early 20th centuries the GPO claimed monopoly rights on the basis that like the postal service they involved delivery from a sender and to a receiver. The theory was used to expand state control of the mail service into every form of electronic communication possible on the basis that every sender used some form of distribution service. These distribution services were considered in law as forms of electronic post offices. This applied to telegraph and telephone switching stations.

In the mid 19th century several private telegraph companies were established in the UK. The Telegraph Act 1868 granted the Postmaster General the right to acquire inland telegraph companies in the United Kingdom and the Telegraph Act of 1869 conferred on the Postmaster-General a monopoly in telegraphic communication in the UK. Overseas telegraphs did not fall within the monopoly. The private telegraph companies were bought out. The new combined telegraph service had 1,058 telegraph offices in towns and cities and 1,874 offices at railway stations. 6,830,812 telegrams were transmitted in 1869 producing revenue of £550,000. The effective nationalisation of the UK telecommunications industry occurred in 1912 with the takeover of the National Telephone Company which left only a few municipal undertakings independent of the GPO (in particular Hull Telephones Department, and the States of Jersey).

The same principles were applied to telephone, wireless telegraph and wireless telephone services. This latter expansion then incorporated wireless broadcasting which was non-specific in terms of delivery from sender to receiver. At first the GPO referred to all broadcasting transmitters as senders, while individual receivers retained that name. Like the mail, everything was licensed by the General Post Office under the terms of its Royal Charter. This meant that the GPO maintained a monopoly on all communications into, out of, and within the British Islands.

By the same token, the GPO played a vital role during the Second World War in keeping communications links available for the Government, and the armed forces. For example GPO engineers were responsible for providing the command and control facilities of RAF Fighter Command running throughout the Battle of Britain.

Control of broadcasting

This theory ran into trouble when wireless telephone broadcasting was invented, because the senders were not addressing any specific recipient. However, this theory was accepted and made into law and it resulted in an extension of GPO monopoly over all forms of electronic communication.

In 1922 all electrical manufacturers were forced by the GPO to create a single licensed British Broadcasting Company (BBC). In 1927, the original BBC was dissolved when a Royal Charter was given to a new GPO licensed British Broadcasting Corporation.

From the start the GPO had trouble with competitive pirate radio broadcasters who found ways to deliver electronic messages to British receivers without first obtaining a GPO licence. These competitors were well aware of the fact that the GPO would never grant them such a licence. To police these unlicensed stations the GPO evolved its own force of detectives and "detector vans".

The radio regulation functions were transferred to the Independent Broadcasting Authority and later Ofcom. Due to its regulatory role, as well as its expertise in developing long-distance communication networks, the GPO was contracted by the BBC, and the ITA in the 1950s and 60s to develop, and extend their television networks. A network of transmitters was built, connected at first by cable, and later by microwave radio links. The Post Office also took responsibility for the issuing of television licence fees (and radio, until 1971), and the prosecution of evaders until 1991.

Growth in telecommunications

After the Second World War, there began to be an unprecedented demand for telephone services. In addition, there was the need to make comprehensive repairs, and upgrades to a network which had been severely degraded by war, and lack of investment. Waiting lists for new telephone lines quickly emerged, and persisted for several decades. To alleviate the situation, the Post Office began to allow lines (and costs) to be shared between subscribers, known as a party line, however this was far from satisfactory.

At this time, the majority of lines in rural, and regional areas (particularly in Scotland and Wales) were still manually switched. This inhibited growth, and caused bottlenecks in the network, as well as being labour and cost-intensive. The Post Office began to introduce automatic switching, and replaced all of its 6000 exchanges. Subscriber Trunk Dialling was also added from 1958, which allowed subscribers to dial their own long-distance calls.

Banking services

In the mid-1960s the GPO was asked by the government to expand into banking services which resulted in the creation of the National Giro.

Reorganisation, and dissolution

In 1969 the assets of the Post Office were transferred from a government department with a Royal Charter to a Statutory Corporation. Responsibility for telecommunications was given to Post Office Telecommunications, the successor of the GPO Telephones department, with its own separate budget and management. A rebranding exercise also took place, with the word 'General' being dropped from the name; in 1975, the familiar striped 'Post Office' lettering was introduced, still in use by Royal Mail.

In 1981, the British Telecommunications Act split off the telecommunications business to form the British Telecommunications corporation, leaving the Post Office corporation with the Royal Mail, parcels, Post Office Counters and National Girobank businesses; British Telecommunications was converted to British Telecommunications plc in 1984, and was privatised. The businesses of The Post Office were later transferred to Royal Mail Holdings plc, created (as Consignia) in 2001. The Government is the sole shareholder in Royal Mail Holdings plc and its subsidiary Post Office Ltd. Girobank Plc was divested to Alliance & Leicester in 1990.

Finally, on 5 April 2007, the Government published the Dissolution of the Post Office Order, 2007, under which the old Post Office statutory corporation was formally abolished with effect from 1 May 2007.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Summary of Post Office history (British Postal Museum and Archive).
  2. ^ Marshall, Allan. Intelligence and Espionage in the Reign of Charles II, 1660-1685, p79 (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  3. ^ VictorianLondon.org's account of the Post Office.

External links

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