Split duties in the 1890s

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post looks at the first postal strike, when long hours and harsh conditions led many postmen to protest. In 1890, hundreds marched on Post Office headquarters at St Martin’s-le-Grand demanding better pay and conditions. They were soon sacked and the strike was put down, but these were early days for the labour movement in Britain and it prompted the Government to investigate the plight of those working in the worst conditions.

In 1895 the Tweedmouth Committee heard evidence on the hardships of postmen. Doctors testified that the death rate in this occupation was higher than others. “The result”, as Sir W.B. Richardson put it, “is that the postman wears out fast… The effect was generally to produce premature old age; in other words shortening the life of the worker.”

The Tweedmouth Committee at work, pictured on the cover of the Postman’s Gazette, 14 March 1896.

The Tweedmouth Committee at work, pictured on the cover of the Postman’s Gazette, 14 March 1896.

Stephen Dowling, a postman from Liverpool, complained about the long hours. He found that having his duties split into three or four attendances in a single day meant he started work at 6am and didn’t finish until after 10pm.

Imagine, my lord, the postman going into his home 3, 4, 5 and as many as 8 times per day, drenched with rain, or his boots penetrated with snow… Or, worse still, picture him when he cannot get home remaining in wet clothing all day long… Or, think of him working under the fierce rays of a summer’s sun, in the hottest part of the day, when others are seeking shelter, walking along dusty, country roads, in the streets, in loathsome slums, among insanitary dwellings, climbing hills and mounting stuffy buildings – with heavy loads and hung all around with parcels.

Dowling explained that between duties many of his colleges simply took to the pub.

In many instances the intervals between the parts of our long duties are frittered and whiled away in the streets – often, I regret to have to say (and this, I think, it reflects rather on the Department than on the men), in public houses. These very intervals have been the cause of many a man’s ruin.

The Committee heard the story of a man named Nevins.

He was rolling about in the principal thoroughfare at a quarter-past three in the afternoon in a state of intoxication, and he was then in uniform.

Nevins kept his job but had his good conduct stripes removed, leading to reduced pay.

William Gates, a postman awarded Good Conduct Stripes. Hurstpierpoint, Brighton, c1897.

William Gates, a postman awarded Good Conduct Stripes. Hurstpierpoint, Brighton, c1897.

Others took up sports to pass the time but split duties caused problems for them too. Tired from an early start, postmen at the GPO on Lombard Street complained that an afternoon of rowing or cricket was spoilt by the thought of having to go back to work afterwards.

This is making work of play indeed, and small wonder that the G.P.O., notwithstanding its immense staff, can scarcely equal for all round proficiency some of the district offices, who, in point of size, are as his satellites are to Jupiter.

A letter to the union journal The Post joked that “split duties are like a long engaged couple – they should be joined as soon as possible”.

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club

When the Tweedmouth Committee issued its report, postmen were dismayed to find that no concessions were made on split duties. But this was the first of a series of major parliamentary enquiries around the turn of the century that slowly produced results, improving conditions for the lowest paid and leading eventually to the establishment of Whitley Councils.

- Peter Sutton, Historian

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Postal Worker’s Strike. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s