The earliest known letters, in the form of clay tablets carried by messengers, date from about 2000 BC and were used extensively by the Egyptians and the Assyrians. In the first century AD most Roman letters were written with a reed pen and ink on papyrus and must have lightened the postman’s load. Parchment, prepared from the skin of a sheep or goat for writing on, was first used in Pergamum in Asia Minor and was later in universal use until the invention of paper. The first paper mill in England is believed to have been set up in about 1490.
During the Middle Ages messengers were employed by kings and princes, municipalities and monasteries to convey despatches. The profits derived from the carriage of mail enabled universities to pay their professors. In 1661 King Charles II issued a proclamation appointing Henry Bishop as Postmaster General and to Bishop fell the task of organising a mail distribution network not only within this country but to the principal European cities as well. Many of the postal reforms instituted then set the trend towards the development of the refined postal service we take so much for granted today. A postal mark, introduced in 1661, showing the date on which a letter was received by the post office was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Later the names of the office of despatch and receipt were marked on letters. It is from these markings that we can deduce the route of early items of mail.
A letter to Highworth, posted in 1826, was marked with the Wokingham 35 mileage mark (the distance from London) and on the reverse the date stamp of 27th October 1826. The cover is endorsed ‘by Reading and Henley’ and the manuscript charge of 7d. deleted and replaced by the correct fee of 8d to be collected from the recipient, a Mr Crowdy, solicitor of Highworth. The letter explains delays in attending to business being “entirely owing to the illness of Lord Abingdon”. This letter would have been carried by coach, in stages from inn to inn with changes of horses, via Reading, Henley, Wallingford, Harwell, Wantage, Faringdon and so on to Highworth, a distance of some 59 miles.
Following the Great Post Office Reform of 1839 – 40 with the introduction by Rowland Hill of penny postage, the volume of mail was increased dramatically. In 1844 a numerical listing of post offices was issued with the offices in alphabetical order, Abingdon being No.3, Oxford 603 and Wallingford 832. As further offices were opened the listing was extended and we find (1)093 Harwell, 094 Steventon and 095 Drayton. Examples of these should have survived and might be found in stamp collections today.
In more recent times mail posted in Harwell received the postal marking of Didcot but all sorting of local mail now takes place in a highly mechanised office in Oxford and forfeits the localised identification.