Robert Brown's article published in The Gazette January 9, 2004

THE news that the Royal Mail is to combine first and second deliveries into a single daily delivery has come as no surprise to many people, as recent months have seen a drop in second class mail passing through the postal system, due to the increase in fax messages and emails.

Postal services have been around for many centuries, the first being between Austria and Belgium in 1505, then in 1512 in Great Britain, where it was improved in 1627. In April 1680, postmen were employed by London Penny Post to deliver inland mail to city premises. At that time, a form of postage stamp was placed on the mail.

By 1784, “post days” were on three days a week – Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays – which mainly brought business mail between companies in various parts of the country.

In 1840, Rowland Hill introduced reforms to improve the postal system, and by 1855 he had set up posting boxes by roadsides to allow people to send their mail to clients instead of having to find a post office. These boxes were painted green at first, then in 1874 they were changed to red. At the same time, people were urged to make slits or letterboxes in their front doors so that the letter carriers did not have to knock on the doors and await a reply.

Before postboxes were introduced, letters were collected by a bellman who walked the streets carrying a large leather bag. Upon ringing a bell people would hand him any mail that they wanted sent. Then he would take the mail to the nearest post office to be sent, and hand over the money to the postmaster that was also given to him for the service.

Basingstoke’s first post office was in Winchester Street in 1808. It was run by Robert Cottle in his general stores. He fitted a postal aperture in the wall of the shop where people could put their mail when he was closed.

This mail was put into a postbag every night at 10pm and taken along to the Angel Inn, in the Market Place, for the stagecoach driver to sort out for the different towns he was passing through.

When the railway was built, the mail was sent by train, and by 1850 the post was brought down from the railway station, sorted out for the local area, and delivered to the houses and shops at 7am in the summer and 8am in the winter. When the post office was moved to 26 Wote Street in 1859, postal carriers delivered the mail to the local premises at 7am and 11am every day. By 1875 there were three deliveries a day, including one at 5pm.

In 1883 the post office moved again, to 23 Wote Street, where an additional delivery, on Sundays, came into being. Until then, deliveries were only made on weekdays. An extra delivery was later introduced on weekdays, making four, and this service continued into the 20th century.

During the Great War of 1914-18 some of the postmen left to fight in France, so women were accepted as postal workers, as with many other trades in the country.

In March 1925, the business was once again moved, this time to New Street, where a separate one-storey building was erected for the sorting office at the rear of the post office. With the telephone system being included there, an exchange was built to the left of the main office. (In 1981, the General Post Office) decided to separate the postal service from the telecommunications service.).

The Second World War brought many difficulties in delivering the mail, so only two deliveries a day were made, and the Sunday one was stopped. When the war ended, this service continued, with the deliveries in the town being in the morning, and in the country there was one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. By 1953 there were 12 town “walks” and 10 rurals, with 70 postmen.

In 1966 the postal coding system came into being, then in 1968 the first and second class service was started. The following year saw the Post Office become a nationalised industry instead of a Government department. Two more changes occurred over the following few years when decimalisation took place in 1971 and four years later the metrification of postal weights and measures were completed.

Meanwhile, the post office was moved to London Street in 1971 and the sorting office section to Priestley Road in 1978. This allowed the mail arriving at the railway station to be transported away from the busy town centre.

With the ending of the travelling post office this month, the constant stream of postal vans going to and fro between the station and the sorting office will now come to an end.

And, with the second delivery being brought to a close this year, 2004 is experiencing great changes in the realm of the Royal Mail.