Sports and Participation in the Post Office

As a summer of sport draws to a close, we take a look at sports and participation in the Post Office, through the research carried out by six students during the BPMA and University of the Third Age (U3A) Shared Learning Project at the beginning of 2012…

The U3A students

The U3A students

In the course of his research, Gwyn Redgers found that the Post Office has had a long history of participation in sports – much of which was initiated as a way of coping with split shifts. Postmen in the late 19th Century worked long hours, and often found their duties split into three or four attendances in a single day – meaning that many would start work at 6am and not finish until 10pm. Whilst some postmen took to the pub, others took up sports.

Members of the Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club, 1898.

Members of the Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club, 1898.

By the 1930s, most large towns had Post Office football, cricket and tennis teams and were starting to develop the more recent spread of sports and recreation Associations. Sheilah Lowe scoured the sports pages of The Post Office Magazine (1933-1966) for records of both these groups and of sporting individuals, and discovered a wealth of information – including stories about staff who competed in Olympic Games.

In 1952, the magazine notes that a Mr. K. A. Richmond, Night Telephonist (London Telegraph Region Directory Enquiries) was selected for the Heavyweight Wrestling at the Helsinki Games and took a bronze medal. A little online research revealed that Ken Alan Richmond was a former whale ship crewman in Antarctica, turned wrestler, with another significant claim to fame: he was the shirtless man seen banging the enormous gong which preceded the opening credits of the Rank Organisation’s films, such as Great Expectations and Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Sheilah also found that race walker Ray Middleton, of Golders Green sub-district Office competed in Tokyo 1964, finishing 12th in the 50km walk. Ray is a notable Post Office athlete, with a career spanning the 1960s and extending into the 1970s, during which he won 2 golds, 8 silvers and 4 bronze medals in British Championships and represented England internationally on 11 occasions. He won silvers at the 1963 Lugano Cup and the 1966 Commonwealth Games, and was the first winner of a postal sporting event that has taken place annually since 1962: the Postman’s Walk.

Sylvia Chubbs researched the history of this competitive speed walk event, which is open to postal workers across the UK, from novices to trained athletes. Covering laps of a one mile circuit around Coram’s Field near Mount Pleasant in London, participants originally wore full uniform and carried a sack. Nowadays, the rules are a little more relaxed – the sack is no longer required and shorts and trainers are allowed.

In 1970, 35-year old Ray Middleton led a team of British postmen to victory in the European Postal Road Walking Championship at Crystal Palace – beating teams of competitors from 13 other countries. An article in The Daily Mirror celebrated the success, whilst Ray was later named as one of the top celebrities of the year by comedian Charlie Chester. In September 2011, Middleton attended the 50th Annual Postman’s walk, seeing Dave Allen win for the sixteenth time – making him the most successful competitor in the event ever.

Ray Middleton at the 50th Postman's Walk, 2011, with BPMA Curator Vyki Sparkes and BPMA Access & Learning Manager Andy Richmond.

Ray Middleton at the 50th Postman’s Walk, 2011, with BPMA Curator Vyki Sparkes and BPMA Access & Learning Manager Andy Richmond.

From postmen stomping around London, we move on to look at stamps – the topic of research for three of the U3A students. Olga Selivanova became interested in a stamp she had collected in her native Russia. It showed the bronze statue “Let Us Beat Swords Into Ploughshares” – presented by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959.

This artwork was inspired by a biblical passage (Isaiah 2:4) describing the conversion of weapons for use in peaceful civilian applications. The sentiment of this quote has obvious parallels with the peaceful ideals of the Olympic movement, with many activities related to combat – such as archery, javelin, shooting, boxing, taekwondo, and judo – practised in the Games, but always in keeping with the Olympic Creed and Values of friendship and respect.

Another such sport – fencing – was the subject of Pat Boumphrey’s research. She found many examples of stamps featuring fencing, including ones from places as diverse as Afghanistan and Vietnam. As a keen fencer herself, Pat penned a little ditty to inspire Team GB’s female athletes in advance of London 2012:

There are bad times just around the corner,
The horizon’s gloomy as can be.
The British male,
May often fail,
OUR FAITH IN SPORT IS SHAKEN,
So English girls awaken,
And save the nation’s bacon…

It certainly seems to have done the job: the Team GB women won 10 gold medals and 22 in total, making it their most successful Games ever. At least some of that success can be credited to Dame Marea Hartman. Ray Watkins found a stamp dedicated to Hartman, who is credited with the integration of British women athletes into full competition and parity with male athletes. She was Chairwoman of the Women’s Commission of the International Athletic Federation for 13 years, as well as the first woman to serve as President of the Amateur Athletic Association from 1991 to 1994.

Dame Marea Hartman stamp from the Famous Women issue, 6 August 1996.

Dame Marea Hartman stamp from the Famous Women issue, 6 August 1996.

Finally, to bring our story full circle, we return to Gwyn, who found the following quote from an early edition of the St. Martin’s circular. It shows that, as with many things, the Post Office led the way in encouraging British sportswomen:

Not the least of the many medical and scientific discoveries in the 19th Century is the fact that athletic exercise can be indulged in by women without injury to their bodily health. … we have discovered that, as a result of open air exercise, women retain their youth for a longer period than at any time in our history

from St Martin’s 1898, pg. 395.

– Andy Richmond, Access & Learning Manager

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