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Customer reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 17 November 2012
I ordered this book because I have always been fascinated by the mail service and wanted to learn a bit more about the "dean" of European postal services and how the mail worked in times past. And the book did not disappoint: it offers a very comprehensive review of the evolution of the British postal service since its early days in the Elizabethan era and the first "organized" civilian post office, in the XVII century. It also has a good number of maps and illustrations. It explains in detail how the mail worked in the pre-railroad era and in Victorian times, you would be amazed to learn delivery times for the mail in mid-XIX Century in most of the British Isles were not unlike in our days, with next-day delivery often available. Of course, this required a huge organisation with nearly half a million people employed.

The chapters that deal with the XX century post devote a lot of attention by matters that relate to trade unionism and labour relations, but you can skim these if, as in my case, you are not that interested in the history of British industrial relations.

The only thing I maybe found missing from the book is some more information about how international mail worked in earlier times, the set up of post offices across the british Empire and the relation between Royal Mail and the post offices in other overseas British Territories...I give it 5 stars nevertheless because the author makes it explicit that he is going to focus on the set up of the Royal Mail in the British Isles, and this he does very well! international and empire mail possibly deserve another book on its own.
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on 7 May 2012
The book is excellent. The early part, before 1900 relies on secondary sources, but meets the needs of the non specialist reader.

The later parts are supported by the author's research and personal interviews. The English is smooth and well written making reading a pleasure in itself. The insight it gives into the machinations of Governments of all persuasions, the at times co-operation and at other times mendacity of the unions and the dead-hand of the civil service legacy have never been so well expressed. There are copious references which will be invaluable to future researchers of the later period.

There is one very big criticism. The binding is shoddy. It is the worst example of early paper-back binding in flimsy boards. The plates are grouped in sections. Before I got to the first set of plates they had fallen out. With some persuasion Amazon replaced my copy. (I did not read it for 4 months after buying, so was outside the 30 day return policy). The binding will not stand-up to multiple readings, and could make its frequent use as a reference work difficult.

An excellent book ruined by its binding. Shame on you Penguin, and an insult to Allen Lane's (the imprint) memory!
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on 29 December 2011
Purchased for my husband who worked for over 47 years for the Royal Mail, and he loved it. In his lifetime the changes have been extensive. Where once the postie had a job for life and was seen as a friendly face,who everyone knew, there is now the casual part time worker and the ever increasing pressure for more to be done in a shorter period of time. This is a wonderful book to dip into with good illustrations and photographs. He is enjoying it immensely and for him a nostalgic trip down memory lane. An enjoyable book not only because of his personal experiences but how the Royal Mail's development and progress illustrates the changes in our own lives. A beautiful book and well worth buying.
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on 16 January 2015
My principal interest in this work is in the final 50 years from 1960 to 2010, having worked in planning and policy at Headquarters between 1972 and 1992. How closely does the author describe things, as I perceived and recall them?

There is certainly a lot of descriptive material here, which appears to mainly come from board documents and interviews conducted by the author largely with several retired directors. Some of this appears to be perhaps reported a little uncritically...and then later in the account, the chickens inevitably come home to roost, and the heroes are often revealed as having failed. And on more than one occasion, failed to an appalling extent. I was genuinely shocked to read that the Post Office's accounting and control systems - with which I worked every day in my job, and with which I had played some part at Headquarters in developing - had later been destroyed by some ill thought-out re-organisations and so-called "quality" initiatives.

Of course the failure of the Post Office to fund the Pension Scheme for many years, which resulted in falsified profits and a colossal deficit which the Government famously had to swallow at the end of the day, are well-known to many of us. Less well known is the earlier "low key" arrangement, under which BT remedied an earlier pension deficit. Very few readers would be aware of the latter, and the author has done a good job in recording it for posterity. Bearing in mind that this is an authorised history, the author does a good job in not brushing things under the carpet.

Perhaps he has misunderstood some of the people he interviewed; the costs of running the mails operations are not, and never were, "fixed" regardless of the volume of mail going through the system, as he wrongly claims. Sir William Ryland - who in my opinion does not get full credit for his tireless work as Chairman in the 70s - established the relationship between workload and manning through statistical studies undertaken in the mid-70s, as most of the interviewees should certainly recall, because it was fundamental to the target-setting and performance appraisal processes. Some people reading my comments may perhaps recall it as the "Box-Jenkins formula".

This incorrect understanding of the cost structure has led the author to make what I feel are some false conclusions, including that there were many marketing initiatives which supposedly could, and should, have been undertaken on a "marginal costing" basis in the mid to late 1970s. Well, I was doing the Operational Planning at that time, and I never saw any evidence of such things! Indeed, I attended and took notes at a meeting between the Managing Director and the three trades union leaders, at which he explained to them that there were no marketing initiatives that could be used to compensate for the heavy losses of business which had taken place. This criticism does not however undermine the overall thrust of his writings.

