Tag Archives: letter carrier

Postal uniforms: the early years

by Claire McHugh, Cataloguer (Collections) 

The post office uniform is one of the most easily recognised uniforms worn in the UK as well as being one of the Post Office’s most familiar symbols. As part of my cataloguing of the uniform collection I will provide a brief series of blogs charting the evolution of the postal uniform into what we see today.

Etching: 'Postiglione Inglese', 1772 (2009-0021)

Etching: 'Postiglione Inglese', 1772 (2009-0021)

The earliest reference to a specific dress for postal workers dress dates from 1590, when it is recorded that the Council of Aberdeen ordered a livery of blue cloth with armorial bearing of the town worked in silver on his right sleeve for ‘the post’ carrier (Green Paper 27). But it wasn’t until 1728 when there is mention of a General Post Office item of uniform. In 1728, Joseph Godman (Secretary of the General Post Office) ordered ‘that every letter carrier…shall, as a badge of his employment, wear a brass ticket upon some (the most visible) part of his clothing, with the King’s Arms upon it’ while on duty (St Martin’s le Grand, The Post Office Magazine ,1909).

The first post office employees to be issued with actual uniform were the Mail Coach Guards who, from 1784 wore a scarlet coat with blue lapels and a black top hat with gold band. Also issued were a brace of pistols, a blunderbuss, a cutlass, a post horn and a time piece. Bar the obvious arming of the guard, it was thought that the association of scarlet with military red (which itself was fast becoming a national symbol), coupled with the military styling of the uniform and the hiring of ex-soldiers would deter robbers who had become a great problem on many of the main roads.

Detail of the colour engraving 'West Country Mails at the Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly', 1828 (2009-0080). Note the similarity of the coach men’s uniform with the military gentleman to the bottom left of the picture.

Detail of the colour engraving 'West Country Mails at the Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly', 1828 (2009-0080). Note the similarity of the coach men’s uniform with the military gentleman to the bottom left of the picture.

1792 marked the beginning of discussions on whether London letter carriers should be supplied with a uniform. The Secretary of the Post Office was sceptical, arguing that the expense of clothing the carriers would outweigh any benefits. But eventually it was decided that an introduction of a uniform would have the benefit of easily identify the wearer, therefore deterring them from entering taverns, pawn brokers and other such place when on Post Office duties. It would also deter the practise of letter carriers taking unofficial holidays by replacing themselves with strangers. As to be expected, the suggestion of introducing a uniform was not received with enthusiasm by letter carriers who felt it was a reflection on their character as being dishonest and feared they would become an easy walking target for robbery (POST 61/1).

London letter carrier’s uniform c.1818 (2004-0199).

London letter carrier’s uniform c.1818 (2004-0199).

In 1793 London letter carriers were issued with a uniform that comprised of a beaver hat with a gold band and cockade, a blue cloth waistcoat and a cut away scarlet coat lined with blue calico which had blue lapels and cuffs; the coat fastened with brass buttons on which were inscribed the wearer’s number. The cost of this initial issue of uniforms was roughly £600 (about £33,618.00 today). Unusually for the time and with respect to the amount of uniform being prepared, the uniform was not actually made by army uniform manufacturers but by civilian tailors.

Originally, the uniform was intended to be issued on Queen Charlotte’s birthday (19th May) but the uniforms weren’t ready in time and the issue was delayed until the autumn because the ton would have left London by the summer and the letter carriers would have dirtied their uniform by the time they had returned to town in autumn.

Though this watercolour dates from 1890 it provides a nostalgic image of the twopenny postage letter carrier (2004-0173).

Though this watercolour dates from 1890 it provides a nostalgic image of the twopenny postage letter carrier (2004-0173).

The trickle down of uniforms beyond London was a slow process. It wasn’t until 1834 that letter carriers in principal provincial cities were issued with uniforms. Three years later the uniform allowance was extended to incorporate London’s twopenny post letter carries. The twopenny post marked a slight variation in the uniform, in that its main colour scheme consisted of blue with scarlet trimmings rather than scarlet with blue trimmings. Consequently a twopenny post letter carrier’s uniform consisted of a blue cut-away coat with a scarlet collar, a blue waistcoat and the obligatory beaver hat, with gold band and cockade.

