Today’s episode of The Peoples Post looks at the first postal strike, when long hours and harsh conditions led many postmen to protest. In 1890, hundreds marched on Post Office headquarters at St Martin’s-le-Grand demanding better pay and conditions. They were soon sacked and the strike was put down, but these were early days for the labour movement in Britain and it prompted the Government to investigate the plight of those working in the worst conditions.
In 1895 the Tweedmouth Committee heard evidence on the hardships of postmen. Doctors testified that the death rate in this occupation was higher than others. “The result”, as Sir W.B. Richardson put it, “is that the postman wears out fast… The effect was generally to produce premature old age; in other words shortening the life of the worker.”
The Tweedmouth Committee at work, pictured on the cover of the Postman’s Gazette, 14 March 1896.
Stephen Dowling, a postman from Liverpool, complained about the long hours. He found that having his duties split into three or four attendances in a single day meant he started work at 6am and didn’t finish until after 10pm.
Imagine, my lord, the postman going into his home 3, 4, 5 and as many as 8 times per day, drenched with rain, or his boots penetrated with snow… Or, worse still, picture him when he cannot get home remaining in wet clothing all day long… Or, think of him working under the fierce rays of a summer’s sun, in the hottest part of the day, when others are seeking shelter, walking along dusty, country roads, in the streets, in loathsome slums, among insanitary dwellings, climbing hills and mounting stuffy buildings – with heavy loads and hung all around with parcels.
Dowling explained that between duties many of his colleges simply took to the pub.
In many instances the intervals between the parts of our long duties are frittered and whiled away in the streets – often, I regret to have to say (and this, I think, it reflects rather on the Department than on the men), in public houses. These very intervals have been the cause of many a man’s ruin.
The Committee heard the story of a man named Nevins.
He was rolling about in the principal thoroughfare at a quarter-past three in the afternoon in a state of intoxication, and he was then in uniform.
Nevins kept his job but had his good conduct stripes removed, leading to reduced pay.
William Gates, a postman awarded Good Conduct Stripes. Hurstpierpoint, Brighton, c1897.
Others took up sports to pass the time but split duties caused problems for them too. Tired from an early start, postmen at the GPO on Lombard Street complained that an afternoon of rowing or cricket was spoilt by the thought of having to go back to work afterwards.
This is making work of play indeed, and small wonder that the G.P.O., notwithstanding its immense staff, can scarcely equal for all round proficiency some of the district offices, who, in point of size, are as his satellites are to Jupiter.
A letter to the union journal The Post joked that “split duties are like a long engaged couple – they should be joined as soon as possible”.
Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club
When the Tweedmouth Committee issued its report, postmen were dismayed to find that no concessions were made on split duties. But this was the first of a series of major parliamentary enquiries around the turn of the century that slowly produced results, improving conditions for the lowest paid and leading eventually to the establishment of Whitley Councils.
– Peter Sutton, Historian
For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Postal Worker’s Strike. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.
Posted in Peoples Post, Postal History
Tagged good conduct stripes, industrial action, Post Office sport, postal unions, postmen, split duties, The Peoples Post, trade unions, Tweedmouth Committee, Whitley Councils, working conditions
by Richard Wade, Archives Assistant
The Post Office has always had many clubs and associations that its staff could get involved with, especially where sport was concerned. Most large offices had their own football, cricket or tennis teams, and Post Office staff have taken part in many other sporting championships besides.
Most of these sports had countrywide postal leagues such as the Courier Cup. There was also a Civil Service athletics championship in which postal workers often featured, and there were regional athletics competitions within the Post Office.
An article from Courier magazine (October 1968) about Post Office employees competing at the Mexico City Olympics.
Given how seriously sport was taken it is perhaps unsurprising that there were more than a few people from the Post Office chosen to represent Great Britain in the Olympic Games. These athlete’s achievements were celebrated in the Post Office staff magazines, and by looking through these one can find out about a lot of the people that were chosen and their athletic achievements.
The following list should represent the large number and diversity of the Post Office’s Olympians. Only a very small handful of medals were gained by Post Office employees, but there were a lot of people who either took part or were shortlisted for the Games.
It is not always clear what happened to individual athletes, but if any information about their results is known it is included. If nothing is given then they certainly did not win any medals and in many cases may not have reached the final selection of athletes.
The period covered is from 1936 to 1988, excluding the war years when there were no Olympic Games. Before 1936, the staff magazines were in a different format and did not really celebrate the achievements of particular staff in the same way. Ending in 1988 gives a period of roughly 50 years which were studied and seemed a sensible place to stop as after this time; the Olympics really became dominated by professional athletes and the chances of anyone from the Post Office taking part would have been much smaller.
1936 – Berlin
- Mr A. J. Norris from the Savings Bank department was chosen for the marathon. He had already won the Post Office’s polytechnic marathon several times.
- From the Money Order department was Miss B. O. Crowe who was selected for the Women’s Gymnastic team.
1948 – London
- This year had a poor showing, which was a shame considering these games were in London. The only person selected was Mr G. F. Ward for the 10m high board diving. He worked as a clerical officer in the Savings Bank department and already held the title for the Men’s High Diving Championship in England.
1952 – Helsinki
- Mr K. A. Richmond, a Night Telephonist from London Telegraph Region Directory Enquiries, was selected for the Heavyweight Wrestling and took the bronze medal.
1956 – Melbourne and 1960 – Rome
There was nobody selected from the Post Office at all in 1956 or 1960, but these were the only two Olympic Games where this happened during the period I looked at.
