Post Office Statistics

These charts and statistics illustrate the fluctuating fortunes of the Post Office and Royal Mail over the past 170 years.

They include figures such as the number of post offices, the number of employees, and the number of letters delivered. The figures were compiled from documents within The Royal Mail Archive and form Appendix A of Masters of the Post by Duncan Campbell-Smith. They are free to view and download.

1. Reported net profits, 1838-1914

Uniform penny postage proved financially damaging to the Post Office for many years, as its officials had warned before 1840 would be the case. Volume growth restored reported profits to their pre-1840 level in 1874, rather sooner than some had expected. Data for 1875-9 is unavailable. The telegraph service made no material contribution to profits before 1885 – when cheap sixpenny telegrams were introduced – and its losses in most subsequent years added to the volatility of the net figure.
Reported net profits 1838-1914

2. The growth of the mails, 1840-1920

Postal items here chiefly comprise letters, postcards, packets and newspapers but exclude parcels. The annual volume of letters roughly doubled every twenty years from just over 564m in 1860, while that of postcards (introduced in 1870) roughly doubled every ten years from just over 120m in 1880.
Growth of mails 1840-1920
Mail volume per head of population 1840-1920

3. Total number of employees since 1854

Employees comprised part- and full-time workers ‘on the establishment’, ie eligible for a pension and other lesser benefits, and temporary workers, the majority of them women after the 1870s, with few benefits. (Neither category included those working on commission in ‘scale payment’ sub-offices.) No statistics survive from the 1860s or the years either side of 1930. Aggregate numbers in 1914-18 were distorted by the influx of more than 50,000 women, in jobs still formally held by men serving in the armed forces. Numbers employed in the telephone business rose steeply from 1945.
Total number of employees since 1854

4. Mails for the British Expeditionary Forces, 1914-19

The divergence of the parcel and registered-article volumes after Christmas 1916 reflects a growing tendency to send cash to serving men rather than gifts in kind. This trend must have been encouraged by growing shortages of food among families at home, especially after a steady expansion of the rationing system, first introduced in December 1917. The data relates to all BEFs overseas, not just the Western front.
British Expeditionary Forces Mail volumes 1914-1919

5. Inflation-adjusted revenues (incl. telephones & telegraph), 1838-1939

Telegram receipts added materially to the total from the early 1870s, peaking at just under a fifth of revenues in 1904-5, but then went into a long decline. Telephone revenues first made a significant impact in 1910 and were largely responsible for the rapid growth of the interwar years, more than doubling in current terms. The postal service’s approximate share of total revenues slid from 70 per cent to 55 per cent between 1919 and 1939.
Real revenues 1838-1939

6. Mails carried overseas by airmail, 1921-81

The rapid growth of the 1930s was assisted by a simplification of pricing in 1934 and by the roll-out of the Empire Air Mail Scheme in 1937-8, automatically sending a half-ounce standard letter to any address in the Empire for 1½d. A steady switch to airmails in the 1960s and 1970s offset a dramatic decline in the number of fast passenger ships that had carried bulk surface mails for over a hundred years.
Outward bound air letters and parcels 1934-1940
Outward bound air letters 1946-1981

7. Reported net profits/losses, 1919-39

A steep rise in wages in the first full year after the Armistice and heavy deficits on its telephone and telegraph operations produced, in 1921, the first net loss in the Post Office’s history. Higher tariffs then returned a marginal loss or profit on telephones while postal profits grew steadily – though not enough to build much of a surplus after an agreement in 1933 to guarantee the Treasury an annual payment of £10.75m.
Reported net profits losses 1919-1939

8. The divergence of postal/telecom profits, 1939-81

Higher tariff rates early in the war were designed partly to discourage civilian use of posts and telephones. In the event, both were used far more heavily than anyone had expected – and Post Office surpluses rose accordingly, especially on the telephone network. Profit levels for the two sides of the business diverged irreversibly after the introduction of automatic dialling (STD) in December 1958. The telephone business was separated in 1981 and privatized in 1984.
Divergence of postal and telecoms profits 1939-1946
Divergence of postal and telecoms profits 1947-1981

9. Inflation-adjusted cost of a standard letter since 1840

Deflation for long periods of the nineteenth century lifted the real cost of the Victorian penny post. Retaining the penny rate for most of the First World War, despite high inflation, cut the real cost sharply. Failing to keep rates abreast of inflation had the same effect between 1945 and 1965, contributing substantially to the financial crises of the new Post Office Corporation in the 1970s.
Real cost of a standard letter since 1840

10. Inflation-adjusted total revenues (excl. telephones), 1946-2010

After repeated setbacks in the 1970s, including the national strike of 1971, real revenues climbed almost every year for two decades up to and including 2001-2. Total current revenues for the Royal Mail Group rose in each year from 2002-3 until 2008-9 but showed a slight dip in 2009-10.
Real revenues 1946-2010

11. Letters delivered by the Royal Mail, 1920-2010

Falling volumes were twice seen by contemporaries as the onset of a long-term decline, first by officials in the late 1950s and then (with more conviction) by managers at the end of the dispiriting 1970s. Volumes thereafter were boosted for twenty years by the impact of the revolution in information technology – until a flight of social and transactional correspondence to the internet triggered the precipitate decline starting in 2006.
Letters delivered by Royal Mail 1920-2010

12. Total number of post offices since 1854

The rise and fall of the graph principally reflects the creation and curtailment of the sub-office network. The horizontal line from 1914 to 1950 can be inferred from occasional records of the interwar years, but no statistical series has been found for this period. The number of Crown offices in the post-1945 era peaked at just over 1,800 in the middle of the 1960s (and in 2011 was down to fewer than 400).
Total number of Post Offices since 1854

13. The returns to the Exchequer from the Post Office, 1969-99

Higher taxes were simply a function of the significantly higher net profits achieved in the 1990s, but greatly increased cash demands from the Treasury (‘negative External Financing Limits’) represented a government decision to take advantage of the Post Office’s heightened earning power. Over this entire period, the Government was paid £2.4bn in negative EFLs, effectively a proxy for dividend payments, in addition to £1.4bn in corporation tax. The EFL regime was dropped after 1999 with the Post Office’s transition to plc status.
Returns to the Exchequer from the Post Office Corporation 1976-2001

14. Reported Post Office/Royal Mail Group net profits/losses, 1981-2010

The plunge into losses for 1999-2000 was the result of a £571m write-off on the compromised automation project (‘Horizon’) for Post Office Counters. The further decline in 2001-2 took account of exceptional losses of £1.1bn at the start of the Three Year Renewal Plan launched in 2002. Private-sector competitors were given legal access to the whole of the UK postal market at the start of 2006.
Reported Post Office net profits losses 1981-2010

15. Letter volumes and economic growth, 1983-2001

The historically close relationship between the growth rate for letter volumes and the growth rate for the broader UK economy ceased to apply after the turn of the Millenium. Their divergence was noted in a chart within the Hooper Review, which identified the growing gap between them as the ‘technology wedge’.
Letter volumes and economic growth 1983-2011