Detail of a satirical Mulready envelope showing the jibes towards the trouser-less letter carrier

Woman: Goodness! Mr Doubleknokk. Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that? Letter carrier: O no mum! It’s the government dress. Hat, coat & waistcoat & no trousers. - Detail of a satirical Mulready envelope showing the jibes towards the trouser-less letter carrier (POST 118/1039).

It should be mentioned in all of these descriptions there are no mention of the supply of trousers to the letter carriers. This is because the employee was expected to supply these themselves. So often there was a juxtaposition between the smartness of the uniform coat with the frayed condition of the wearer’s trousers. Humorists were quick to seize upon this idea of the absence of trousers from the uniform issue by often depicting letter carriers dressed in a chemise, or wearing no trousers at all. The introduction of trousers would not appear in the issued uniform until the mid 19th century.

Civil Uniform Collection

by Claire McHugh, Cataloguer (Collections)

Searching the online catalogue you may have noticed an omission from The British Postal Museum & Archive’s collection; uniforms. This absence doesn’t mean The BPMA doesn’t hold such material; indeed we have about 1000 items such as ties, protective clothing, waistcoats, jackets, skirts and trousers to name but a few items.

A Postwoman's overcoat, 1918. The coat is dark blue with red detailing on the edges, gold buttons and T5 in gold on the collar.

Close up of Postwoman’s overcoat, 1918. This is an example of the first standard uniform for Postwomen. Before WW1 postwomen had only been supplied with waterproofs.

To rectify this, a project has recently begun to bring The BPMA’s uniform catalogue records up to date and review the collection with regard to our museum collection review policy and facilitate the decision as to what is to be accessioned (the formal, legal process of accepting an object into a museum collection) permanently into the collection. Once accessioned, the uniform records can then be uploaded onto the online catalogue.

While cataloguing the collection, photographic images of the vast majority of the collection have been created. This means digital images (such as the ones illustrating this blog) can accompany the online catalogue record making the collection more accessible to the public.

Postman’s long-sleeved waistcoat, 1908. The waistcoat is black with gold buttons. The sleeves are dark grey.

Postman’s long-sleeved waistcoat, 1908.

So far the project has unearthed a number of intriguing items including a Tangier postman’s uniform dated 1905-1914, Ministry of Civil Aviation uniforms and early experiments in acid resistant material. It has also unearthed what appears to be one of the earliest garments in the collection, a frock coat from the 1860s.

A red Mail guard's frock coat, with gold trim and buttons, and black collar, cuffs and pocket flaps.

Mail guard’s frock coat introduced as part of the new range of uniform of 1861. It retains Dr Merritt’s medical gussets for ventilation.

1861 marked the introduction of a new uniform for letter-carriers, mail-guards and drivers designed by the army contractors Tait Brothers & Co. These new uniform marked the change from red being the dominant colour in letter carriers uniform to dark blue.

Letter carriers uniform now consisted of a blue frock coat with a scarlet collar, cuffs, and facings with initials G.P.O. and wearer’s number underneath being embroidered in white on each sided. The waistcoat was made to match the coat in colour, facings, and buttons. The mail-driver’s frock coat was similar to the letter carrier’s, with the exception of a gold-lace trimming and gold-embroidered initials. The mail-guard’s coat retained the use of the fine scarlet cloth and is a double breasted frock, richly braided with gold lace; and the collar is blue with the initials G.P.O. embroidered in gold on each side. All the garments were fitted with the intriguingly titled Dr. Merritt’s medical gussets for ventilation.

Black and white engraving of three men wearing the new uniforms for letter-carriers, mail-drivers and guards

Illustration of the new uniform designed by Tait Brothers & Co for letter-carriers, mail-drivers and guards from The Illustrated London News, 29 December 1860 (POST 111/99).

This blog marks only the beginning of the project, but it is hoped that the resulting online collection will form an invaluable resource for researchers interested in the histories of civil service uniforms, postal history, buttons, gender and a host of other areas.

The BPMA at Blists Hill – July update

by Alison Norris, Ironbridge Project Assistant

Following a great deal of work by BPMA staff, the contemporary BPMA museum at Blists Hill Victorian town, Shropshire is due to open in late September. Blists Hill is one of ten sites run by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust (IGMT), and receives around 200,000 visitors a year. This means that the BPMA will now be able to show parts of its unique collection to a great many more people.

