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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Post Office

(until 1969 the General Post Office or GPO)
Organization responsible for postal services in Britain. Established in 1635 by *Charles I as a public service under royal monopoly, and already known in the 17C as the General Post Office, it ceased to be a government department in 1969. Its monopoly powers have since been considerably reduced.

By the late 18C the postal service was highly organized, and improved roads were making for impressive delivery speeds. In 1784 the first regular *mail coach was established, from London to Bath and Bristol. Soon coaches were leaving London each evening at 8 p.m. for a variety of destinations, accompanied by armed guards. Letters reached Edinburgh in less than 48 hours, but postage was expensive and the method of payment inefficient. The cost depended on the distance travelled and the number of sheets (resulting in some very cramped writing); moreover the charge was made on delivery, so the letter had to make an expensive return journey if not accepted.

In 1840 Rowland Hill (1795–1879) swept away these restrictions in a single bold scheme, much ridiculed when he first proposed it, which laid the basis for all modern postal services. His new 'penny post' levied a uniform charge by weight (a penny per half ounce) for any letter or package travelling any distance within Britain. Even more crucial, it introduced prepayment. For this Hill proposed special envelopes, designed for him by the artist William Mulready (1786–1863).

But the Mulready envelopes were not popular. What the public preferred was a subsidiary idea of Hill's – small pieces of paper, stating the sum paid and with a 'glutinous paste' on the back for sticking on to one's own envelope. With the Penny Black and the Two Pence Blue the world's first postage stamps had arrived. The monarch's head was considered sufficient national identification, and Britain remains the only country in the world not to be named on its stamps.

The penny post lasted until 1918, but price stability for the first 58 years of the service has been followed by inflation of some 5000% during the rest of the 20th century. In 1968 a distinction was introduced between first- and second-class postage; letters paying the first-class rate are supposed to be delivered to most of the country the following day.

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