Postal history of India
Britain’s involvement in the postal services of India began in the eighteenth century. Initially the service was administered by the East India Company who established post offices in Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta (now Kolkata) between 1764 and 1766.
East India Company and the British Post Office in India
Warren Hastings (Governor General of British India from 1773-1784) opened the posts to the public in March 1774. Prior to this the main purpose of the postal system had been to serve the commercial interests of the East India Company. Serving economic and political needs of the ruling authority remained a driving force in the development of the postal service.
Post Office Act (1837) reserved the government the exclusive right to convey letters in the territories of the East India Company.
In 1850 a report was commissioned into the working of the Post Office in India. This report introduced uniform postage rates dependent on weight alone (previously charges had been calculated on weight and distance). It recommended that a Manual of Instructions be supplied to postmasters to encourage uniformity of practice. The recommendations of this report led to the introduction of Act XVII in 1854. However the reforms had a mixed success with some areas persisting in old practices.
From the late eighteenth century political power began to slip away from the East India Company. The Company was finally abolished in 1858 and India became a Crown colony ruled directly by Parliament.
The first postal stamp in India was introduced on 1 July 1852 in the Scinde district. In 1854 the introduction of uniform postage rates led to the development of the first postage stamps valid for use throughout India. As with the introduction of uniform postage in Britain this led to a rapid increase in use of the postal system. The volume of mail doubled between 1854 and 1866, and again between 1866 and 1871.
The first pictorial stamps were issued in 1931. There was a victory issue in 1946, followed shortly by a first Dominion issue. The three stamps in the Dominion issue depicted the Ashoka Pillar, the new flag of India, and an aeroplane.
Mail Communications with England
In addition to the managing the postal services of British India, the Post Office was involved in the transmission of correspondence between England and India.
In the 1820s Thomas Waghorn began investigations into improving mail routes between England and India. This led to the establishment of the overland route between Alexandria and Suez. Mails had previously taken three months to reach England, but Waghorn’s letters accomplished the same journey in just 35 days. Letters conveyed by Waghorn carried their own cachet ‘Care of Mr Waghorn’. After ten years of Waghorn’s efforts the British Government and the East India Company were convinced of the viability of this route and took it over.
The India Mail Service carried diplomatic mail between the two countries. This service involved specially appointed Post Office staff of higher grades accompanying the mail from London to Marseilles where responsibility would be transferred to the P&O purser of the ship bound for India. These staff were referred to as India Mail Officers.
After independence, responsibility for postal services transferred to the new Indian Government. However Britain continued to be involved in postal services to India in the same way as it managed other international postal services. Files in the archive refer to matters such as the deteriorating relationship between India and Pakistan in the 1960s, and the impact this had on delivering and receiving post to and from these countries.
Sources from the collection
We also hold many records of relevance to India. However due to the way in which these records were created and used they are not all gathered together in one convenient group, but are spread through various record series in the archive. Most of our records relate to the interaction of British postal services with those India, especially the transport of mail. Relevant records can be found in:
POST 29: Packet Minutes documents.
POST 30: Registered files minute papers.
POST 33: Registered files minuted papers.
POST 43: Overseas mails: organisation and services-packet boats and shipping.
POST 122: Registered files, minuted, and decentralised registry papers (this series is currently in the process of being catalogued and therefore is not yet fully available)
We also have some philatelic material relating to India including:
POST 52: Stamp Depot relating to the contract with De La Rue
POST 141: Phillips Collection
Our philatelic collection (Indian stamps, Waghorn material, and India Letters). (N.B. these materials require an appointment to view)
Also of interest
Strong ties between Britain and India influenced the postal service. Our Assistant Curator shows us key stamp designs.Read more