Tag Archives: horse-drawn mail van

Mr Poppleton’s Horse

One of the most popular items in our collection is this sick note issued for a horse in 1898. “Mr T C Poppleton’s horse of The Post Office is suffering from sore shoulders and unable to perform his official duties” the note reads.

Horse's sick note, 1898 (POST 10/334)

Horse’s sick note, 1898 (POST 10/334)

By the late 19th Century the volume of mail delivered every day by horse was huge – and growing. And in this pre-motor vehicle era it’s no wonder horses had to be signed-off due to over work.

Our Senior Curator Julian Stray will give a talk at the Royal Mail Archive on Thursday 19th September about the role played by horses in the Post Office. He’ll tell the full story of the sick note for Mr Poppleton’s horse alongside tales (and tails) stretching from Roman Britain to the post-war era. This promises to be a fascinating evening of history, with a little bit of horsing around!

Horse-drawn mail van, 1887.

Horse-drawn mail van, 1887.

Book now for Julian Stray’s talk Mr Poppleton’s Horse: The History of Horse-Drawn Mails. See a selection of images depicting Horse-Drawn Mail on Flickr.

Horse-drawn mail

Horses have been used to carry messages from the very early days, when post boys would deliver messages by horse. In the 18th Century horse-drawn mail coaches were introduced, which cut mail delivery times by more than half.

But while efficient, mail coaches suffered many tragic accidents. In a previous blog we recounted the sad tale of a mail coach caught in a snow drift in Southern Scotland. We also found a lantern slide showing a coach in difficulty on a broken bridge. This and other images of horse-drawn mail from the Royal Mail Archive can now be seen on Flickr.

Accident, Lanark. Detail of a lantern slide showing a scene of a broken bridge where there central portion of the span has fallen into the river below. A coach is hanging off the right hand edge with two horses dangling in their harness. (2012-0139/1)

Accident, Lanark. Detail of a lantern slide showing a scene of a broken bridge where there central portion of the span has fallen into the river below. A coach is hanging off the right hand edge with two horses dangling in their harness. (2012-0139/1)

The advent of the railways in the 19th Century further sped-up mail delivery, and mail coaches were withdrawn from use. However there was still work at the Post Office for a good horse, and horses were used to pull carts, carriages and vans until at least the mid-20th Century.

Interestingly, horses were also entitled to sick leave. A note held in the Archives from 1898 states that:

Mr T C Poppleton’s horse of The Post Office is suffering from sore shoulders and unable to perform his official duties.

Horse's sick note, 27 October 1898.

Horse’s sick note, 27 October 1898.

Horses were not employed directly by the Post Office but were provided by contractors. A number of the images we have put on Flickr show scenes from the stables of McNamara and Co, who provided horses for postal duties in London.

Horse in the stables of Messers McNamara and Co., 1949. (POST 118/1988)

Horse in the stables of Messers McNamara and Co., 1949. (POST 118/1988)

By the late 1930s horses had largely been replaced by motorised vehicles, although they were used in remote areas on a limited basis. The last London post horse, Peter, left Post Office headquarters in the City of London on 23 September 1949.

The last horse drawn mail used in London leaves on delivery. (POST 118/1982)

The last horse drawn mail used in London leaves on delivery. (POST 118/1982)

View our images of Horse-drawn Mail on Flickr.

The end of the horse-drawn mail van

Sixty years ago today the last horse-drawn mail van left King Edward Building in London. This photo captures the event.

Peter pulls the last horse-drawn mail van to leave King Edward Building, London.

Peter pulls the last horse-drawn mail van to leave King Edward Building, London.

If it seems strange that horse-drawn vans were still being used by the Post Office in 1949, the remnants of war-damaged London in the background provide a clue.

Petrol rationing was introduced in Britain during the Second World War to ensure that the military and other essential services were given first priority when it came to fuel supplies. Throughout the war, individuals, businesses, and organisations such as the Post Office, had to make efficient use of the limited resources to hand. This ruled out expansion of the Post Office’s growing fleet of small motor vehicles for local deliveries, meaning that horse-drawn vans stayed in service for longer than they might have.

A horse-drawn mail van circa 1935 in our collection. The design of the van enabled letter carriers to step on and off whilst the vehicle was still moving.

A horse-drawn mail van circa 1935 in our collection. The design of the van enabled letter carriers to step on and off whilst the vehicle was still moving.

By 1949 the era of rationing was starting to end, allowing the Post Office to replace all horse-drawn vans in London with their motorised equivalent. Although horse-drawn vans continued for a number of years in rural areas, Peter’s final journey can be said to mark the end of the wide-scale use of horses, the world’s oldest form mail transport, by the Post Office.