Royal Mail delivers post to every resident of the UK, processing and delivering items to 29m addresses, six days a week.
Its history as a postal service for the public dates from 1635, when Charles I opened up a service previously reserved for the monarch only, hence its name.
In 1908, posting a letter was about as cheap as it ever had been: just one old penny (around 33p in today’s prices) for national delivery of any letter up to 4oz. Major towns received six or more posts, meaning correspondents could exchange multiple letters in the same day. In the first ever instance of the government nationalising a commercial industry, the telegraph system had been brought under the control of the Post Office in 1870, and it claimed a monopoly on other communications technology as they became available. By 1914, the Post Office employed over 250,000 people. With revenues of £32m, it was Britain’s biggest enterprise and the world’s largest single employer. In 1920, 5.6bn items were sent through the Royal Mail, excluding parcels.
In 1969, the Post Office was nationalised, and its status changed from that of a government department, represented in Government by a Cabinet Minister, to a statutory corporation. The Postal Services Act 2000 turned the Post Office into a wholly owned public limited company, which became formally independent of Royal Mail in April 2012. In 2006, the UK postal service market was opened up to other operators, ending a state monopoly that was almost four centuries old.
As the postal service has been restructured and exposed to competition, the tension between its role as a provider of a public service, and as a profitable business, has been thrown into high relief. The costs of sustaining a universal service have meant it continues to rely on government support. Its challenges are compounded by increasing rivalry from digital communications. By 2005 the number of letters sent peaked at 20.2bn, and has since declined steadily to 16.6bn in 2010. Meanwhile, despite government subsidy to maintain the rural network, the number of Post Offices has fallen from 18,000 in 2000 to 12,000 a decade later, the lowest number since the 1860s.
The National Postbag. This chart shows the number of items sent through the Royal Mail in each fiscal year, excluding parcels.