13th April 1640. The First Post.
The early Post Office developed from the need of the English crown to carry official messages and despatches throughout the realm, and unofficially later to be used by private individuals.
A public postal service was set up in 1635 by Thomas Witherings, at the King’s behest, though most of the 5 million population, would have been illiterate and few ventured from their village.(1)
It was back in March 1632 that King Charles Ist had appointed Witherings along with William Frizzell, as Masters for the Posts for Foreign Parts, to be effective from the death of de Quester the Elder.(2)
Although the Postmasters were responsible for official mail, it became the practice to provide a service for the City of London merchants dealing with the Continent of Europe.
Withering proposed to the King’s Council to: ‘set up a pacquet post between London and all parts of His Majesty’s Dominions for carrying and re-carrying of his subjects’ letters.’ The profits were to be used to finance the monarch’s state and war activities.
In April 1633 Witherings was sent to Calais and Antwerp to regularize foreign mail services and boatmen were put under contract between Dover and Calais. By August however rivalry between Witherings and Frizzell ensued and both were suspended and later reinstated.
Frizzell surrendered office in 1634 to Withering who was now to lay the foundations for a swift and reliable postal network.
King Charles by proclamation at Bagshot (3) in 1635, then opened up the general postal service, that had previously been a royal prerogative and Witherings was granted a public monopoly for the collection of postal revenues.
This required him, amongst other things, to settle a Letter Office and to establish a running post from London to Edinburgh taking 6 days ‘hither and thither’.
In October 1635 he established the first post office at Bishopsgate Street, London, where the public could now take mail and collect it.
Thomas Witherings was not just a ‘postman’ as he became an Alderman of the City of London and a liveryman of the most senior Company of Mercers.
Later becoming an MP, he served from April 1640 as the member for Morpeth, as a member of King Charles ‘Short Parliament’, which was first called Today in 1640.(4)
Witherings last years were marred by wrangles when he was deprived of his position, in charge of posts, ‘for abuses in the execution of his duties’, which sequestration was later declared illegal, but the Post office and Letter Office control went to the Earl of Warwick.
There was also disputes in 1648, in the 2nd Civil War when he was imprisoned, and his property seized, though later to be returned.
Perhaps Witherings greatest memorial is an inscription to him, and other postal pioneers, on the New York City Post Office.
(1) Witherings died 28th September 1651.
(2) ‘Cheife Postmaster of Great Brittaine and Forreigne Parts’.
(3) Dated 31 July 1635.
(4) The Parliament was to last only until 5th May 1640 and was succeeded by the Long Parliament.
Ref: Hyde, J. Wilson, 1884, The Post in Grant and Farm, London,Adam & Charles Black.
Ref: Pic Ref. Commemorative stamps, sponsored by St Andrews Church 1985, Image JR Holmes.