Status: Constitutional Monarchy
Population: 67,081,000 (2020 est.)
Area: 94,251 sq. miles
Currency: 1 Pound = 100 pence, £1 = US$1 = £0.84
When Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC, he brought the sophisticated Roman postal system with him. Within a century, Roman engineers had united its province of Britannia with an extensive network of post roads and way stations reaching as far as Devon in the south, over much of Wales and northward beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The road network radiated like spokes from London. Because its inland location on the Thames protected it from the tides, London was the preferred port for Roman navigators who were accustomed to the almost tideless Mediterranean. London became the province’s administrative center. The Roman mail service was not available to the public except by favor. Besides oral messages, the Roman mail carried messages written on papyrus, wood, parchment or wax tablets.
The Roman province of Britannia lasted until the fifth century when it was overrun by Germanic tribes like the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. In the late ninth century, Alfred the Great united the English tribes to fight the Danes. The Norman Conquest in the 11th century brought a strong centralized kingdom to England and, with it, the need for an extensive system of royal messengers to link the crown with his English domains and the lands it still held in Europe. The official mails were intended to serve the king’s needs. Merchants and others used servants, travelers and hired messengers for their correspondence.
From left to right: Scott 1, 175, 3285a
To cope with the growing administrative burden of a centralized administration Henry VIII named the first “master of the posts” to oversee the mails. He sought to strengthen the government monopoly over the mails, in part, to monitor correspondence of those he suspected of plotting against the state. This need was felt even more strongly by Elizabeth I when religious strife after the break with Rome bred numerous plots to depose the monarch and restore the old faith.
As England’s economic interests spread worldwide and the industrial revolution fueled the British economy, the need for businessmen and financiers to have a reliable postal system grew proportionately. In addition, the availability of paper after the 15th century stimulated social letter writing.
Despite repeated efforts at reform and the occasional attempts to establish municipal or private mail services, the British post remained expensive and unreliable. The demands for reform grew. In 1837 Rowland Hill published his pamphlet on postal reform, which advocated the use of adhesive postage stamps to prepay postage.
Left: Scott 477, Right: Scott 394
In the two years after Hill’s pamphlet appeared, the British Parliament received more than 2,000 petitions with more than 250,000 signatures supporting Hill’s ideas. The public demand culminated in the issuance of the Penny Black on May 6, 1840. This represented the dawn of a revolution in modern communications and serendipitously provided the basis for a wonderful hobby.
In recognition of its pioneering role, Great Britain is the only country allowed to produce postage stamps identified by the monarch’s image rather than the country name.