Tag Archives: postal mechanisation

192,000 postmen’s inside legs, and other measurements in the Archive

In last month’s cataloguing update I wrote about the London sub-post office record books I’d discovered in the Archive. Since then I’ve been cataloguing records from the area of our collections devoted to the sorting and circulation of inland mail (POST 17 in the catalogue). I’ve added nearly 130 files to the catalogue this month, and edited existing descriptions for hundreds more. The records cover subjects like mail sorting machinery, the development of postcodes, and all kinds of technical details – some of them slightly odd. Here are some of my favourites.

POST 17/482 is a 1969 engineer’s study entitled Measurements of Postmen. The aim was to improve sorting office machinery ergonomics by finding out the average size of a British postman. The heights, arm lengths, and outside and inside leg measurements of thousands of postmen were collected and studied – there were 192,000 measurements for the legs! Getting all those postmen to proffer their legs for the engineer would have been an impossible (and traumatic) challenge. Instead, he studied all the sizes of uniforms ordered that year, to everyone’s benefit and, one suspects, relief.

Matt contemplates the awesome 1969 undertaking to collect and study 192,000 postmen’s inside leg measurements.

Matt contemplates the awesome 1969 undertaking to collect and study 192,000 postmen’s inside leg measurements.

On the subject of measurements, I spent several days cataloguing three large sets of engineering standard drawings from the 1970s and 1980s (POST 17/533-535). The drawings – over 450 in total – cover all aspects of automated mail sorting and circulation: conveyor belts, facing tables, coding desks, chutes, signage, even Morris delivery vans.

Two excerpts from a set of engineering standard drawings: a view of a retractable parcel chute (left) and an operational diagram of a packet storage hopper (right). (POST 17/533)

Two excerpts from a set of engineering standard drawings: a view of a retractable parcel chute (left) and an operational diagram of a packet storage hopper (right). (POST 17/533)

These standards contain the official dimensions of equipment to be manufactured for Royal Mail, including explanations of the jobs they were intended to do. In the case of postal vehicles, the standards go as far as specifying the turning circles of each model. Combined with the reports, brochures and technical specifications found elsewhere in POST 17, there’s a vast amount of information here for anyone interested in recent postal mechanisation developments.

There are also records dating back to the very early days of postal mechanisation. One of my favourite discoveries was a little book that was used between 1907 and 1930 to record staff suggestions for improving the mail handling process.

Several entries in the inventions and suggestions index. (POST 17/523)]

Several entries in the inventions and suggestions index. (POST 17/523)]

Sometimes staff put forward inventions, and the notes include technical sketches, such as the entry above for a time-saving rolling date stamp. The entries sometimes record whether the suggestions were taken forward. Some are appealingly optimistic, such as the 1909 idea of asking the public to tie their Christmas cards into bundles of ten or more before posting them. Other innovations seem like second nature today. The example below is a 1924 suggestion: envelopes with transparent address windows.*

Envelopes with windows, suggested in 1924. (POST 17/523)

Envelopes with windows, suggested in 1924. (POST 17/523)

I hope my unscientific little selection of examples from a single theme shows the incredible variety of material you can consult in our Search Room. Some of the files I catalogued this month, including records from the creation of the postcode system, can’t be opened for another few years. This is due to the 20-year rule governing public records. But cataloguing them now ensures they’ll be ready and waiting in their archive boxes when the time comes to open them.

As for the Measurements of Postmen, studying 192,000 orders for trousers found the average postman’s inside leg measurement in 1969 to be 30.2 inches. The average British postman was determined to be two inches shorter than his American equivalent.

Cumulative relative frequency of postmen’s leg measurements, 1969. (POST 17/482)

Cumulative relative frequency of postmen’s leg measurements, 1969. (POST 17/482)

All these files and more will be published to our online catalogue in the coming months.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sadly this wasn’t an original idea, according to Wikipedia Americus F. Callahan of Chicago, Illinois, in the United States, received the first patent for a windowed envelope on 10 June 1902.

Designing the postcode: a complex history for a simple purpose

In this series of blog posts, Peter Sutton, PhD candidate researching the post-war history of technology and industrial relations in the British Postal Service, offers some reflections on the history of the modern postcode. The significance of the postcode and its origins in the post-1945 era are considered followed by some archival examples tracing different aspects of its design along its journey from a specialised engineering concept to a universally recognised geographical referencing tool.

Royal Mail poster Poster relating to service standards (1983)

Royal Mail poster Poster relating to service standards (1983)

In some ways the postcode is simple, an intentional characteristic that was given priority during its design in the post-war era. It needed to be quickly understood by postmen and easily remembered by the public. Its function as an abbreviator of addresses made it simple almost by definition. Equally, the business strategy behind the postcode project was at its core straightforward. In 1968 a manual sorting system prevailed in which, it was estimated, letters were sorted on average 3.2 times during their journey. A letter finding itself on a more tortuous routing might be handled five or six times before delivery. With almost 30 million letters handled at the sorting frame every working day, and as wages rose steadily in real terms in the post-war era, this was an increasingly expensive arrangement. After a string of successful trials in the 50s and 60s, sorting machines capable of “reading” a series of phosphor dots offered a partial solution. If a letter, upon entering the system, could first be marked with the machine readable dots containing sorting instructions then, officials at GPO Headquarters reasoned, all subsequent stages of sorting could be automated. In this scenario, human labour in the sorting process would be mostly confined to making an initial imprint on each envelope by a human operator reading the postcode at a “coding desk” and punching the information into a keyboard. Subsequent re-sorting could then be done by machine, eliminating much duplication of effort. The modern postcode, from this perspective, began life as a crucial component of what was hoped would one day become an all-encompassing system of integrated, automated sorting offices equipped with “robot sorters”.

