General Post Office
|General Post Office|
|Legal status||Abolished by Post Office Act 1969|
|Purpose/focus||State postal and telecommunications carrier|
|Headquarters||St Martin's le Grand|
|Region served||United Kingdom|
|Parent organization||Government of the United Kingdom|
The General Post Office (GPO) was officially established in England in 1660 by Charles II and it eventually grew to combine the functions of 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 1980 the telecommunications and postal sides were split prior to the splitting off of British Telecommunications into a totally separate publicly owned corporation the following year as a result of the British Telecommunications Act, 1981. 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.
Early postal services
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 stamp
In the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, the GPO was based in a succession of locations in the City of London, including at Lombard Street. 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.
New communication systems
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 1869 conferred on the Postmaster-General a monopoly in telegraphic communication in the UK.
The responsibility for the ‘electric telegraphs’ was officially transferred to the GPO on Friday, 4 February 1870.
Overseas telegraphs did not fall within the monopoly. The private telegraph companies that already existed 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 Post Office commenced its telephone business in 1878, however the vast majority of telephones were initially connected to independently run networks. In December 1880, the Post Master General obtained a court judgement that telephone conversations were, technically, within the remit of the Telegraph Act. The General Post Office then licenced all existing telephone networks.
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 telephone system of Guernsey). The telephone system of Portsmouth was independent until 1913.
The telephone systems of Jersey and the Isle of Man, obtained from the NTC were offered for sale to the respective governments of the islands. Both initially refused, but the States of Jersey did eventually take control of their island's telephones in 1923.
The development of radio links for sending telegraphs lead to the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1904, which granted control of radio waves to the General Post Office, who licenced all senders and receivers. This placed the Post Office in a position of control over radio and television broadcasting as those technologies were developed.
Control of broadcasting
In 1922 a group of radio manufacturers formed the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), which was the sole organisation granted a broadcasting licence by the GPO. In 1927, the original BBC was dissolved and reformed as the Royal Chartered 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 provide shared service lines, each known as a party line. Most of the line was shared between two subscribers usually splitting off to each within sight of the houses, and both lines attracted a small discount; however, this arrangement had its disadvantages.
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 6,000 exchanges. Subscriber Trunk Dialling STD was also added from 1958, which allowed subscribers to dial their own long-distance calls.
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.
The Bridgeman Committee, chaired by Lord Bridgeman, was set up in 1932 to investigate criticisms of the General Post Office and reported the same year. It highlighted defects in the structure of the organisation. The Gardiner Committee, chaired by Sir Thomas Gardiner, was set up to investigate improvements in efficiency and reported in 1936. The report recommended the setting up of eight provincial regions outside London,[notes 1] and the introduction of the London Postal Region and London Telecommunications Region for the capital and surrounding area. The changes were implemented between 1936 and 1940.
Under the Post Office Act 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 Telegraph and 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, which continues to be in use by Royal Mail.
The British Telecommunications Act 1981 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 Giro businesses. British Telecommunications was converted to British Telecommunications plc in 1984, and was privatised. Girobank was divested to Alliance & Leicester in 1990.
As part of the Postal Services Act 2000, the businesses of the Post Office were transferred in 2001 to a public limited company, Consignia plc, which was quickly renamed Royal Mail Holdings plc. The government became the sole shareholder in Royal Mail Holdings plc and its subsidiary Post Office Ltd.
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.
In 1868, as part of the Volunteer Movement, John Lowther du Plat Taylor, Private Secretary to the Postmaster General, raised the 49th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers Corps (Post Office Rifles) from GPO employees, who had been either members of the 21st Middlesex Rifles Volunteer Corps (Civil Service Rifles) or special constables enrolled to combat against Fenian attacks on London in 1867/68.
The regiment was restyled 24th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers Corps (Post Office Rifles) in 1880 as part of the Cardwell Reforms.
‘M’ Company, 24th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers Corps, was formed in Royal Warrant in 1882 as the Army Post Office Corps (APOC). This newly formed Army Reservist company saw active service providing a postal service to the British military expeditions to Egypt (1882), Suakin (1885) and the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902). The APOC was eventually subsumed by the Royal Engineers in 1913 to re-emerge as the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) Special Reserve. The Postal Section provided the Army Postal Service (now British Forces Post Office) during the First and Second World Wars and in 1993 became the Postal & Courier Service Royal Logistic Corps.
In 1883 the regiment raised ‘L’ Company as a Telegraph Corps, a year later it was redesignated as the Telegraph Reserve Royal Engineers. Its role was to supplement the Regular Army’s telegraph services operated by the Royal Engineers.
After the Haldane Reforms the regiment kept its association with the Post Office and continued to recruit postal workers into the Territorial Force under its new title '8th (City of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Post Office Rifles)' in 1908. It served as an infantry regiment during the First World War (1914-18). Sergeant Alfred Joseph Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the Battle of Wurst Farm Ridge in September 1917. The regiment was disbanded in 1921.
- Royal Mail
- Television licensing in the UK
- GPO Film Unit
- Post Office Research Station
- Red telephone box
- Cleveland Street scandal
- Home Counties; Midland; Northern Ireland; North-Eastern; North-Western; Wales and Border Counties; Scotland; South-Western
- Summary of Post Office history (British Postal Museum and Archive).
- Marshall, Allan. Intelligence and Espionage in the Reign of Charles II, 1660-1685, p79 (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
- VictorianLondon.org's account of the Post Office.
- The British Postal Museum & Archive
- BT Archives
- Connected Earth (History of Communications)
- Bath Postal Museum
- Royal Mail Group - About us: Facts
- Site for former Leicestershire Telegram Messenger Boys
- G.P.O. GLASGOW (c.1961) (archive film showing functions of the telephone exchange, enquiries and repair - from the National Library of Scotland: SCOTTISH SCREEN ARCHIVE)