Reds in the Bed

by Adrian Steel, Director and Acting CEO

2009 saw the 60th anniversary of the formal establishment of the Communist state in China. When it came in 1949, this added to a fear in the Western world that Communism was spreading and that its spread was inevitable. From the start of the Cold War, efforts were made to secure the United Kingdom against “the enemy within” and like many British organisations and businesses, the Post Office sought out any possible Communist infiltration intended to do it harm – the “reds in the bed”.

POST 121/357 in our archive details investigations into the communist activities of Post Office staff.

POST 121/357 in our archive details investigations into the communist activities of Post Office staff.

In fact the Post Office had its attention drawn to other potential troublemakers within its ranks by the British Government before Communism became its main focus. These were Irish Republican or Sinn Fein sympathisers, and when it is borne in mind that the Post Office covered the whole of the island of Ireland it is clear that there was a high chance it had Republican sympathisers among its staff. There were determined central efforts to look at this in the period prior to 1914, and according to records in The Royal Mail Archive between 1920 and 1922 (after the Easter Rising and during the Irish independence process) 15 staff were investigated for Republican sympathies. Only four of these were dismissed, and there was no case proven against the rest. During this same period, and against a background of industrial unrest only 10 staff were investigated for Communism, and of these three were dismissed. POST 121/357 gives the details.

Of interest is the fact that most enquiries were made as a result of police or intelligence service request. The report ‘Disloyalty in the Post Office’, written in secret in 1923, stated:

“The scope of the enquiry which it is possible to make in the cases brought under notice is usually restricted by some consideration or other. In the majority of instances the information is received from the police and is based on confidential reports from Police agents within the movement concerned. Any extensive enquiries in such cases by the Post Office might therefore result in the officer affected becoming suspicious of a leakage within the movement, and this might possibly militate against the agent’s further usefulness to the Police.” (POST 121/357, May 1923)

Evidence also shows that in 1931 “certain officers” were watched at the height of the financial crisis, under suspicion not only of Communist sympathies but also of tampering with Bankers’ mail. But it was in April 1948, with the “Reds in the Bed” scare at its height, that the Post Office Board considered “Fascists and Communists employed on Secret work” and how infiltration could be dealt with. In discussion the Director General told the board that:

“in fact the maintenance staff in London probably included a number of Communists… It was possibly fortunate that the aim was at present to prevent leakages of information rather than acts of sabotage. Sabotage of the telephone service was comparatively easy to anyone who knew his way about, and there had been one or two nasty cases in the last year or two – but unfortunately the culprits could never be traced.” (POST 69/38 meeting of 9 April 1948).

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