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British Postal Museum and Archive: The Royal Mail Archive

Records created and used by the British Post Office


Reference code(s): POST Collection

Held at: British Postal Museum and Archive: The Royal Mail Archive

Title: Records created and used by the British Post Office

Date(s): 1636-[2010]

Level of description: Collection (fonds)

Extent: 127 series

Name of creator(s): Post Office


Administrative/Biographical history:

The Post Office was established in 1635 by Charles I. The head of this new service was variously known as Master of Posts, Comptroller General of the Posts and Postmaster of England.

The Civil War saw the the Post Office contested by both sides. Acts of Parliament were passed during the Interregnum (1656) and later upon the Restoration (1660). These established the General Post Office as a branch of government which was to be headed by the Postmaster General.

The service at this time consisted of a number of main routes from London to the provinces. Postmasters on the routes collected and distributed mail and collected revenue.

During this period the scope of The Post Office's activities was limited and its administrative functions were largely concerned with its finances. The General Post Office was based in the City of London and was organised into three departments; the Inland Office which handled all internal letters, the Foreign Office which handled all overseas mails and the Penny Post Office which dealt with all locally posted mail for London. This building was destroyed by the Great Fire of London, which might explain why only a small number of Post Office records from that period survive. Those that have survived are largely volumes of accounts detailing levels of income and expenditure through the years. From 1667 the role of Postmaster General became a political appointment. Between 1691 and 1823, two Postmasters General were appointed, one being a Whig and the other a Tory. At the same time the post of Secretary to the Post Office was created. Over time this post developed into one which held real influence within the General Post Office; the Secretary's Office becoming the centre of decision making within Headquarters.

The eighteenth century saw much development of routes and post towns, although the Post Office continued to be run from London. It was not until 1715 that the Post Office appointed its first regional administrators, known as Surveyors. Surveyors were charged with ensuring that those at lower levels in the organisation were doing their duty and that the revenues were being correctly managed.

The nineteenth Century was a period of vast expansion for The Post Office. Postal rates were subject to a reform which resulted in the introduction of penny postage and the adhesive postage stamp. Increased adult literacy led to a dramatic increase in the volume of mail. The latter half of the century saw an explosion of new services as the Post Office moved into banking, telecommunications and set up a parcels operation. It also saw the development of a nationwide network of post offices through which these services could be accessed.

By the end of the century, Headquarters buildings had accumulated large volumes of historical material. To meet the challenge of managing this material, in 1896 The Post Office established its own record room.

The responsibilities of the surveyors had also grown during this period. They became the heads of districts of management; responsible for managing the range of Post Office activities in their areas.

The Post Office's move into telecommunications began in 1870, with the establishment of the United Kingdom telegraph service as a Post Office monopoly. From 1880, the control of the telephone service passed progressively to the Post Office, with the entire service being taken over in 1912. The Post Office also became involved in international telecommunications culminating in 1947 when, following the nationalisation of Cable and Wireless Ltd, it acquired the company's telecommunications assets in Britain. In 1904, the Wireless Telegraphy Act conferred licensing powers on the Postmaster General, and the Post Office continued to regulate radio services until the responsibility was passed to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in 1969. Within the field of broadcasting, the Post Office was responsible for the granting of transmission licences and the collection of radio licence fees, and for advising Parliament on questions of sound and television broadcasting services. In 1933 the Post Office's new Public Relations Division took over the Film Unit from the Empire Marketing Board, and in 1940 this unit was transferred to the Ministry of Information, later becoming the Crown Film Unit.

By the 1930s the size and complexity of The Post Office had grown so much as to lead to public criticism. The result of this was a committee of enquiry; the Bridgeman Committee, which led to a large-scale devolution of powers to provincial management and the creation of eight regions.

The Post Office Act of 1961 created a Post Office fund under the management of the Postmaster General. All income was paid into the fund and all expenditure met out of it. This enabled the Post Office to operate as a business with the financial status of a public authority. However, the Post Office remained a government department answerable to Parliament on day-to-day business.

The Post Office Act of 1969 saw the General Post Office ceasing to be a branch of government and becoming instead a nationalised industry, established as a public corporation. Under the terms of the Act, the Corporation was split into two divisions - Posts and Telecommunications - which thus became distinct businesses. The office of Postmaster General was discontinued and The Post Office, as it was now known, was headed by a Chairman and Chief Executive/Deputy Chairman. This role was directly appointed by the Post Office Board. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was created in 1969 and, in addition to sponsoring the Post Office, took over the functions previously exercised by the Postmaster General in relation to Broadcasting.

