by Richard Wade, Archives Assistant
As Royal Mail or the GPO, as it was known, was at one time the largest employer in the country, many people find they have a relative that was employed in some regard by them. Luckily, the GPO kept records of its staff which were organised centrally, and consequently the majority have survived. This means that they are a great resource for researching the lives of past family members, at least as far as their employment was concerned.
There are records of most staff from postmen and sorters to the Postmaster General, as well as the various clerks and officers in between. There are also records of telegraph staff as it would not have been possible to separate these out from those for postal staff. All of these records are held here at Freeling House.
The most important and informative of the staff records are the pension records. We have these for the majority of staff from 1859 to 1959. You can usually find out from these the places people worked, the job they did and a brief history of their employment, including their various positions throughout their careers and the associated salaries. There will also be information about any particularly good conduct and any notable events or actions made during their careers, for example, if they went to fight with the Post Office Rifles (the Post Office’s own battalion) in the Great War, or work related achievements, such as gaining a long service award. Conversely, the records will also mention any black marks gained or anything they did they could be less proud of, such as drinking on the job. What you won’t find out from them are any personal details such as private addresses or information about their next of kin.
People received pensions at the age of 60 in the Post Office, unless they retired early for ill health. Where women were concerned, they could not work once they were married, so we have marriage gratuities for them from the year in which they got married. If people died whilst they were still employed then there would have been a death gratuity. However, the death gratuity and marriage gratuity records are often only indexes, so you may not get as much information as what you would for ordinary pension records.
We also have appointment records for the vast majority of employees, but these are nowhere near as informative as the pension records, as they generally only give the name of the employee and the date of the appointment. In some cases, the position they were appointed to is given, but even this is not guaranteed.
Another resource that can be used is our collection of minute books, which have information about certain offices, arranged either by place or by department. There are also records within the minute books of dismissals, where you may find people you can not find elsewhere.
Another option is the Establishment books, which list some of the more senior staff by department. They were produced each year, so you can trace people through the years to try and work out when they left if you do not know already. Some of the later books also contain lists of Postmasters.
Finally, it is sometimes worth looking in the Post Office magazines; unfortunately, these are not indexed in any way so it is a question of just trawling through them. They mention people who had gone over and above their duty, comic and bizarre requests from customers, staff who have done particularly long service, and sometimes list staff who have retired recently. It will be especially worthwhile looking at the staff magazines if you know of an ancestor being involved in any of the sports teams, or playing in one of the Post Office bands or something similar, as these feature heavily in the magazines and will tell you about a side of a person that you wouldn’t find out about from the more formal records.
We also have a huge selection of photographs here, so if you wanted to find out about the type of clothing your relatives wore, or the type of places they worked in, you can do this too.
If you want to find out more about researching family history at the British Postal Museum & Archive, please see the Family History Pages of our website, which can be found in the visiting section – and while you’re there you can download our updated Family History Research Guide. If you wish to visit us and search our records, please do drop in and we’ll be happy to help.