Happy 140th birthday to the postal order

Archivist Helen explores the Post Office's unique financial service of sending money through the post.

Before the advent of bank transfers and cashless society, how did people give money as a gift? Some may have included cash in a card, but this wasn’t a very secure option. Others used cheques, which worked well if the recipient had a bank account. For many though the answer was postal orders.

Black and white photograph of five people standing at a post office counter. The photograph is taken from behind the customers. The counter is wood with a metal divider. There is a sign with a white background and black text for postal orders and national savings certificates.

Customers queuing at the postal order counter at King Edward Building, London, 1938 (POST 118/776)

The first postal orders went on sale 140 years ago on 1 January 1881. They built on the earlier concept of money orders. The Money Order system offered a secure means of transmitting money in the post, but high fees meant that this service was only available to businesses and the wealthy. The introduction of postal orders with a sliding scale of fees made it more affordable for the general population to send money through the post.

The Post Office was unique in offering customers a means to send small sums of money. Postal orders for set values could be bought at the post office. They could then be sent in the post and redeemed by the recipient at their local post office. Postal orders could be paid into a Post Office savings account, a bank account, or exchanged for cash.

As with any financial service fraud and theft were a concern. One of the best known cases involving postal orders is that of George Archer Shee, who was expelled from Osborn Naval College in 1908 accused of stealing a 5s postal order from another naval cadet. Archer Shee was eventually found innocent in 1910 and the family received compensation. The case forms the basis of the ‘Winslow Boy’ play produced in 1946.

A rectangular postal order. Printed text reads ‘British Postal Order. To the Postmaster General. Pay to [blank], the sum of five shillings, at [blank] within three calendar months from the last day of the month of issue’. Handwritten in black ink is ‘Terence Back’ in the first blank, and ‘Osborn College Post Office’ (partially crossed out) in the second blank. There are circular date stamps in the bottom left and right corners.

The 5s postal order which was at the centre of the prosecution of Archer Shee, 1908 (POST 30/1652b)

At the outset of the First World War, there were concerns about the impact the conflict may have on the circulation of currency. In light of these concerns, the Government declared postal orders legal currency from 10 August 1914. This meant that postal orders could be used directly in payment for products, rather than needing to be exchanged for cash at a post office. The fears around circulation of currency did not materialise and on 3 February 1915 postal orders ceased to be legal tender.

Poster which a white background and the following text ‘Before sending a postal order. Keep the counterfoil. Fill in the payees name.’. At the bottom of the poster is an image of a postal order with a cartoon man holding a large pen.

Poster advertising postal order services, July 1965 (POST 110/2575)

Posters advertising the postal order service took many forms. Some prioritised information over marketing and contained details of how to fill in the postal order and how to redeem one. Others focussed more on the potential to send a postal order as a gift and promoted gift folders for this purpose. Some used humour to promote the service.

Poster with a white background. In the centre of the poster is an image of a postman carrying a man under his arm. The man being carried is holding a bank note. Above the image is the text ‘To safely send money by post either’. Below the image is the text ‘or send a postal order. It’s amazing what you can pick up there!’ followed by the Post Office logo.

Poster promoting the postal order service, c1980 (POST 110/3084)

These days most people may choose to transfer money via BACS, Paypal, or similar online financial service. Postal orders remain on sale though and offer an attractive alternative for those without access to a bank account or who are cautious about online financial transactions.

Read more on the history of postal services, including changes to postage rates over the years, post offices, new machines, the origins of modern postcodes and more.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist

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