Postal uniforms: the early years

by Claire McHugh, Cataloguer (Collections) 

The post office uniform is one of the most easily recognised uniforms worn in the UK as well as being one of the Post Office’s most familiar symbols. As part of my cataloguing of the uniform collection I will provide a brief series of blogs charting the evolution of the postal uniform into what we see today.

Etching: 'Postiglione Inglese', 1772 (2009-0021)

Etching: 'Postiglione Inglese', 1772 (2009-0021)

The earliest reference to a specific dress for postal workers dress dates from 1590, when it is recorded that the Council of Aberdeen ordered a livery of blue cloth with armorial bearing of the town worked in silver on his right sleeve for ‘the post’ carrier (Green Paper 27). But it wasn’t until 1728 when there is mention of a General Post Office item of uniform. In 1728, Joseph Godman (Secretary of the General Post Office) ordered ‘that every letter carrier…shall, as a badge of his employment, wear a brass ticket upon some (the most visible) part of his clothing, with the King’s Arms upon it’ while on duty (St Martin’s le Grand, The Post Office Magazine ,1909).

The first post office employees to be issued with actual uniform were the Mail Coach Guards who, from 1784 wore a scarlet coat with blue lapels and a black top hat with gold band. Also issued were a brace of pistols, a blunderbuss, a cutlass, a post horn and a time piece. Bar the obvious arming of the guard, it was thought that the association of scarlet with military red (which itself was fast becoming a national symbol), coupled with the military styling of the uniform and the hiring of ex-soldiers would deter robbers who had become a great problem on many of the main roads.

Detail of the colour engraving 'West Country Mails at the Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly', 1828 (2009-0080). Note the similarity of the coach men’s uniform with the military gentleman to the bottom left of the picture.

Detail of the colour engraving 'West Country Mails at the Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly', 1828 (2009-0080). Note the similarity of the coach men’s uniform with the military gentleman to the bottom left of the picture.

1792 marked the beginning of discussions on whether London letter carriers should be supplied with a uniform. The Secretary of the Post Office was sceptical, arguing that the expense of clothing the carriers would outweigh any benefits. But eventually it was decided that an introduction of a uniform would have the benefit of easily identify the wearer, therefore deterring them from entering taverns, pawn brokers and other such place when on Post Office duties. It would also deter the practise of letter carriers taking unofficial holidays by replacing themselves with strangers. As to be expected, the suggestion of introducing a uniform was not received with enthusiasm by letter carriers who felt it was a reflection on their character as being dishonest and feared they would become an easy walking target for robbery (POST 61/1).

London letter carrier’s uniform c.1818 (2004-0199).

London letter carrier’s uniform c.1818 (2004-0199).

In 1793 London letter carriers were issued with a uniform that comprised of a beaver hat with a gold band and cockade, a blue cloth waistcoat and a cut away scarlet coat lined with blue calico which had blue lapels and cuffs; the coat fastened with brass buttons on which were inscribed the wearer’s number. The cost of this initial issue of uniforms was roughly £600 (about £33,618.00 today). Unusually for the time and with respect to the amount of uniform being prepared, the uniform was not actually made by army uniform manufacturers but by civilian tailors.

Originally, the uniform was intended to be issued on Queen Charlotte’s birthday (19th May) but the uniforms weren’t ready in time and the issue was delayed until the autumn because the ton would have left London by the summer and the letter carriers would have dirtied their uniform by the time they had returned to town in autumn.

Though this watercolour dates from 1890 it provides a nostalgic image of the twopenny postage letter carrier (2004-0173).

Though this watercolour dates from 1890 it provides a nostalgic image of the twopenny postage letter carrier (2004-0173).

The trickle down of uniforms beyond London was a slow process. It wasn’t until 1834 that letter carriers in principal provincial cities were issued with uniforms. Three years later the uniform allowance was extended to incorporate London’s twopenny post letter carries. The twopenny post marked a slight variation in the uniform, in that its main colour scheme consisted of blue with scarlet trimmings rather than scarlet with blue trimmings. Consequently a twopenny post letter carrier’s uniform consisted of a blue cut-away coat with a scarlet collar, a blue waistcoat and the obligatory beaver hat, with gold band and cockade.

Detail of a satirical Mulready envelope showing the jibes towards the trouser-less letter carrier

Woman: Goodness! Mr Doubleknokk. Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that? Letter carrier: O no mum! It’s the government dress. Hat, coat & waistcoat & no trousers. - Detail of a satirical Mulready envelope showing the jibes towards the trouser-less letter carrier (POST 118/1039).

It should be mentioned in all of these descriptions there are no mention of the supply of trousers to the letter carriers. This is because the employee was expected to supply these themselves. So often there was a juxtaposition between the smartness of the uniform coat with the frayed condition of the wearer’s trousers. Humorists were quick to seize upon this idea of the absence of trousers from the uniform issue by often depicting letter carriers dressed in a chemise, or wearing no trousers at all. The introduction of trousers would not appear in the issued uniform until the mid 19th century.

3 responses to “Postal uniforms: the early years

  1. Pingback: Postal Uniforms: 1855 « The British Postal Museum & Archive

  2. kerry tindall

    I have tracked down an ancestor who is listed in the 1871 census, living in the small rural village of chilmark, wilts and she has listed her occupation as letter carrier. She was a widow aged 40 at the time with four boys to support, but I am amazed that being a woman she would have been employed as a letter carrier, I have been tracking her and she is an increadibly resourceful individual who had a very hard life, but could you please tell me if this would have been correct, that she would have been employed as a letter carrier? What uniform if any would she have been required to wear? What sort of pay would she have received. Presumably she would have travelled on foot? Where would she have collected her post from? Would she have had some basic level of literacy? Many, many thanks for your help, I have found your webside absolutely fascinating.

    Best regards
    Kerry Tindall

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