The Post Office was established in 1635 by Charles I. The head of this new service was variously known as Master of Posts, Comptroller General of the Posts and Postmaster of England.
Parliament passed acts during the Interregnum (1656), and at the Restoration (1660) establishing the 'General Post Office' as a branch of government which was to be headed by the Postmaster General.
The service at this time consisted of a number of main routes from London to the provinces. Postmasters on the routes collected and distributed mail and collected revenue.
During this period the scope of the Post Office's activities was limited and its administrative functions were largely concerned with its finances. The General Post Office was based in the City of London and was organised into three departments; the Inland Office which handled all internal letters, the Foreign Office which handled all overseas mails and the Penny Post Office which dealt with all locally posted mail for London. This building was destroyed by the Great Fire of London, which might explain why only a small number of Post Office records from that period survive: those that have survived are largely volumes of accounts.
From 1667 the Postmaster General became a political appointment. Between 1691 and 1823, two Postmasters General were appointed, one being a member of the Whig party and the other a member of the Tory party; but also during this period the Secretary's office developed into the centre of decision-making within Headquarters.
The eighteenth century saw much development of routes and post towns, the Post Office continuing to be run from London. It was not until 1715 that the Post Office appointed its first regional administrators, known as Surveyors. Surveyors were charged with ensuring that those at lower levels in the organisation were doing their duty and that the revenues were being correctly managed.
The nineteenth Century was a period of vast expansion, and reforms resulted in the introduction of penny postage and the adhesive postage stamp. Increased adult literacy led to a dramatic increase in the volume of mail. The latter half of the century saw new services as the Post Office moved into banking, telecommunications and set up a parcels operation, and developed a nationwide network of post offices through which these services could be accessed.
By the end of the century, Headquarters buildings had accumulated large volumes of historical material. To meet the challenge of managing this material, in 1896 The Post Office established its own 'record room'.
The responsibilities of the surveyors had also grown during this period. They became the heads of districts of management; responsible for managing the range of Post Office activities in their areas.
The Post Office's move into telecommunications began in 1870, with the establishment of the national telegraph service as a Post Office monopoly. From 1880, the control of the telephone service passed progressively to the Post Office, with the entire service being taken over by 1912. In 1904, the Wireless Telegraphy Act had conferred licensing powers on the Postmaster General. In 1947 the Cable and Wireless Ltd organisation was nationalised and merged in to the Post Office. As sound and television broadcasting developed, the Post Office assumed responsibility for the granting of transmission licences and the collection of radio licence fees, and for advising Parliament on questions of broadcasting services. In 1933 the Post Office's new Public Relations Division took over the Film Unit from the Empire Marketing Board, and in 1940 this unit was transferred to the Ministry of Information, later becoming the Crown Film Unit.
By the 1930s the size and complexity of The Post Office had grown so much as to lead to public criticism. The result of this was a committee of enquiry; the Bridgeman Committee, which led to a large-scale devolution of powers to provincial management and the creation of eight regions.
The Post Office Act of 1961 created a Post Office fund under the management of the Postmaster General, enabling the Post Office to operate as a business, while remaining a government department answerable to Parliament on day-to-day business.
The Post Office Act of 1969 saw the General Post Office ceasing to be a branch of government and becoming a nationalised industry, established as a public corporation. Under the terms of the Act, the Corporation was split into two divisions - Posts and Telecommunications - which thus became distinct businesses. The office of Postmaster General was abolished and The Post Office, as it was now known, was headed by a Chairman and Chief Executive/Deputy Chairman. This role was directly appointed by the Post Office Board. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was created in 1969 and, in addition to sponsoring the Post Office, took over the functions previously exercised by the Postmaster General in relation to Radio and Broadcasting regulation.
The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was dissolved in March 1974. Broadcasting and radio regulation became part of the Home Office, whilst Post and Telecommunications functions became the responsibility of the Department of Industry. The latter merged with the Department of Trade in 1983 to become the Department of Trade and Industry.
In 1981 the telecommunications business of The Post Office became a separate public corporation, trading as British Telecom. In 1984, British Telecom was privatised and since 1991 has traded as BT. Following the 1981 split, the Post Office was itself reorganised into two distinct businesses; Post and Parcels. In 1987, there was a further separation of Post Office business as Girobank was transferred to the private sector, eventually being acquired by Alliance and Leicester in 1994.
In late 1986 The Post Office was restructured to create three businesses; SSL (Subscription Services Limited), Royal Mail and Parcelforce. A year later the network of post offices was established as Post Office Counters Limited; a limited company which was a wholly owned subsidiary of The Post Office. Although each of the above had their own Managing Directors and headquarters functions, what was now the Post Office group of businesses retained a headquarters function for group policy. Additionally this 'Group' function continued to provide the rest of the businesses with services and support.
In 1993 the positions of Deputy Chairman and Chief Executive became two separate roles. The position of Chairman as the 'head' of the Post Office remained.
A white paper on Post Office reform was published in 1999, proposing greater freedom for the Post Office to compete and respond to changes in the market place.
The 2000 Postal Services Act provided for: the Postal Services Commission; the Consumer Council for Postal Services; the licensing of certain postal services and for a universal postal service; and the vesting of the property, rights and liabilities of the Post Office in a company nominated by the Secretary of State and for the subsequent dissolution of the Post Office. The new legislative dispensation reduced government financial demands on the business and allowed it to borrow from the government at commercial rates to pay for acquisitions and joint ventures with private companies.The company was renamed Consignia plc in 2001, but reverted to Royal Mail Group plc in 2002.
The status of the records created by the successive incarnations of the Post Office as public records has been expressly preserved by the legislation.