The Blists Hill Post Office

The Blists Hill Post Office

The Museum of the Post Office in the Community can be found above the Blists Hill Victorian Post Office on Canal Street. Canal Street was carefully constructed earlier this year, with some buildings being moved brick by brick from original locations, others recreated using the IGMT archive, and each has been fitted out to show a selection of trades, industries and professions from the Victorian era. Many of these buildings are manned by staff in period costume that interpret the contents and demonstrate their functions.

The BPMA Museum of the Post Office in the Community

The museum will be split in to four different sections, each exploring a different theme around the Post Office in the Community.

As well as images and objects, there will also be three audio booths throughout the museum. In each booth, visitors will be able to listen to many different types of people who have either worked at, or used the Post Office, and their thoughts on how it has affected them and those around them.

Post Office Counter Services

A timeline will tell the story of the wide range of services that have been offered over the counter at the Post Office. It will cover services such as pensions, Postal Orders, National Savings Bank, telegrams, telephones and TV licences. A display case will hold objects such as home safes, Post Office Savings Bank books and an early telegram, all of which will help bring depth to the timeline.

Delivering the Mail

The story of the delivery of mail in the community will be made up of three sub-sections. These will cover the local ‘postie’ and their role in the community, delivery equipment such as carts and cycles, and the Post Bus service. 

The Letter Carrier

This section will outline the history of the delivery of letters in the community and the evolution of the letter carrier of the early 18th century to the postman / woman of today. A display of hats will demonstrate changes that took place in the uniforms of letter carriers and postmen.

Delivery Equipment

The Hen & Chicks is one of the key objects on display, and will be in this section. Visitors will also be able to see a BSA Bantam motorcycle, fondly remembered by many messenger boys that rode them. More modern electric vehicle trials by Royal Mail will also be looked at. 

Stour Valley Post Bus

Stour Valley Post Bus

The Post Bus

Introduced in 1967, the Post Bus can provide a vital service to rural communities. Here, its influence and decline will be explored.

Letter Boxes

In this section visitors will be able to see a number of types of letter boxes, all of which have, or still do, provide an important service to the community. When pillar boxes were introduced in 1852, they provided convenient and easy posting facilities but only served large towns and cities. In 1857 a cheaper type of box was introduced to serve more rural communities, this was called the wall box.  Lamp boxes were originally introduced in 1896 in fashionable London squares for residents who wanted late night posting facilities but are now more commonly seen in rural areas.

Pillar Box. Moor Park, Hertfordshire

Pillar Box. Moor Park, Hertfordshire

Changing Times

The final section will conclude the exhibition by telling the story of the UK postal service today and the loss of Royal Mail’s monopoly and rise of competitor mail companies.

Building the Exhibition

Following a competitive tender process, the BPMA appointed the Hub as the fit-out contractors for the Blists Hill exhibition.

Based in Birmingham, the Hub was established four years ago and has been involved in a number of well-known exhibitions and projects. Most recently they have worked on elements of the Ceramics Galleries at the V&A, which will open in September 2009.

Further information and how to get there

Blists Hill is part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust. The Ironbridge Gorge is on the River Severn, 5 miles (8km) south of Telford town centre in Shropshire.

Take junction 4 from the M54. Follow brown and white signs to Ironbridge Gorge.

Once on the A442 follow signs for Blists Hill Museums.

Please remember that the BPMA exhibition will not be opening until late September 2009.

Contact details

For more information on directions, or the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust, please go to www.ironbridge.org.uk

To find out more about the exhibition itself, please visit our website www.postalheritage.org.uk/ironbridge. Or contact Alison Norris (Ironbridge Project Assistant) at alison.norris@postalheritage.org.uk or 020 7239 5174.

200 Years of Australia Post

by Alison Bean, Website Officer

Over the weekend philatelists and postal heritage buffs in Australia celebrated Australia Post’s bicentenary. As you might expect of a former British colony, Australia’s postal service was much influenced by Britain’s. Browsing Australia Post’s fascinating 200th Anniversary website I discovered many interesting parallels and connections between the two postal services.

