50 years ago stamp classes were introduced by the Postal Office. Volunteer Cyril has first-class details of this new system.

Today, when we post a letter or a birthday card to a UK address, we pay postage according to the urgency of delivery.  First-class postage (currently starting at 67p) should achieve delivery on the next working day.  If the item is not so urgent, for instance, the birthday is several days away, we can pay for the slower, second-class service (currently starting at 58p).  That should achieve delivery on the second or third working day after posting.

Poster promoting the new service, POST110-4353/1

Before 16 September 1968, when the Post Office introduced the two-tier system for inland letter mail the sender’s choice of service depended upon the contents of the envelope or wrapper.  What was enclosed determined the appropriate discounted service (and different tariff). Perhaps unknowingly the sender accepted that items sent at the discounted rates could be delayed until the fully paid letters were despatched.

A reverse of a card marked as underpaid due to wrong letter rate, courtesy of Cyril Parsons

The regulations governing the various discounted services were complicated.  In the 1965 edition of the Post Office Guide, the regulations for the Printed Paper Post ran to 3½ pages.  Greeting cards could be sent as Printed Papers, but there were strict limits as to what could be written inside them.  Kind regards or Best wishes were acceptable … but not Arrived safely or See you on Monday.  Envelopes had to be left open for inspection; even during Christmas pressure, managers checked sample items and surcharged those that did not conform.

Postcards could also be sent at a discounted rate, but only if their dimensions fell within strict limits and certainly no larger than 14 x 9 cm (smaller than A6).  The card illustrated is an about A5 size (21 x 15 cm) and has been surcharged; the endorsement in green explains “Liable to letter rate.”

The practice of many companies posting all their outgoing mail at the close of business in the late afternoon had for many years placed a heavy burden on sorting staff.  As early as 1922 the Post Office had been using slogan postmarks and other means to entreat its customers to ‘Post Early in the Day,’ but to little avail.

Postmark slogan, courtesy of Cyril Parsons

Under the fee structure that applied before September 1968, the Post Office could delay items sent at the discounted rates and posted after mid-afternoon until fully paid letters had been sorted.  Under the new system, all mail prepaid at the second-class rate was held back until the first-class letters had been sorted.  The aim was to despatch second-class letters by 1.00 pm on the first working day after posting.

First-day cover with 1st and 2nd class stamps 1990, courtesy of Cyril Parsons

In autumn 1968 about 33% of letters posted were prepaid at the first-class rate, so the new system took some of the pressure off staff in sorting offices during the early evening; at that time the vast majority of letter mail was still sorted manually.

4d, Olive Brown Sepia, 1967

5d, Royal Blue, 1968

Furthermore, two-tier also made life easier for post office counter staff since advising customers over the most appropriate previous service to use (and the associated tariff) must have been taxing!

– Cyril Parsons, Volunteer