The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was dissolved in March 1974. Broadcasting and radio regulation became part of the Home Office, whilst Post and Telecommunications functions became the responsibility of the Department of Industry. The latter merged with the Department of Trade in 1983 to become the Department of Trade and Industry.

In 1981 the telecommunications business of The Post Office became a separate public corporation, trading as British Telecom. In 1984, British Telecom was privatised and since 1991 has traded as BT. Following the 1981 split, the Post Office was then reorganised into two distinct businesses; Post and Parcels. In 1987, there was a further separation of Post Office business as Girobank was transferred to the private sector, eventually being acquired by Alliance and Leicester in 1994.

In late 1986 The Post Office was restructured to create three businesses; SSL (Subscription Services Limited), Royal Mail and Parcelforce. A year later the network of post offices was established as Post Office Counters Limited; a limited company which was a wholly owned subsidiary of The Post Office. Although each of the above had their own Managing Directors and headquarters functions, what was now the Post Office group of businesses retained a headquarters function for group policy. Additionally this Group function continued to provide the rest of the businesses with services and support.

In 1993 the positions of Deputy Chairman and Chief Executive became two separate roles. The position of Chairman as the 'head' of the Post Office remained. The White Paper on Post Office Reform was published in 1999, with the objective of giving greater commercial freedom to the Post Office to enable it to compete and respond to changes in the market place. The paper reduces the governments' financial demands on the business and allows it to borrow from the Government at commercial rates to pay for acquisitions and joint ventures with private companies. This White Paper was followed by the Postal Services Act 2000, which put the recommendations of the White paper into action, giving the postal service the necessary greater commercial freedom. It also established Postcomm as the independent regulator of the postal service, and Postwatch as a national consumer body, which replaced the old Post Office Users National Council (POUNC).

The name Consignia was taken in Spring 2001 as part of an attempt to position the business globally. However, since November 2002, the business that carries letters and parcels and runs the mail has been known as Royal Mail.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records relating to the operation, policy, development and social impact of the British Post Office from 1636 to the present day. In addition to the provision of postal services, the Post Office's responsibilities have included telecommunications between 1868 and 1981, broadcasting until 1961 and selected banking and financial services. This collection was Designated as an outstanding collection by the MLA in October 2005.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

At the beginning of the century, when the classification system was set up, records were divided into series by both subject and function or department. Philatelic POST classes have been more artificially created.

Conditions governing access:

Public Record. Subject to 30 year closure unless otherwise stated.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Photocopies/photographs/microfilm are supplied for private research only at the Postal Heritage Trust's discretion. Please note that material may be unsuitable for copying on conservation grounds, and that photographs cannot be photocopied in any circumstances. See our published policies for full details. Researchers who wish to publish material must seek copyright permission from the copyright owner.

Finding aids:

A Guide to the Royal Mail Archive

Detailed catalogue


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Records transferred internally from Royal Mail. Additionally, some records have been deposited by outside agencies and individuals, and some have been purchased.


Related material:

Records relating solely to the Telecommunications division of the Post Office, the Post Office telegraph and telephone service and preceding private telephone and telegraph companies have been transferred, where feasible, from the Post Office Archives to BT Archives. Records relating to telecommunications with POST references were largely transferred by the Post Office Archives to BT Archives between 1991 and 1998. Material relating solely to Northern Ireland is kept by PRONI.

Records of Girobank are in GIRO.

Files relating to postal and telegraphic matters passed to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications following the Post Office Act 1969 are in BT 229.

Some files of the Post Office External Telecommunications Executive, inherited by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, are in FV 4.

For Telecommunications records see also WORK classes: TGA, TPA, TCB, TCC, TCD.


Archivist's note: Compiled 2001 by Vicky A. Parkinson, revised by Martin Devereux as part of the AIM25 Project, July 2010.

Rules or conventions: Compiled in compliance with ISAD (G): General International Standard Archival Description - 2nd Edition (1999); UK Archival Thesaurus 2004; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997; and PROCAT rules, 2000.

Date(s) of descriptions: 23/07/2010


Personal names

Corporate names
Post Office