In 2016, Royal Mail celebrated 500 years of the British postal system. Very fittingly, this fine achievement was commemorated with six special postage stamps drawing attention to different features of Royal Mail’s history.
The Royal Mail began in 1516, when King Henry VIII knighted a chap called Brian Tuke, making him the first Master of the Posts. Tuke’s task was to establish a postal network across Britain, using major towns as hubs. The system didn’t become publicly available until the 1630s, but it then quickly expanded to delivering mail beyond the British Isles. By the mid-1600s Royal Mail was delivering letters and parcels to countries on the European continent, and these journeys were made by what became known as packet ships.
The range of ‘Royal Mail 500’ stamps produced last year featured six images: Brian Tuke, a packet ship, a pillarbox, a mail coach, a river postwoman and the inside of a mail centre. I have one of these stamps – the packet ship – in my possession, and since it’s starting to get a bit tatty round the edges I’m thinking of using it some time soon. Before I do, though, here it is in all its philatelic glory:
The original packet ships were wind-powered, but by the 1820s steam ships were being used. In 1839, a Scottish geographer named James MacQueen started up the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company which carried mail from the south of England all the way to the Caribbean twice a month.
Since Henry VIII’s time, a further 20 British monarchs have overseen the Royal Mail, and there have been a number of pioneering moments throughout the company’s history. Royal Mail was the first postal service worldwide to use a postmark, the first to deliver mail by air and the creator of the first adhesive stamp, the Penny Black (in 1840). Uniquely for world postal services, Royal Mail stamps do not feature the country name. Ever since the Penny Black was produced with a silhouette of Queen Victoria’s head on it, British stamps have had the reigning monarch’s head on them.
You can read the first in my stamps series here.