Royal Mail: Britain’s 500-year-old postal service

Since Tudor times, Britain’s postal network has been connecting families and friends, enabling business and driving innovation across the country.

Reminisce over the rich history of the British postal service with images from the British Postal Museum and Archive (all available for licensing).

History of the British post – in pictures

1516: first recorded use of postal service


The King’s Messenger, A.D. 1482, 1935 (colour litho), John Armstrong (1893-1973) / British Postal Museum and Archive 

King Henry VII established a “Master of the Posts” position.


1635: public use of postal service


Trompe L’Oeil Still Life (oil on panel), Jean-Francois de la Motte (17th century) / Musee des Beaux-Arts, Arras, France

King Charles I made his postal service available to the public.


1793: postmen wear uniforms


Postmen’s Uniforms, 1894 (w/c on paper), English School (19th century) / British Postal Museum and Archive

Postmen began to wear a standardised uniform, though the iconic blue coat did not appear until the 19th century.


1830: the first mail trains


Great Western Railway, used as a parcel sorting centre (b/w photo), English Photographer (19th century) / British Postal Museum and Archive

The first mail trains began to make deliveries from Liverpool to Manchester.


1840: Penny Black stamps


 Penny Black and Penny Red, 1850, English Photographer, (19th century) / Private Collection / Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images

The first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, was released nationally.


1852: first post boxes


Great Britain, England, Berkshire, Windsor, green post box, / Dorling Kindersley/UIG / Bridgeman Images

The first Post Office pillar box was erected in Jersey; a year later they were erected in mainland Britain. Unlike the iconic red pillar boxes in use now, these originals were painted green.


1880: postal workers on bicycles


Postmen with Bicycles, c.1900 (b/w photo), English School (20th century) / British Postal Museum and Archive

Postmen, and later postwomen, began using bicycles to deliver the mail.


1986: Post Office Group divides


Mount Pleasant Parcel Office, London, 1938 (b/w photo), English Photographer (20th century) / British Postal Museum and Archive

The mail service split into three divisions: letter delivery (Royal Mail), parcel delivery (Parcel Force) and post office (The Post Office). The Post Office Group was renamed ‘Cosignia’ in 2001, and ‘Royal Mail Group’ in 2002.


2007: mass Post Office closures


Eton Post Office, c.1960 (colour photo), English Photographer (20th century) / British Postal Museum and Archive

Royal Mail announced plans to close 2500 Post Office branches.


2013: Royal Mail privatised


‘Outposts of the Empire – Central Australia’ poster, 1937 (colour litho), John Vickery (fl.1937) / British Postal Museum and Archive

The decision was made to privatise Royal Mail. While the future is uncertain, the heritage is preserved through photographs, posters and drawings in the British Postal Museum and Archive.


Images and Licensing

Bridgeman is proud to represent the British Postal Museum & Archive for image licensing.

Get in touch with the Bridgeman team on with enquires about licensing and clearing copyright.

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