History of the Parcel Post

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The Post Office had a monopoly on delivering letters. Parcels, however, were transported by private carriers, notably the railways when they came into existence. Because of the fragmentation of the railway network, however, sending “through” parcels by various companies was fraught with difficulty and confusion. Various schemes for a national Post Office service had been proposed but had come to naught because of opposition from the powerful railway companies and indeed the Treasury. Carriage over any distance would clearly often still be by rail, though not always.

Professor Henry Fawcett, the blind Postmaster-General, “regarded the Post-Office as an engine for diffusing knowledge, expanding trade, increasing prosperity, encouraging family correspondence, and facilitating thrift,” not as a means to aid taxation. He became PMG in 1880 and soon began negotiations with the railway companies to create a service. Two years of tough argument later the Post Office (Parcels) Act became law. It allowed the railways “eleventwentieth parts [55%] of the gross receipts of the Postmaster-General from such of the said parcels as are conveyed by railway”. This was much higher than previously envisaged but was the compensation required by the companies for their agreement. Charges were 3d for the first lb and 3d for each succeeding 2lbs up to 7lbs. To distinguish them, and thus apportion money, parcels would receive a handstamp indicating “Railway Borne” or “Coach Borne”.

Called originally the “Parcels Post” or “Inland Parcels Post” the service was to start on 1 August 1883. Before that, however, a vast amount of organisation and re-organisation had to take place. Space had to be provided for the acceptance and sorting of parcels. This could involve whole new buildings. As early as April 1883 a distribution was made to all post offices of suitable scales and weights for weighing parcels. There followed labels, bags and baskets and instructions about the rules. A “Special Cork Obliterating Stamp” with the necessary stamping pads, tin saucer and “Stamping Composition” were supplied in June and a new value of postage stamp had to be issued.

Anticipating success with the parliamentary bill De La Rue submitted proofs of designs for special elongated stamps for the parcels post in October 1881. These were not adopted but the rates for parcels (3d, 6d, 9d and 1s) meant that a new 9d value of postage stamp would be required. This was issued on the first day of the new service and postmasters were reminded to have sufficient supplies of all the relevant denominations of existing stamps.

Shortly after the service began Fawcett thanked all staff for their endeavours. “A severe strain has been imposed upon the Department in first starting an enterprise of such magnitude as well as novelty, and the success which has thus far attended it could only have been achieved by the hearty co-operation of all the Officers concerned.” Nevertheless, experience showed up immediate problems, mostly to do with damage in transit. Three days after the inauguration a Circular emphasised that senders should be cautioned about insecure packing. Fragile parcels should be placed at the top of baskets, care should be taken with fishing rods, umbrellas etc, and “fruit and butter should be sent in tins, even rather than in wooden boxes, as fruit (strawberries, raspberries, etc.) is reduced to a pulp by jolting in the trains, and then exudes from the cracks of the Boxes. This has already been observed in many instances.”

On 11 August there was an appropriate mention of game. A strong solution of carbolic acid was to be provided and “at all points of their transit care is to be taken to avoid delay in the onward transmission and delivery of these parcels”. Only a week later postmasters were informed that the carbolic acid was no longer necessary as the weather was cool and the grouse parcels were passing through the post in good order. Further detailed instructions about perishable items, and others, followed.

Postmasters were also reminded that the Parcels Post labels had to be specially printed for each office and needed to be ordered a month in advance. There were four types with minor differences for Head, Branch, Receiving and Sub Offices.

From 1 November rural carriers were required to accept parcels handed to them on their rounds though a limit was placed on the total weight. At this time their name changed. Since they now also carried parcels they were no longer merely “Letter Carriers” but became “Postmen”. Many complaints resulted with accusations of being overburdened.

In July 1884 a review was carried out to simplify the service and at the same time proposals were made regarding a foreign service. Considering this Fawcett declared “I think in future the practice of calling the Post, the Parcel Post should be generally adopted”. This change from “Parcels Post” was announced on 12 August 1884 and all labels had to be altered accordingly. In November Fawcett died in harness. He was only 51 and the next Post Office Circular had a black border out of respect.

A Foreign & Colonial parcel service began gradually from 1 July 1885, firstly to India (including Aden and “British Burmah”), Gibraltar and Egypt. Gordon having just died at Khartoum, the Egyptian postal service did not extend farther south than Wadi Halfa. Parcels for Egypt, however, should not contain “arms, gunpowder, and materials for the composition of gunpowder, ‘Le Hachich’, books of the Mussulman religion, such as the Koran, &c”.

Gradually, it was extended to Malta, Malaya and China and by December 1885 to Southern Africa. It was not until 1 January, 1886 that parcels could be sent to the continent (Germany, Belgium and Constantinople) and the British West Indies.

In the first eight months of the inland service nearly 14 million parcels were sent, rising to almost 23 million in the first full year (1884/5). By the end of the century over 81 million parcels were being posted annually.