The Last Post

In the last forty years the British Post Office has undergone a baffling litany of changes. Since the late 1960s it has been removed from the civil service, turned into a public corporation, sold the telephone network, sold off its banking services and what was left was divided into three distinct businesses for mail, parcels and counters. In 2000 New Labour converted it into a public limited company, and gradually opened it up to competition for the first time in its history. Since then the communications market has been in a perpetual state of upheaval, as email, text messages and tweeting change the way people communicate. What does this mean for the future of one of Britain's oldest institutions? Having had to adapt to changing times it is a very different animal to the mid-twentieth century GPO and as the debate surrounding the most recent Postal Services Bill made clear, there is likely to be more adaptation and change to come.

This episode investigates the problems Royal Mail faced when it was rebranded as "Consignia" in 2000. There was then a belief that, as a diverse operator in a rapidly changing commercial environment, the organisation would benefit from a fresh identity. Research indicated the new name – derived from the term "to consign" – resonated with many users, having connotations with distribution, security and trust. But others looking on from the outside suspected it to be a classic symbol of pointless, spin-driven modernisation. Within the industry, many in the Communication Workers' Union wondered if it wasn't all part of a deeper plan to better position the organisation to be broken up and privatised.

Both sides of the debate over the failed rebranding were heard in this episode, which prompts the question of why it is the words "Royal Mail" and "Post Office" mean so much to people? This final episode of The People's Post suggests these terms have symbolic value, reminding us of the rich contribution the Post Office has made to British life since its inception in 1635. It is a history that encompasses pioneers such as Thomas Witherings, William Dockwra and Rowland Hill. It reminds us of receiving houses and mail coaches, Penny Blacks and pillar boxes. And as an institution it has provided millions with a career, offered vital facilities to far flung communities and helped bring about some of the most profound social changes of the modern era, from the introduction of the small-savings bank to the destruction of distance signalled by the telephone. It is this heritage of progressive change that the title of this series points to.

Further Reading

For a thorough account of Royal Mail's recent past in historical context, see Duncan Campbell-Smith, Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of the Royal Mail (2011).

Illustrations
Exterior of a Sub-Post Office

Exterior of a Sub-Post Office

Postman delivering to Osea Island

Postman delivering to Osea Island

Postman on delivery in Battersea

Postman on delivery in Battersea

Postman in the Llanberis Pass

Postman in the Llanberis Pass


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