Ahead of next week’s talk, ‘Unstitching the Uniform’, Joanna Espin shares the fascinating stories behind five postal uniforms.
1/ Protecting the mail on roads at the mercy of highwaymen I’ll start at the very beginning, with the first Royal Mail uniform, issued to Mail Coach Guards in 1784. Bold, militaristic and scarlet red, the Mail Coach Guard uniform was a symbol of authority; protecting the mail on roads at the mercy of highwaymen, the guards had to look powerful. Despite the dangers, there are just two recorded instances of attacks on mails coaches: once in 1786 by a highwayman who was shot dead by the Guard, and once in 1816 by an escaped lioness from a travelling menagerie. The Mail Coach Guard cut an imposing figure but also generated a reputation for being popular with the ladies. The early 19th century song ‘The Mail Coach’ tracks a Mail Coach Guard’s journey through various pubs and his encounters with various women, including the ‘sweetheart so snug at the bar’, and the ‘sweet little girl in the moon’. In 1837, when a GPO uniform was issued to London Two Penny Postmen, its supposed effect on women was commented on in a leading periodical, which recommended the abolition of ‘this very martial attire, which elevated the Postman into a formidable rival to the policeman in his little flirtations with our female servants’. Here’s an image from ‘The Mail Coach’ song sheet, depicting the Mail Coach Guard with ‘sweet Nan at the star’.
2/ ‘Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that?’ As well as being a symbol of authority, uniform can be the object of derision, as demonstrated in this satirical cartoon of the Two Penny Postmens’ uniform. In 1837, Two Penny Postmen were issued with a coat, waistcoat and hat. Can you see what’s missing? Trousers. That’s because employees were expected to supply trousers themselves and so, very often, there was a juxtaposition between the smartness of the supplied uniform and the condition of the trousers. In the illustration here, the woman at the door exclaims ‘Goodness! Mr Doubleknokk. Won’t you get cold in your stomach, going naked like that?’ To which the letter carrier replies: ‘O no mum! It’s the government dress. Hat, coat & waistcoat & no trousers.’
3/ A dangerous job and Dr. Merrit’s medical gussets Mail has been delivered by many methods across greatly varying terrain and one interesting example of this is the River Post of the Port of London. Established in 1800 and continuing until 1952, the job of delivering post to vessels anchored in the Thames was a dangerous one: both the first person appointed to the post and his assistant died in separate accidents. Early River Postmen were issued with a unique, scarlet, full skirted frock coat, trimmed with brown velvet, and incorporating ‘Dr. Merritt’s medical gussets’, for ventilation. Here’s a fantastic early 20th century lantern slide of Thames river postman, George Henry Evans, on his rounds in a more simple uniform. Can you see Tower Bridge in the background?
4/ The first full uniform for postwomen War was a catalyst for two developments in postwomen’s uniform: the introduction of the first full uniform and, later, the introduction of trousers. In the First World War, thousands of married and single women were employed in temporary positions for the duration of the conflict, in roles previously reserved for men. In 1916, the first full uniform was issued to postwomen, though women had been working for the GPO in small numbers since the 18th century. By comparison, the entire male delivery force had been uniformed since 1872. Here 12 postwomen model the new uniform. 5/ Women wearing the trousers A further development in women’s uniform came during the Second World War: in 1941 postwomen were permitted to wear trousers instead of skirts. First requested by a Scottish Postwoman, Jean Cameron, the idea was quickly taken up by the GPO and proved popular, with more than 500 pairs of trousers ordered in two months. By November 1943, 14,000 pairs of women’s trousers, or ‘Camerons’ as they were referred to in reference to their pioneer, had been issued. Jean Cameron spoke of her excitement at being the first postwoman to wear trousers because “I shouldn’t be a woman if I wasn’t pleased to be the first to start a fashion”. Female counter staff were still required to wear skirts, with the concession that they could forgo stockings, due to the ‘need for economy in clothes’. Here’s an image from 1941 of a postwoman in her Camerons. I hope you can make it to my talk at 6pm on Thursday 26 March at Guildhall Library. There’ll be free wine!