The site of the world’s first national postal service

Christ Church Greyfriars London

This post describes a group of buildings near ‘Cheapside’ in the City of London; an area well-known as being associated with medieval London.   The area is also the site of the world’s first national postal service that was established in the early part of the eighteenth century.

The Royal Mail was originally established in Tudor times as the private carrier of the monarch’s mail.   In 1635, King Charles I offered the Royal Mail to the general public to raise funds.  His son, King Charles II, brought the company into public ownership as the General Post Office (GPO) in 1660.  And an Act in 1711 created a unified postal service between England and Scotland.  Today we know it, once again, as the Royal Mail.

St Martin's Le Grand
St Martin’s Le Grand, looking north (sites A and B)

Head to St Martins Le Grand and look north towards Aldersgate Street (between sites A and B on the map below).

Post office HQs new 2

Site A) This is the site of the world’s first purpose built sorting and post office. The original building has been demolished – but was over 400 feet long!  Mail coaches exited the General Letter (Post) Office heading to all the towns and cities of the United Kingdom.  It was the tourist attraction of the day!

Site B) Again the original building is demolished, having been destroyed in World War II.  It was the GPO Telegraph Department.  Rebuilt in the 1960’s, today it’s the corporate Headquarters of BT Group plc.

Further expansion of postal and telegraphic operations at the end of the 1800’s resulted in two additional buildings that are still standing today; sites C and D.

Nomura Investment Bank
The former GPO North, now occupied by Nomura Investment Bank (site C)
An original London postbox from 1855.  More easily visible red postboxes were introduced in 1874! (outside site C on map)
An original London postbox from 1855. Red postboxes were introduced in 1874, owing to them being more visible! (site C)

Site C) Built in 1895, this building was an operating centre until 1984.  The architect was Sir Henry Tanner – notice the figures in the ‘spandrels’, one writing and one reading a letter.  The keystone on the east side is an image of the Postmaster General when the building was opened; Henry Raikes MP.  The key stone on the west side is an earlier Postmaster General Arnold Morley MP.  He thought new invention of telephony wouldn’t catch on, believing ‘There is a great distinction between telephone companies and gas and water companies. Gas and water are requisites for every inhabitant in a district, but the telephone cannot, and never will be, an advantage which can be enjoyed by large masses of the working classes’.

To the north of this building is one of the City’s many hidden gardens.  Postman’s Park was originally created for the local postal workers to take a break.  Today, it still is a peaceful haven and microclimate for office workers.

Postman's Park London
Postman’s Park in the City of London
Postman's Park, Memorial plaques to Heroic Self Sacrifice
Postman’s Park, memorial plaques to Heroic Self Sacrifice
St Botoloph Without Aldersgate - and Postman's Park in the background
St Botoloph Without Aldersgate – and Postman’s Park in the background

Site D) Finally, the King Edward Building was an operating centre until 1996. Outside this building stands a statue of Sir Roland Hill, the inventor of the ‘Penny Post’ in 1844.  His idea was to create a uniform single to send a letter anywhere in the UK.  And that the sender should pay for postage (i.e. not the recipient).  An idea that caught on!

Statue of Sir Rowland Hill outside the former GPO West (site D)
Statue of Sir Rowland Hill outside the former GPO West (site D)

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