Many factors can affect the collection and delivery of mail in the UK and across the world. Throughout history, postal services have had to cope with obstacles including weather, industrial action, infection, and civil and military unrest.
International mail is particularly subject to disruption due to the distances involved and the modes of transport used. While, for example, in the event of industrial action it is usually relatively straightforward to shift inland mail from one form of transport to another i.e. rail to road, there are less options available for overseas mail. In particular, moving mail from air to sea could result in significant delays.
International Sanitary Regulations (POST 122/3535)
This is still true today. Royal Mail’s incident report for international mail shows that, at present, one of the key causes of disruption is the Ebola outbreak, which has resulted in the suspension of all mail services to and from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Libya. Delays delivering mail as the result of infection are nothing new. In the early Twentieth Century outbreaks of cholera in regions such as Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan were a cause for concern. Questions were raised as to whether mail from these regions should be disinfected. Though not thought necessary as ‘cholera germs have a very short life… even air mail sufficient to avoid danger of infection’ (POST 122/3523). Despite this, in some cases mail was disinfected or quarantined to meet the concerns of local health boards and to avoid the Post Office being considered a scapegoat should an outbreak occur in a previously unaffected area.
India Pakistan mails (POST 122/10945)
India Pakistan surface mails (POST 122/10946)
War and civil unrest are currently causing disruption to mail services in Syria, and Crimea and Sevastopol in the Ukraine. Military conflict has historically had an impact on international postal services, even in cases where Britain is not directly involved. For example the deterioration of relations between India and Pakistan in 1965 disrupted mail to and from these countries. India refused access to its airspace to planes which had taken off from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Ships were also rerouted, but in many cases it was difficult to identify and separate mails for India and Pakistan and to establish independent postal services.
-Helen Dafter, Archivist
General Post Office medicine bottle
This Saturday is a very busy day for us. Apart from taking part in the Lord Mayor’s Show, we also have our annual Archive Open Day, organised as part of the Archive Awareness Campaign.
This year’s theme for the Archive Awareness Campaign is Science, Technology and Medicine. Archives around the country will open their files to uncover the stories behind some of the most groundbreaking inventions from the nineteenth century, and to highlight the role of the men and women who made outstanding contributions to the field. At the BPMA our focus will be Sickness and Disease in the Post Office, in particular, Vaccination and Quarantine.
1870 GPO notice encouraging staff to get vaccinated for smallpox
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Post Office employees were medically inspected before appointment and this inspection included checking for marks of primary and secondary smallpox vaccination. If signs of vaccination were not present the candidate was required to either undergo vaccination prior to appointment, or to obtain a statutory declaration of conscientious objection. In the early twentieth century concerns were raised regarding the safety of vaccination, and a few postal employees suffered severe side effects or death after being vaccinated. Files on this subject will be on display in the BPMA Search Room on the day.
1972 Post Office poster promoting influenza vaccination
At around the same time Post Office employees were also required to stay away from work if an infectious disease such as Scarlet Fever, Smallpox, Cholera, Typhus or Typhoid was present in their households. This led to questions as to whether employees required to be absent under these conditions should still receive pay, and how long absence should be enforced for. Records in Royal Mail Archive contain guidelines on how an infectious patient should be separated from the rest of the household, and how the room should be subsequently disinfected.
Alongside this, the BPMA also has files on how the Post Office treated mail from countries suffering from epidemic diseases.
Comparisons with the material in the archives will also be drawn with modern day medical issues such as the concerns surrounding the MMR vaccine, the handling of the swine flu epidemic, and employers offering (encouraging) seasonal flu vaccinations.
Find out more about the Archive Open Day on our website.
12th November is Follow an Archive Day on Twitter. Follow us and see what others are saying using the hashtag #followanarchive.
Posted in Archive, Events, Postal History
Tagged Archive Awareness Campaign, cholera, disease, disinfected mail, flu, General Post Office, GPO, GPO posters, influenza, medicine bottle, open day, Post Office, postal workers, Royal Mail, Royal Mail Archive, scarlet fever, sickness, smallpox, smallpox vaccine, typhoid, typhus, vaccination