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By David Rooney on

Powering the mail

Transport Curator David Rooney takes a look at the history of the vehicles used to deliver the mail.

The Royal Mail is planning to phase out postal deliveries by bike, according to the Telegraph. Even if new methods are slowly taking over it’s great to know that muscle-power is still used in the final stages of the supply chain, as it’s often the best technology for the job.

Until the eighteenth century, mail delivery was largely a matter of messengers on horseback, or slow horse-drawn carts, and by all accounts it was a pretty inefficient system. Then 225 years ago, in 1784, the Royal Mail coach system was inaugurated. Fast coaches running to strict timetables operated a network of mail routes, each covering some eight or nine miles per hour by changing the horses at stages of about every ten miles.

The coaches were finely built and lightweight, but strong enough to withstand the shocks of the poorly-made British roads of the day. You can see one of the few genuine survivors from the Royal Mail coach era (which lasted about sixty years) in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery.

Royal Mail coach, 1820s (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)
After the development of human-powered cycles in the 1860s onwards, the mail industry quickly realised the opportunities they offered. Here’s a late-nineteenth-century postman’s lever-operated delivery tricycle, in our reserve store.