Post modern

 Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of the Royal Mail, by Duncan Campbell-Smith, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 849 pages

The 500-year history of Britain’s Royal Mail is one of greatness brought low. At its Victorian zenith the UK’s postal service was admired worldwide for speed and reliability, vital to the country’s success as the leading industrial nation. But since the 1990s it has stumbled from crisis to crisis amid evaporating profits, internal reform and industrial strife as politicians dithered over its future.

Today management is striving to modernise fast enough to keep pace with loss of letters traffic to electronic media. The government has passed legislation to privatise the letters and parcels business, while hoping to mutualise the Post Office network, but conditions for a sale are unlikely to be right until at least 2013. There are fears Britain might have missed the boat, after Germany and the Netherlands privatised their mail in better times almost 20 years ago.

It is a fascinating moment, then, for this authorised history to appear. At more than 800 pages, this is not one for people with short attention spans. There are some longueurs, involving arcane union negotiations and management reorganisations. But the history is dramatic and Duncan Campbell-Smith, a former FT and Economist journalist, has an eye for personality and anecdote that will appeal beyond the ranks of mail obsessives.

Royal Mail’s story began in Henry VIII’s reign with the appointment of Brian Tuke as master of the posts in 1512, although there had been private letter carriers for centuries before then. It led to a relay of dispatch riders carrying royal missives along six trunk roads out of London. In 1635, under Charles I, the King’s Post was turned into a monopoly that lasted until Labour’s Postal Services Act of 2000, when it was replaced by a licensing system run by Postcomm, paving the way for competitors to take away much of its most lucrative business.

Its entire history is a struggle between tradition and innovation. Royal Mail has long attracted conservative, rule-minded staff dedicated to the routines needed to run a network of huge complexity. Time and again it required outsiders to achieve breakthroughs in efficiency and technology, such as John Palmer, an 18th century entrepreneur who forced through the introduction of high-speed mail coaches with armed guards, cutting the journey time from Edinburgh to London from five days to 60 hours.

The biggest outsider of all was Rowland Hill, a Treasury adviser who campaigned in 1837-39 to establish a uniform penny postage, regardless of the address. Prior to that there had been a baffling array of charges dependent on destination and the number of pages, costing six times as much and paid by the recipient. The Post Office fought the change tooth and claw, alleging it would ruin the organisation’s finances.

They were right: when penny postage was introduced in 1840 revenues plunged because volumes, while sharply higher, failed to rise sixfold and it took 20 years for profits to recover. But Hill’s innovation – he also commissioned the first adhesive stamps and took over the running of the institution – was a popular sensation that transformed the lives of millions, enabling the new industrial working class to keep in touch with relatives they had left behind.

His initiative might have failed without the railways, enabling the postal workforce to grow from 25,000 to 230,000 between 1850 and 1914 and letter volumes to double every 20 years. Travelling post offices sorted mail en route. By 1900 all large towns and cities had four deliveries a day and London had five. The novelist Anthony Trollope, a postal official, imported the post box. Christmas cards and postcards flourished. Unusually for a government department, the public fell in love with the Post Office: for most people it became “the most familiar manifestation of the state in ordinary daily life”, writes Campbell-Smith.

Royal Mail’s finest hour was arguably the first world war, when meticulous organisation gave Flanders a postal service to match the home counties. Less gloriously, women who had joined the workforce were fired after the war to make way for returning soldiers, even though many were war widows.

The postal service achieved less with telephones, which it ran from 1912 to 1981, although it was a Post Office research engineer, Tommy Flowers, who devised Colossus, the world’s first computer, to decipher German codes in the second world war.

By the 1970s the service had sunk into a bureaucratic torpor, though it revived in the 1980s as computer technology enabled the growth of direct mail by businesses, sending volumes sharply up. Modernisation under the chairmanship of Ron Dearing helped generate large profits. However, Margaret Thatcher, who privatised many industries, drew the line at Royal Mail, reportedly because she was “not prepared to have the Queen’s head privatised”. Fumbling efforts at privatisation by subsequent Conservative and Labour governments faltered and by 2001 poor leadership and over-complex decentralisation at Royal Mail saw its profits turn to losses.

Valiant efforts have since been made under the leadership of Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier – and now Moya Greene, hired from Canada Post – to make Royal Mail more efficient. “It is not hard to imagine a flotation that might attract widespread support,” writes Campbell-Smith optimistically. We shall see.

Brian Groom is the FT’s UK business and employment editor

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