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The History of Parcel Delivery

History of the UK parcel delivery sector

The History of Parcel Delivery

We humans have long needed to get private possessions, sold goods, and other items both large and small from one place to another, without having to make the trip ourselves.

While digital delivery systems (like iTunes) have appeared recently, the rise of eCommerce has brought with it new challenges for the courier industry. But throughout its history, which is tied intimately in the United Kingdom to the development of the national postal service, parcel delivery has undergone many changes.
Let’s take a look at the whole story, from the early days of private stagecoach couriers to today’s complex multiple-carrier market…

Origins of the UK Postal Service

The British Isles during the Middle Ages had at least four different systems of postal delivery – including a royal outfit, one for scholastic and monastic use, a commercial post, and one for legal and judicial mail.
Over the course of 16th Century, however, the various posts consolidated into a single enterprise, stemming out of the Royal Mail service. For a long time, the government operated the national postal service; later, however, during the reign of Charles I, postal delivery began to be outsourced to innkeepers, who were paid a retainer to hold and distribute mail, and compensated per mile for use of their horses.
In those days, the administration of the postal service was a somewhat cumbersome exercise. The recipient was responsible for the fee for delivering a letter, which was determined by the distance travelled, and the number of pages.

Rowland Hill and Postal Reform

Many attribute the idea for starting the parcel post in the United Kingdom to Rowland Hill, although the service was never implemented in his lifetime. Hill was a teacher, inventor, and social reformer who lived in the 19th century. He is credited both with reforming the UK postal service and with developing a new model for postal delivery that was exported worldwide.
The son of a schoolmaster, Hill was born in 1795 in Kidderminster. Legend has it that Hill became interested in the postal service and its problems as a child, when a letter was delivered to his home and his family did not have the funds to accept it.
As an adult Hill studied the post system in more detail, and in the 1830s he campaigned for a uniform penny post system, requiring the sender of a piece of mail to pay for its delivery, which Hill believed would make the system more efficient.
This idea was adopted under Queen Victoria, and from 1839 onwards you could send a letter weighing up to ½ ounce anywhere in the British Isles for just a few shillings.

Beginnings of Parcel Post

Hill had raised the idea of creating a parcel post in the 1840s, but his dream wasn’t realised until 1883. Prior to that you could deliver packages privately by stagecoach, but it was the railway industry that dominated the delivery of parcels in the United Kingdom.
In fact, the rail companies were one of the reasons Hill did not succeed in implementing a uniform parcel post system earlier; their domination of the field was such that they prevented the government from entering it.
Finally, under the stewardship of an innovative Postmaster General named Henry Fawcett, the national Post Office succeeded in reaching a deal with the railway industry that allowed the companies to keep 55 per cent of the gross postage of parcels in the UK.
However, getting the railway companies to agree was the least of the Post Office’s challenges. At the time, there were 1,000 branch post offices in the UK, and they all had to be refitted to be able to handle parcels. Large wicker baskets were supplied for transporting many parcels at once, and every post office now had to be equipped with a scale.
The change in service affected mail routes as well. There were over 15,000 postal districts in the UK, and they all had to be carefully re-arranged for maximum efficiency of collection and distribution. Things had to be fine-tuned down to the routes of individual letter carriers, so that no single worker had to carry too heavy a load. Often carts, tricycles, and other vehicles were implemented to aid the letter carriers, who would be known from then on as postmen.

The Rise of Modern Parcel Couriers

The national parcel service had a shaky first few years financially, but grew rapidly toward the end of the 19th Century. By the late 20th Century, they were delivering 175 million packages each year, with over 27,000 vehicles operating out of 30 sorting centres throughout the country.
For 100 years the service that was now called Royal Mail had been the premier parcel delivery operation in the UK, but Royal Mail’s prowess began to wane in the 1980s with the division of the postal service into three separate operations – letter delivery, parcel delivery, and the Post Office.
In 2006, the regulator PostComm ended Royal Mail’s monopoly on postal and parcel delivery, and opened up the market to private competitors, which have proliferated ever since.

Parcel Couriers Today

The landscape of modern parcel delivery looks very different to that which Rowland Hill saw when he called for reform of the system. The rise of diverse carriers and eCommerce has brought about the need for an integrated fulfilment service and multiple-carrier optimisers.
This means that contemporary parcel carriers now need flexible, scalable shipping platforms designed to serve the needs of a range of eCommerce businesses, from small but fast-growing startups to large well-established operations. They also need to be able to serve both B2B and B2C outfits, and get reduced rates from a variety of carriers.
Parcel delivery has seen many developments and sudden innovations over the several centuries since the days when the railway industry dominated the field. Fulfilment services and multiple carrier optimisers are just the latest leap forward in that long and colourful history.

Simon Wright

As SEO and Content Marketing Manager at the Whistl Group, Simon has over 10 years' experience in both B2B and B2C marketing, and as a result, offers a unique perspective on the pre- and post-checkout delivery experiences. Simon writes regularly for both the Parcelhub and Whistl blogs and is passionate about helping retailers make delivery their competitive advantage.

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