Image: (Historic England) “Standing bronze figure on pink granite base: King Edward Street, EC1. Statue by Edward Onslow Ford, unveiled by the Prince of Wales on 17 June 1882. The statue was originally located outside the Royal Exchange, however it was moved here in 1923 in order to make room for the London Troops War Memorial.”
Walter Thornbury wrote in Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London (1878):
“…The General Post Office forms a noble preface to an important street. From two years before the death of Charles II. there has been a Penny Post (one of the greatest blessings of civilisation) established in London. In Cromwell’s time, the revenues of the Post Office were farmed to a Mr. John Manley for £10,000 a year, and it was calculated that latterly Manley made £14,000 annually by his bargain. Bishop, his successor, had to pay £21,500 a year for the office (the monopoly of letting post horses being included). In 1675, the fifteenth year of this disgraceful reign, the entire revenue of the Post Office was granted to the Duke of York. About this time Robert Murray, an upholsterer, suggested the idea of a post from one part of London to another, the City having grown too large for messengers. Murray’s Post was afterwards assigned to Mr. William Dockwra (or Docwra). By the early regulations, all letters not exceeding a pound in weight were to be charged one penny for the City and suburbs, and twopence for any distance within a ten mile radius. Six large offices were opened in different parts of London, and receiving-houses were established in all the principal streets. The deliveries in the chief streets near the Exchange were as many as six or eight times a day, and in the outskirts there were four daily deliveries.
The moment the Penny Post became a success, the courtiers were all nibbling, and the Duke of York complained that his monopoly was infringed. Titus Oates cried out that the Penny Post was a Jesuit scheme, and useful for transmitting Popish treason. The City porters, too, says Mr. Lewin, in his excellent book, “Her Majesty’s Mails,” pulled down the placards, “Penny Post Letters taken in here,” from the doors of the receiving-houses. The Court of King’s Bench, on a trial, decided, of course unjustly, that the new office must be absorbed by the Government. From this time, the London District Post existed as a separate establishment from the General Post, and so continued till 1854. Shortly after this verdict Mr. Dockwra was appointed, under the Duke of York, controller of the District Post. On the accession of the Duke of York the revenues of the Post Office reverted to the Crown. Ten years after the removal of unfortunate Dockwra from the “Penny Post,” a Mr. Povey attempted, in vain, to rival the Government by establishing a “Halfpenny Post.” In 1720 Pope’s friend, Ralph Allen—
“Let humble Allen, with an awkward shame,
Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame,”
established an improved system of “cross posts,” at a rental of £6,000 a year. By this contract Allen is supposed to have made nearly half a million sterling. On the death of this worthy and successful speculator, the cross posts passed under the control of the Postmasters-General. In 1799, when this department was amalgamated, the proceeds, says Mr. Lewin, had reached the enormous yearly sum of £200,000.
The careless post-boy on a slow horse was still the agent employed to carry letters, often requiring to be conveyed with the utmost care and speed. Fifteen years after the death of Allen, a greater reformer arose in the person of Mr. John Palmer, a brewer and theatrical manager at Bath. In 1784, after some successful experiments with coaches and swifter horses, he was at once appointed controllergeneral of the Post Office, at £1,500 a year, with two and a half per cent. commission upon any excess of net revenue over £240,000, the Post Office’s annual revenue for the year of his appointment. The conservative opposition to Palmer’s improvements was incessant and untiring, and in 1792 he was compelled to surrender his appointment for a pension of £3,000 a year. After a twenty years’ struggle against this unfair removal, Mr. Palmer’s son, in 1813, obtained a Parliamentary grant of £50,000. The first year of the introduction of Mr. Palmer’s plans the net revenue of the Post Office was about £250,000; thirty years afterwards, the proceeds had increased six-fold—to no less a sum, indeed, than a million and a half sterling.
In 1836 there were fifty four-horse mails, and forty-nine two-horse mails in England, says Mr. Lewin, thirty in Ireland, and ten in Scotland. The last year of mail coaches, twenty-seven mails left London every night punctually at eight p.m., travelling in the aggregate about 5,500 miles before they reached their several destinations.
The original Post Office…stood in Lombard Street, and one of the most interesting sights of the Post Office in old time was the gay procession of mail coaches thither on the King’s birthday. Hone, in 1838, tells us that George IV. changed the annual celebration of his birthday to St. George’s Day, April 23rd. “According to annual custom,” says he, “the mail coaches went in procession from Millbank to Lombard Street. At about twelve o’clock the horses belonging to the different mails, with new harness, and the postmen and postboys on horseback, arrayed in their new scarlet coats and jackets, proceed from Lombard Street to Millbank, and there dine. At this place the coaches are fresh painted, then the procession, being arranged, begins to move, about five o’clock in the afternoon, headed by the General Post men on horseback. The mails follow them, filled with the wives and children, friends and relations, of coachmen and guards, while the post-boys, sounding their bugles and cracking their whips, bring up the rear. From the commencement of the procession the bells of the different churches ring out merrily, and continue their rejoicing peals till it arrives at the General Post Office, in Lombard Street, from whence they sparkle abroad to all parts of the kingdom. Great crowds assemble to witness the cavalcade as it passes through the principal streets of the metropolis. . . . The clean and cheerful appearance of the coachmen and guards, each with a large bouquet of flowers in his bright scarlet coat, the beauty of the cattle and the general excellence of the equipment, present a most agreeable spectacle to every eye and mind, that can be gratified by seeing and reflecting on the advantages derived to trade and social intercourse by this magnificent establishment.” “Such a splendid display of carriages and four as these mail coaches,” says Von Raumer, in 1835, “could not be found or got together in all Berlin. It was a real pleasure to see them in all the pride and strength which, in an hour or two later, was to send them in every direction, with incredible rapidity, to every corner of England.”
The Money Order Office dates from 1792. No order originally could be issued for more than five guineas, and the charge for that sum amounted to four shillings and sixpence, or nearly five per cent. It was originally a private speculation of three Post Office officials, and so remained till 1838, when it became a branch of the general institution. It began with two small rooms at the north end of St. Martin’s-le-Grand, and a staff of three clerks. During the year 1863 the number of orders amounted in round numbers to 7,500,000, representing a money value exceeding £16,000,000, the commission on the whole amounting to more than £144,000.
That great reform of *Rowland Hill’s, the Penny Postage, was first mooted in 1837, and in 1839 the uniform rate of fourpence a letter was tried. The penny rate for half an ounce commenced in 1840. Telegraph messages were first used to expedite Post Office business in 1847. In 1855, the Duke of Argyll being Postmaster-General, the General Post and the London District Letter-carriers were amalgamated, and the red uniform of the General Post abandoned…”