Another area in which I would not entirely agree with him is industrial relations. Whilst there was undeniably some inefficiency in the larger sorting offices, I don't think it was quite on the scale that the author imagines. And in any case, even if management had possessed a magic wand which could have achieved 100% productivity from the staff, the impact of that improvement upon the price of a postage stamp would always have been relatively marginal. It could never have transformed the business. In this context, he claims that "Overtime Postman Kings" were being falsely overpaid for working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (which would clearly have been physically impossible as well as fraudulent...and I never saw any evidence of any such thing), but on the other hand he notes that Royal Mail provided one of the best, if not the best, service in Europe in terms of cost and service.

In my opinion, the Postmen and Postwomen and their supervisors and local managers who underpin the business and its mails operations, feature rather less prominently than perhaps they might. The book seems to be something of a "Corporate Headquarters" view of things, and trades union officials might perhaps view things rather differently.

Some poor appointments which the author notes at Ministerial and Chairman level are matters of considerable interest and serious concern, and it is shocking to read that one of them was interviewed for a mere ten minutes before being offered the job of running the Post Office, which was one of Europe's biggest businesses. The highly damaging contribution of the Regulator is also of considerable interest, and is quite shocking. Successive governments come out of all this without much credit.

All in all, this book's strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the Post Office. But I think it would be unwise if the reader were to see the book as some sort of "Postal Bible", because it isn't. But it's valuable, and it's also a good read, that's for sure!
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on 16 December 2011
'Masters of the Post' reveals itself a genuinely high quality product from Penguin imprint Allen Lane. Physically, the book's spine, the photographs, the print quality, the maps and more .. ooze considerably better than expected production values in this ever more 'quantity .. not quality' age. A passion for their books I must admit. So to the actual content...

And it is here where the book must lose a star rating. For it is, inescapably over 800+ densely written pages long and does suffer a little from a certain 'wordiness' in it's entirety.

Yet, though the chapters are all very carefully and chronologically sign-posted for easy reference ... while serious types who might want to 'go postal' will no doubt revel in the detail ..

.. For casual / interested readers who desire to know what is, in effect, five centuries of British postal history from Henry VIII onwards will ultimately find that ...

... The propensity of this book towards exhaustively detailing the seemingly interminable 20th /21st Century union machinations / negotiations .. does somehow skewer the whole historical perspective in favour of a pretty serious modern 'political' agenda regarding: the sad decline and 'interesting' future of the Post Office..

Again, the 'authorised' tone might scare a few people off for that reason.

However, purchased this book for very precise reasons ...

When I was young, I was ever so passionate about stamps .. (but as the author candidly admits .. and does provide a smart summary of how it all began .. it is beyond the brief of this book and you should really search elsewhere).
For the last 20 years of my life, I have always wondered how they truly got the post to those brave souls who fought in The Great War and WWII. The details I found to be highly revealing.

There's also some Victorian scandal and gossip.. and until I read a certain twelve pages of this book, I had no idea that Stanley Gibbons was (to be polite) a complete rogue..

Then there is 'The Great Train Robbery'... and many other notable events too.

Thus, as mentioned, sometimes this is a little hard going, but overall 'Masters of the Post' remains a solid and often very interesting tome and actually enjoying this somewhat more than I imagined..
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on 4 January 2012
A bit disappointed that a history of the British Post Office is lettered with American spelling... organization etc etc.
No wonder mail now goes astray when the proof readers can't distinguish between Bridport and Bideford!
Perhaps they will correct this in a second edtition.
Otherwise an interesting and informative read
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on 25 July 2012
Bought for my husband, a retired manager with Royal Mail. His 'nose' has hardly been out of it!! (All wives take note!)
His comment is: An extremely fascinating read for anyone connected with the business - well researched - and very true in so many aspects.
Do not be put off by the price - I was fortunate enough to buy a very good condition secondhand book but would happily pay full price having seen the pleasure this book has brought.
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on 21 June 2012
Having scanned through this quickly before putting it up for sale (I have no personal interest in the subject and have no more room for thick coffee table books), I am at least impressed.

This book is a fair size, packed full of interesting stories from Royal Mail's extensive history and a good complement of photographs from 'way back when'. Apparently Campbell-Smith had unrestricted access to Royal Mail's vast archives and records. He must have found the research engrossing, judging by some of the stories in this book.

If you know anyone who is interested in postal services and history - this is a great gift.
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on 22 April 2012
This is a superb hardback book that relates the story of the Mail from its earliest days in the 16th Century up to the present time. Its Author , Duncan Campbell-Smith was allowed unprecendented acccess to the Post Office archives and was assistedc by a number of the staff of the Bristish Postal Museum & Archive.It is superbly illustrated and indexed and each chapter has its own set of footnotes. Whatever happens to the Post office in the future this is a splendid testomy to its achievements.Recommended to all British postal historians and collectors.
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on 24 December 2011
An extraordinary book, wonderful detail and an amazing amount of facts I previously had no knowledge of. Not only infomative but really takes you back in time. A joy to read.
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