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BASKETRY - The Parcel Post


This August sees the 140th anniversary of the Parcel Post as operated by Royal Mail. Parcels weighing up to 1lb (under 500g) cost 3d (old pennies), and the rates increased with weight so that anything over 5lb cost one shilling (5p). These weights included the paper, string, and the postage stamps,so that a full pound of tea, for instance, when packed, would not be carried for threepence. Before this several large courier companies had operated nationwide parcel services using stagecoaches.

By 1850 the various railway companies had taken over the market, although local carriers still plied their trade from the villages to the nearest railway station. The Post Office tried to negotiate with the rail companies to develop a national system, but this came to nothing.

Due to the need for a national parcel service to join the projected international mail system, negotiations with the railway companies were resumed in the 1880s and terms were eventually agreed, which would give the railway companies 55% of the gross postage of sending parcels by rail.


Two Post Office parcel trolleys that appear in the 1915 ‘Sizes & Prices’ book for London. The price on the right is what the basket maker would have been paid by the employer.

The new service meant the full or partial rebuilding of 1,000 post office buildings, and the post delivery rounds had all to be changed to cope with the extra workload and weight. The total number of parcels, from the collecting vans and from all other sources, which passed through the St. Martin's Le Grand sorting-room up to midnight on the first day, was twenty-five thousand. A vast number of baskets were suddenly needed, both for moving parcels around within the system and for their delivery. The Illustrated London News described the scene as the packets came down the shutes to the sorting room: “In the passage-way, near the shoots down which the parcels arrive, there is a treble row of long wicker baskets, one above the other, but far enough apart to admit of packages being freely placed in each . . .They were seized upon below by numbers of willing hands, and the first rough sortment in to the rows of wicker baskets, each proportioned a division,was then made.”


One of the Post Office Parcel Trolleys in the Coates Museum Collection. The protective hide edge pieces would have been vital as the trolley was shunted backwards and forwards across the floor of the sorting room.

Post Office Handcart used at Ventnor, Isle of Wight

As well as the new baskets needed, the introduction of the Parcel Post saw the re-introduction of the mail coach. Rather than the old passenger coach carrying a few sacks of letters these were purpose built and did not take passengers. This service carried parcels overnight on the main routes from London and provided a cheaper alternative to the railways.

By 1885 the Post Office was handling 26.5 million parcels per annum. By the 1890s this had risen to 50 million. That’s a lot of parcels - needing a huge number of baskets to move them. Parcel Force handle a similar number of parcels today, but the total of packages handled in the UK is now more like 15 million a day.

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