1964 – Tokyo
The first of several Olympic Games where the Post Office was well represented:
- Maureen Tranter, a telephonist at Wolverhampton, was shortlisted for the 220yd relay and went out to Tokyo, but in the end was not selected. At the age of 17 she was still young and had potential, as can be seen by her appearances in future games.
- Ray Middleton from Golders Green Sub-District Office was selected for the 50km walk and finished 12th place out of 32.
- Syvanus Blackman, a postman from Acton Sub-District Office, took part in the Light Heavyweight weightlifting and finished 10th place.
- Kenneth Hill from the Postal and Telegraph Office in Liverpool reached the shortlist for the cycling team, but there are no further references to him, so presumably he was not chosen to go to Tokyo.
1968 – Mexico City
This seems to have been a good year for the Post Office with four people going out to represent Britain. Unfortunately, they did not bring any medals back with them, although several personal bests were achieved.
- Maureen Tranter tried again, this time for the 200m sprint and the sprint relay. She got a personal best time of 23.5 seconds in the 200m sprint, bit it wasn’t enough for a medal.
- Syvanus Blackman also entered in the weightlifting for a second time.
- Mike Bull was the son of John Bull, who was a Belfast telephonist. Mike was entered for the pole vault. He managed 16’5″, a British record, but still one foot short of the winner and not enough for a medal.
- Robin Baskerville, the son of Sid Baskerville (an Information Officer at Royal Mail Headquarters) was entered for high board diving and took part in the heats, but failed to qualify for the final.
An article about Post Office employees competing at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics from Courier magazine, October 1968.
- Maureen Tranter went out for the third time, this time in the 4 x 400m relay.
- Phil Griffiths, a technician from Stoke on Trent, was a participant in the cycling.
- Alan Almond, a technical officer, was a participant in the coxed fours.
- Brian Brinkley, who was the son of Corinne Brinkley (a cleaner at the Head Post Office) entered in the 100m, 200m and 400m freestyle swimming. He competed in the heats, but did not reach the final. Interestingly, he went on to win bronze with three others in the 4x200m relay and reached the final for the 200m butterfly in the 1976 Olympics, but this does not appear in the magazine. Maybe he had left the Post Office in between.
- Nick Nearchou, a senior mechanic in the London Postal Region, entered for weightlifting.
- This is more of a sideline, but a notable achievement all the same so deserves a mention: the Olympics for the handicapped at this time took place every two years in Brussels. In this year, Jim Gladman, a night telephonist from Torquay, gained silver in the table tennis, a bronze in the shot put and came fourth in the discus.
- Mary Stewart, a clerical officer, entered in the 1500m.
- Phil Griffiths entered again in the cycling with Trevor Gadd, both of them technicians. Trevor finished 12th place in the men’s individual pursuit.
- Peter Weston did not take part himself in the Olympics but did manage the archery team that represented Great Britain. He was a Technical Officer at London Telecoms West. The highest place reached by any of the archery team that year was 21st.
- There was a possible Olympic hopeful in Steve Cronshaw, but it wasn’t clear whether he went to the Olympics, just that he was a strong contender to be selected.
1984- Los Angeles
- Dennis Jackson and Benny Graham were both hopefuls for the 50km Road Walking, but again, but neither of them made the final selection.
- Arthur Spencer, a Doncaster Sub-Post Office Assistant, finished 28th place in the free pistol shooting.
- Mike Jones, who was a Security Driver at the Redhill Mechanised Letter Office, represented us in the hammer throw, but he did not make it through to the final.
- In the Paralympics of that year however, Ian Hayden won gold in the javelin and discus and took silver in the shot put. He was an equal opportunities officer at Royal Mail Oxford.
As can be seen, although very few medals were brought back, the Post Office had quite a strong presence in the Olympic Games and considering they were competing against the world’s best, they did pretty well. In all the years researched, bar two, there was somebody representing the Post Office and in some cases there were several. There can not be many employers with that sort of a record.
As has been written at the beginning, this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as Post Office sport goes. There were also many national, international and regional competitions that Post Office employees took part in and the Post Office’s own sports leagues, all of which are reported on in the staff magazines, copies of which can be found here at the British Postal Museum and Archive.
For more information on other sporting heroes of the Post Office, including Albert ‘Tiny’ Sangwine who represented England at the 1924 Paris Olympics, please see the BPMA’s online exhibition Playing for the Cup.
Posted in Archive, Collection
Tagged 4 x 400m relay, 50km walk, A. J. Norris, Alan Almond, Albert Sangwine, archery, Arthur Spencer, athletics, B. O. Crowe, Benny Graham, Berlin Olympics, Brian Brinkley, bronze medal, Civil Service athletics championships, Courier Cup, coxed fours, cycling, Dennis Jackson, directory enquiries, discus, G. F. Ward, Great Britain, gymnastics, hammer throw, heavyweight wrestling, Helsinki Olympics, high board diving, Ian Hayden, javelin, Jim Gladman, K. A. Richmond, Kenneth Hill, London Olympics, Los Angeles Olympics, marathon, Mary Stewart, Maureen Tranter, Mexico City Olympics, Mike Bull, Mike Jones, Montreal Olympics, Moscow Olympics, Munich Olympics, Nick Nearchou, Olympians, Olympics, Paralympics, Paris Olympics, Peter Weston, Phil Griffiths, pole vault, Post Office Savings Bank, Post Office sport, Post Office staff, Ray Middleton, relay, Robin Baskerville, Seoul Olympics, shot put, sport, sporting championships, staff magazine, Steve Cronshaw, swimming, Syvanus Blackman, table tennis, Team GB, Tokyo Olympics, Trevor Gadd, weightlifting