John Palmer (postal innovator)

For other persons named John Palmer, see John Palmer.

John Palmer of Bath (1742 – 16 August 1818) was a theatre owner and instigator of the British system of mail coaches that was the beginning of the great British post office reforms with the introduction of an efficient mail coach delivery service in Great Britain during the late 18th century. He was Mayor of Bath on two occasions and Comptroller General of the Post Office, and later served as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Bath between 1801 and 1807.[1]

John Palmer at age 75


Palmer was the eldest son of a prosperous Bath brewer and theatre owner who inherited his father's Old Orchard Street Theatre, and obtained a royal letters patent for it in 1768 which gave him an effective monopoly on playhouses in the city and the right to use the title "Theatre Royal", the first theatre outside London to acquire it.[2] Palmer's second theatre in Bristol was granted the same status in 1778, becoming the Theatre Royal, Bristol. Palmer worked as his father's London agent, frequently travelling between London and Bath, and after his father decided to retire in 1776 the patent was transferred to him. He continued to manage the theatre until 1785.[3] The two theatres shared one acting company, so Palmer had to move his actors, stagehands and props quickly between Bristol and Bath, he set up a coach service which provided safe, quick and efficient transport for his actors and materials. Later, when Palmer became involved in the Post Office, he believed that the coach service he had previously run between theatres could be utilised for a countrywide mail delivery service.

Mail coachesEdit

A print showing a mail coach decorated in the black and scarlet Post Office livery near Newmarket, Suffolk in 1827. The guard can be seen standing at the rear.

The postal delivery service in Britain had existed in the same form for about 150 years—from its introduction in 1635, mounted carriers had ridden between "posts" where the postmaster would remove the letters for the local area before handing the remaining letters and any additions to the next rider. The riders were frequent targets for robbers, and the system was inefficient.[4]

Because Palmer made much use of stagecoach services between cities in the course of his business, and noted that it seemed far more efficient than the system of mail delivery then in operation, so that he could travel from Bath to London in a single day while the mail took three days. It occurred to him that this coach service could be developed into a national mail delivery service, so in 1782 he suggested to the Post Office in London that they take up the idea. He met resistance from officials who believed that the existing system could not be improved, but eventually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Pitt, allowed him to carry out an experimental run between Bristol and London. Under the old system the journey had taken up to 38 hours. The coach, funded by Palmer, left Bristol at 4 pm on 2 August 1784 and arrived in London just 16 hours later.[4]

Impressed by the trial run, Pitt authorised the creation of new routes. Within the month the service had been extended from London to Norwich, Nottingham, Liverpool and Manchester, and by the end of 1785 services to the following major towns and cities of England and Wales had also been linked: Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead and Carlisle. A service to Edinburgh was added the next year, and Palmer was rewarded by being made Surveyor and Comptroller General of the Post Office.[4] By 1797 there were forty-two routes.[5]

Post Office employmentEdit

Part of Palmer's argument for the changes had been that such an improvement in the service would justify an increase in postal charges, and he had been promised two-and-a-half percent of any increase in the revenue as well as control of the new service. He was appointed Comptroller General of the Post Office on 11 October 1786, but there was some delay in paying him his share of the very substantial increase in revenue (which had risen from £51,000 in 1784 to £73,000 in 1787). He was eventually granted a payment of arrears after a commission of inquiry investigated in 1789, but not the full sum that he claimed.[3]

Initially the coach, horses and driver were all supplied by contractors. There was strong competition for the contracts because they provided a fixed regular income in addition to which the companies could charge fares for the passengers. By the beginning of the 19th century the Post Office had their own fleet of coaches with black and scarlet livery.[5] The early coaches were poorly built, but in 1787 the Post Office adopted John Besant's improved and patented design, after which Besant, with his partner John Vidler, enjoyed a monopoly on the supply of coaches, and a virtual monopoly on their upkeep and servicing.[4]

As Comptroller General, Palmer was subordinate to the Postmaster General, and although he attempted to reform the operation of the Post Office, he found himself continually at odds with his superior, not least because of his habit of exceeding his legitimate powers without reference to the postmaster.[3]

The development of railways in the 1830s spelt the end for the mail coach service. The first rail delivery between Liverpool and Manchester took place on 11 November 1830. By the early 1840s many London-based mail coaches were starting to be withdrawn from service; the final service from London (to Norwich) was shut down in 1846. Regional mail coaches continued into the 1850s, but these too were eventually replaced by rail services.[4]

Later lifeEdit

After a series of controversies, he was effectively dismissed in 1792, but the following year Pitt granted him a government pension of £3,000 a year. However, Palmer continued to press his claim for the much greater sum to which he believed he was entitled, and eventually in 1813 (long after Pitt's death) a parliamentary bill was passed to grant him the sum of £50,000.[3]

The institution of mail coaches permanently revolutionised the British postal service, and Palmer was widely honoured for it, being presented with the freedom of numerous towns and cities. In Bath he was particularly cherished, becoming Mayor in 1796 and again in 1809, and sitting as Member of Parliament (MP) for the city from 1801 to 1808. Such was his influence with the Common Council of Bath (which in those days had the exclusive right to vote for the city's MPs) that he was able to stand down from Parliament in 1808 in the knowledge that his son Charles would be elected in his place.[6]

He died at Brighton in 1818, and was buried in the Abbey Church at Bath.[3]


  1. ^ "The House of Commons – Constituencies beginning with "B"". Leigh Rayment's Peerage Pages [self-published source][better source needed]. Archived from the original on 17 November 2013. Retrieved 24 December 2009. External link in |publisher= (help)
  2. ^ Lowndes, William (1982). The Theatre Royal at Bath. Redcliffe. p. 22. ISBN 978-0905459493.
  3. ^ a b c d e Aitken, George Atherton (1895). "Palmer, John (1742-1818)" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 43. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  4. ^ a b c d e "The Mail Coach Service" (PDF). The British Postal Museum & Archive. 2005. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 January 2011. Retrieved 21 July 2008.
  5. ^ a b Paul Ailey (2004). "Mail Coaches". Bishops Stortford Tourist Information. Archived from the original on 30 March 2012. Retrieved 21 July 2008.
  6. ^ T. H. B. Oldfield, The Representative History of Great Britain and Ireland (London: Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1816)



External linksEdit

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Lord John Thynne
Sir Richard Pepper Arden
Member of Parliament for Bath
With: Lord John Thynne
Succeeded by
Lord John Thynne
Charles Palmer