The postal service began in Australia with the appointment of Isaac Nichols – a former convict who had been transported to New South Wales for stealing – as the first Postmaster of Sydney on 25th April 1809. Mail distribution prior to Nichols’ appointment was “haphazard” according to Australia Post’s website. It also says of this period:

“Life was often bleak and lonely for the first settlers as they waited for news from home. It could be many months before a ship was sighted offshore and this was enough to generate near pandemonium on the wharves.”

And so it wasn’t until two months after his appointment that Nichols performed his first duty, which was to board the brig Experiment as it docked in Sydney Harbour and take delivery of the mail. He then took the mail back to his home in George Street, Sydney, and placed an advertisement in the Sydney Gazette to alert recipients that mail awaited them.

The practise of not home delivering the mail was common at the time. In Britain prior to the introduction of free home delivery, letters would often be delivered to a convenient local place, such as a coffee shop. Although the first “letter carriers” (postmen) were appointed in Sydney in 1828 it appears that home delivery was not free in New South Wales at this time, as recipients paid for letters rather than senders. In Britain free home delivery was not granted to every household until 1897 (this was a concession to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria) although by 1859 93% of letters were not subject to a delivery charge.

Another important milestone for the Australian postal service was the introduction of the first public post boxes in Sydney in 1831. These were receipt boxes placed in front of letter receiving houses for the collection of (unpaid) letters. Receipt boxes were introduced in the UK in 1814 and underwent many stylistic changes throughout their existence, such as changes to the angle of the aperture (letter slot) from vertical to horizontal. The boxes introduced in Sydney in 1831 are likely to have been the same as their British counterparts.

Paris Letter Box 1850, an inspiration for early Australian letter boxes.

The first pillar boxes arrived in New South Wales in the late 1850s, a few years after UK trials had taken place in the Channel Islands. The Postmaster General of New South Wales announced that he would replace the existing receipt boxes with cast-iron letter receivers in Sydney and an invitation to tender was placed in the Government Gazette on 2nd November 1855. The boxes that followed were the famous Bubbs Boxes, which were modelled on those already in use in Belgium and Paris (which had also provided the inspiration for the first British roadside pillars). One of the stamps in Australia Post’s 200th Anniversary stamp issue shows an early Bubbs Box. A slightly different model manufactured in 1870 can be found in the collection of the National Museum of Australia and an image of this and others from the NMA’s collection can be seen on Wikipedia. Flickr shows an image of a similar box manufactured for the Western Australian postal service, bearing the Western Australian emblem of a black swan.

Australia Post’s website also notes that letter sheets pre-stamped with an albino embossing were introduced in New South Wales in 1838, pre-dating the Penny Black by almost two years. There is some debate about whether these letter sheets should be regarded as stamps or postal stationary. Those who feel they are postal stationary note that special letter sheets showing an eagle with the Cross of Savoy were sold in Sardinia in 1819. Either way, the letter sheets were inspired by British postal reformer Rowland Hill. James Raymond, the New South Wales Postmaster at this time, had been in communication with Hill and was much influenced by Hill’s 1837 pamphlet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, which recommended the introduction of prepayment for postage using pre-printed envelopes and stamps. But Raymond’s pioneering letter sheets did not prove popular and moves were made to introduce postage stamps. The first postage stamps were released in New South Wales on 1st January 1850. Victoria followed on 3rd January 1950 and other Australian colonies introduced stamps between 1853 and 1860.

Britains first charity stamp, issued in 1975 in support of health and handicap charities.

Britain's first charity stamp, issued in 1975 in support of health and handicap charities.

Another philatelic first claimed by Australia was the release of the world’s first charity stamps in 1897 in New South Wales. The stamps were to honour Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee with proceeds going to a Consumptive’s Home (images of these stamps can be seen on the Stamps of Distinction blog and Linns.com). It is important to note that Greece had released charity stamps in 1831, although the New South Wales Consumptive Home stamps were the first to include a charity surcharge. Britain’s first charity stamp was issued in 1975 to support health and handicap charities.

I am indebted to BPMA Curator Julian Stray for providing much of the information in this post. The following online resources were also extremely useful.
BPMA: Key Dates in the British Postal Service
BPMA: online catalogue
Australia Post: Our History
Australia Post: 200 Years
Wikipedia: Postage stamps and postal history of New South Wales
Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue: Commonwealth & British Empire Stamps