All the King's horses: prelaunch timeline for the Postal Museum
About a year and a half before the opening of the new Postal Museum, I was commissioned to research and write a series of stories for a timeline on the site - celebrating 500 years since the birth of the Postal Service, and giving a first taste of the breadth of themes that the new museum would cover. Stories included Scottish postal worker Jean Cameron, who paved the way for women to wear trousers in the service, and Victorians sending 'Vinegar Valentines' to people they did not like (and making them pay for the postage!).
This story, from the beginning of the timeline, describes how the post was first established:
500 years ago Tudor administrator Brian Tuke founded the postal service
“the King’s pleasure is, that posts be better appointed, and laid in all places most expedient; with commandments to all townships in all places, on pain of life, to be in such readiness, and to make such provision of horses, at all times, as no tract or loss of time be had in that behalf”.
Brian Tuke to Thomas Cromwell in 1533
Small world, long journeys
England, 1512. Many of England’s medieval roads are hardly better than dirt tracks, speed depends on finding a decent and not-too-exhausted horse, and getting a message across the country can take weeks. If the well off literate minority want to dispatch a letter, they need to expensively send their own servant, have it carried by cart, or wait for someone trustworthy to be passing in the right direction.
This was the situation when Brian Tuke laid plans for the very first ‘post’ service. A 40 year old administrator, he was asked to establish the ‘King’s Posts’ for use of Henry VIII’s court. Monarchs had always used individual messengers, but no permanent system of relaying letters had previously existed.
In Elizabeth’s reign it took a week for a letter to travel 217 miles along the West Road from London to Plymouth.
Travel across England was infinitely more difficult and dangerous than it is today. It was easy to find yourself miles from anywhere: the population was still barely recovering from the Black Death two centuries before. Even the great city of London contained only 60,000 people, making it a bit smaller than modern Stevenage. Although people did make journeys – from pilgrimages to inward migration to larger towns – it was also still easy to live a whole life within a few square miles.
The plan for 'posts'
Tuke set up a series of stages or ‘posts’ in towns along major routes in England. Each town had a Deputy Postmaster to manage a stables, and was obliged to have two horses (one for the King’s messenger, one for his guide) fresh and ready to go. Letters were relayed from town to town, travelling much faster than a single horse could make the journey.
A lasting legacy
We date the birth of the postal service from 1516, when Tuke was knighted for the establishing the first postal routes. The following year he was officially endorsed in his position as the first Master of the Posts. His network was far from comprehensive – but reliably served two major ‘roads’ – the North Road from London to Berwick in 28 stages, for news from Scotland, and a second Dover Road linking England to the continent.
For Henry VIII, the post system meant that he had a better grasp of what was happening across the kingdom, and an early warning of threatened rebellions or plots.
Tuke masterminded the post for more than 30 years, until his death in 1545 aged 73. Regarded as a compassionate man, he grew rich from his office, but ended his life supplementing the underfunded service from his own pocket: his executors sent a bill to the Crown for the equivalent of half a million pounds in today’s money.
By modern standards, Tudor post was still excruciatingly slow: in Elizabeth’s reign it took a week for a letter to travel the 217 miles from London to Plymouth. The gradual evolution of roads, transport and literacy would transform the service over the next five centuries. But Tuke’s dedication and energy laid the foundations of a vital public service.