Women in the Post Office

On International Women’s Day we look at women’s employment in the Post Office.

The postal service is considered to be a pioneer of women’s employment in the UK. From the late 19th Century it employed women in large numbers, starting in 1870 when the General Post Office (GPO) took control of the telegraph service. The telegraph service employed large numbers of female telegraphists, and records from this time held in the Royal Mail Archive indicate that the employment of these women by the Post Office was viewed as an “experiment”. Happily the experiment was judged to have been successful, and as the telephone network expanded women staffed telephone exchanges.

Row of telephonists sitting at manual switchboard, Holborn, 1904. (POST 118/114)

Row of telephonists sitting at manual switchboard, Holborn, 1904. (POST 118/114)

Before (and after) 1870 women were employed by the GPO in rural areas, as postmistresses and letter carriers. Margaret Birkinshaw’s blog post from 2011 describes the work these women undertook and the stamina they required. Some women held positions in the GPO for decades, such as Mrs P. L. Matthews who was photographed for the Post Office Magazine in 1935 and described as “Cornwall’s oldest postwoman. Has walked 11,400 miles in 35 years.”

Mrs P. L. Matthews, Cornwall’s oldest postwoman, 1935. (POST 118/231)

Mrs P. L. Matthews, Cornwall’s oldest postwoman, 1935. (POST 118/231)

In 1876 the Post Office introduced a “marriage bar” which required most female employees to resign upon marriage and forbade the employment of married women in the majority of positions. During the First World War the Post Office suspended this rule as female labour was required to fill positions vacated by men. This saw women working in a variety of non-traditional roles such as driving horse-drawn mail carts.

Women drivers of horse-drawn Post Office vehicles, c.1914-1918.

Women drivers of horse-drawn Post Office vehicles, c.1914-1918.

During the First World War more than 75,000 men left their positions in the Post Office in order to join the war effort. By November 1916 the Post Office employed more than 35,000 women and girls, but most lost their jobs after the war ended. The marriage bar was finally abolished in 1946.

For more on this topic see our webpage Women in the Post Office, or view archive images of female postal workers on Flickr.

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