In last month’s cataloguing update I wrote about the London sub-post office record books I’d discovered in the Archive. Since then I’ve been cataloguing records from the area of our collections devoted to the sorting and circulation of inland mail (POST 17 in the catalogue). I’ve added nearly 130 files to the catalogue this month, and edited existing descriptions for hundreds more. The records cover subjects like mail sorting machinery, the development of postcodes, and all kinds of technical details – some of them slightly odd. Here are some of my favourites.
POST 17/482 is a 1969 engineer’s study entitled Measurements of Postmen. The aim was to improve sorting office machinery ergonomics by finding out the average size of a British postman. The heights, arm lengths, and outside and inside leg measurements of thousands of postmen were collected and studied – there were 192,000 measurements for the legs! Getting all those postmen to proffer their legs for the engineer would have been an impossible (and traumatic) challenge. Instead, he studied all the sizes of uniforms ordered that year, to everyone’s benefit and, one suspects, relief.
On the subject of measurements, I spent several days cataloguing three large sets of engineering standard drawings from the 1970s and 1980s (POST 17/533-535). The drawings – over 450 in total – cover all aspects of automated mail sorting and circulation: conveyor belts, facing tables, coding desks, chutes, signage, even Morris delivery vans.
These standards contain the official dimensions of equipment to be manufactured for Royal Mail, including explanations of the jobs they were intended to do. In the case of postal vehicles, the standards go as far as specifying the turning circles of each model. Combined with the reports, brochures and technical specifications found elsewhere in POST 17, there’s a vast amount of information here for anyone interested in recent postal mechanisation developments.
There are also records dating back to the very early days of postal mechanisation. One of my favourite discoveries was a little book that was used between 1907 and 1930 to record staff suggestions for improving the mail handling process.
Sometimes staff put forward inventions, and the notes include technical sketches, such as the entry above for a time-saving rolling date stamp. The entries sometimes record whether the suggestions were taken forward. Some are appealingly optimistic, such as the 1909 idea of asking the public to tie their Christmas cards into bundles of ten or more before posting them. Other innovations seem like second nature today. The example below is a 1924 suggestion: envelopes with transparent address windows.*
I hope my unscientific little selection of examples from a single theme shows the incredible variety of material you can consult in our Search Room. Some of the files I catalogued this month, including records from the creation of the postcode system, can’t be opened for another few years. This is due to the 20-year rule governing public records. But cataloguing them now ensures they’ll be ready and waiting in their archive boxes when the time comes to open them.
As for the Measurements of Postmen, studying 192,000 orders for trousers found the average postman’s inside leg measurement in 1969 to be 30.2 inches. The average British postman was determined to be two inches shorter than his American equivalent.
All these files and more will be published to our online catalogue in the coming months.
– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)
* Sadly this wasn’t an original idea, according to Wikipedia Americus F. Callahan of Chicago, Illinois, in the United States, received the first patent for a windowed envelope on 10 June 1902.