by Claire McHugh, Cataloguer (Collections)
To continue from my last blog on early postal uniforms, the adoption in 1840 of a Uniform Penny Post and other related reforms initiated by Rowland Hill encouraged the development of the Post Office; this growth was reflected in the increasing workforce and the amount of uniform needing to be issued. In 1851 it was estimated the amount of individuals being supplied with post office uniforms had risen to about 1,700.
1855 marked the replacement of the previous cut-away tail coat by a skirted scarlet frock coat. The wearer’s identification number was no longer on the buttons but had now transferred to being worn on the collar, while the beaver hat was replaced by a glazed hat modelled on one used by the Parisian postmen.
Though scepticism over its practicality was present from the start, even from those involved with its production; a contemporary English contractor suggested that the hat would probably not be very comfortable to wear owing to ‘its lack of resiliency’, even being quite impractical due to ‘its attraction [sic] the rays of the sun; in cold weather the japann becomes so brittle that the least pressure or fall would cause it to crack’.
Nevertheless, the counter plea won with the response that what was satisfactory in France should prove satisfactory in Britain. The vogue for this hat soon waned as the predicted problems became apparent; in 1859 the glazed hat was superseded by a hard felt hat, which later was replaced by the single-peaked shako.
Other additions to the uniform included the issuing of a waterproof tippet (cape) to protect the easily soiled coat. But most importantly the outfit included grey trousers – the letter carriers no longer had to wear their own much maligned, tattered and unmatching trousers. This resulted in a much neater appearance which saved the letter carriers blushes – and if a letter from the wives of postmen addressing the Queen with the request that their husbands be given trousers is to be believed, their wives too (POST 92/1144).
Reaction to the new uniform was mixed; on the one hand it was admired for its smarter more coherent look, contemporary newspapers even going as far to say that ‘The unmarried portion of the corps will now have so many admirers that doors will open spontaneously, knockers will rust on their hinges, and bells will only be rung to celebrate the merry peal and the utter extinction of bachelors in red habiliments. We have heard that all the domestic servants are now in a flutter of excitement when the double knock is heard.’ (The Illustrated Glasgow News, 30 June 1855).
But on the other hand there was criticism of the new outfit. Punch (1855) found the uniform to ‘glaring’ and ‘more fitted for the Fire Brigade’ and couldn’t ‘comprehend the taste which has pinned a large pair of scarlet skirts to the coat of the postman, and caused us to mistake him for a sentinel off his post, by his resemblance to a Foot Guardsman’. This criticism of the military aspect of the frock coat design can be seen in others derisive comments, for example one paper questions whether ‘the coats or the [scarlet] cloth at least, must have been cabbaged from the Crimea.’
Regardless of the criticism, 1855 can be regarded as the first collective post office uniform that created a smart and more coherent look for the Post Office, as it successfully brought the London District and the General Post letter carriers (who up until then had worn separate uniforms) into line, as both classes now appeared in the same scarlet uniform. Over the next few years this issue gradually spread to the provinces until the next significant uniform change in 1861.