TV and radio personality Tony Blackburn helps to promote postcodes (c. 1980)

TV and radio personality Tony Blackburn helps to promote postcodes (c. 1980)

If the underlying economics of the postcode are simple, the course of its design was not. This was a long-term and highly complex process which encompassed, among other things, the design of a binary machine language, basic research in chemistry, the mathematics of code theory, field trials in which sorting staff and psychologists had their input, and considerable research into the needs of businesses. The likely response of the public was analysed as were many elements of the postal service itself and the entire effort was also seen in an international context as an interest in code-sorting was taken up in Europe, America and Japan. Reflecting on the origins of the code, the PO explained during a 1976 parliamentary inquiry that strict parameters were established upon its design in the 1950s. The public needed something memorable and uniform and compatible with the old city district codes. Operationally, the code needed flexibility to accommodate variations and ad hoc revisions to circulation and delivery, and would have to form two parts reflecting the outward and inward phases of sorting. (Outward sorting directs mail to a different city or region, while inward sorting directs mail to a particular address.) The characteristics required of the code therefore had to mesh with the demands of various economic and psychological aspects of letter writing. This was not forgotten by Post Office officials when asked to reflect on the origins of the code during a 1970s Parliamentary Inquiry into the Postal Service. “This financial requirement” they remembered, “was a major factor in determining the type of equipment developed which affected the shape of the postcode. For example, the method envisaged for imprinting the codes in machine language was by means of an operator using a keyboard; and there was a limit to the capacity of the code ‘translator’ device [the “brain” of a mechanised sorting suite] that could be developed at economic cost.” (Cmnd. 6954, Appendix to the Carter Report (Post Office Review), 1977.)

Think, therefore, of your own postcode. As I have mentioned, it will have two parts. There will be a maximum of seven characters. The first part – the “outward” part – will specify a district within your wider mail delivery area. (For instance a house in York’s third delivery district becomes “YO3”.) This part was designed for long-term flexibility in an evolving mail circulation system and might have three or four characters. However the second part – the “inward” part – is a standardised allocation allowing for local, computerised delivery scheduling. It will have one numeral followed by two alpha characters, representing the sub-district, street and group of houses for your address. All of these features were deliberately chosen and could have been different but for historic decisions taken in light of the geography, transport distribution and population density of 1960s Britain. This, by the way, is one reason why Australian, Japanese and American postcodes all differ in their format. All were created for the same simple purpose of making addresses easier to read by machines. But equally, for each, design requirements and restrictions have differed from country to country in quite complex ways.

Poster promoting postcode usage (c. 1980)

Poster promoting postcode usage (c. 1980)

This and the previous post have very briefly outlined some of the general principals and historic background which have helped shape the design of modern postcodes. In the next post we go back to the 1950s to look a bit closer at the early history of sorting machines and how engineers helped create the code.

Why are postcodes significant and where did they come from?

In this series of blog posts, Peter Sutton, PhD candidate researching the post-war history of technology and industrial relations in the British Postal Service, offers some reflections on the history of the modern postcode. The significance of the postcode and its origins in the post-1945 era are considered followed by some archival examples tracing different aspects of its design along its journey from a specialised engineering concept to a universally recognised geographical referencing tool.

Home sweet WV3 8ZR. Remember your house now has a postcode

Poster promoting postcode usage, circa 1978

We think about postcodes regularly. Perhaps, as it gets lost in the noise of everyday activity, we aren’t aware of how often we do it or at least how many ways we benefit from them. In our correspondence, by ‘phone, in the car and in all manner of ways online, we engage with them in the everyday sense. A moment’s thought reveals the wide-ranging uses of postcodes, and yet, as a tool, it has many more hidden and no less important applications. After all, they are today used in demographic profiling, monitoring crime levels, determining insurance premiums, data analysis and marketing techniques – not to mention their role in house prices or catchment areas for schools and healthcare. In fact trying to list all applications of the postcode has been made virtually impossible by the internet where ordering a pizza or a beanbag can be done with little more than a postcode and a credit card. The geographers Jonathan Raper, David Rhind and John Shepherd have pointed to its diverse usage whilst acknowledging its postal origins in their book Postcodes: The New Geography (1992). “We need”, they write in their introduction, “something that provides the ability to divide up the country into small areas or large ones, is simple to understand, can be related to everyday experience and is easily handled by computers as well as human beings. This is the Postcode, born out of the postal system and founded upon postal addresses.” And yet it is a relatively recent invention. It differs in its form from country to country, but in all cases (including the British with its familiar, even reassuring, two-part alpha-numeric arrangement) it did not exist until the 1960s. Not, at least, in anything like a modern, widespread or standardised sense.

Your requisition may be delayed if your postcode is not quoted

Informational handstamp about using postcodes. (20th Century)

So where did the postcode come from? In Britain, Royal Mail can take the credit, or, as it was then, the General Post Office. Some codes were used locally in the nineteenth century postal service, such as in London where compass point abbreviations had evolved by the end of the First World War to include several sub-districts helping to simplify the Capital’s sorting and delivery. However it was not until after 1945 that a systematic, national coding scheme was seriously considered, as new types of technology and logistical techniques combined with growing financial pressures to create a powerful incentive to code the country. It was originally intended to reduce the information contained in a written address into a machine-readable code in order to help increase the speed and reduce the cost of mail delivery, and it continues to serve this purpose today. Its design began in earnest in the 1950s, primarily to enable the spread of mechanised sorting, leading to a major trial at Norwich from 1959 and then to a period from 1965-1972 when every British address received a code. The timing of this coincided with an early phase in the first national mechanisation programme known as the Letter Post Plan in which the national mail flow was concentrated onto large mechanised sorting offices. The modern postcode therefore has its origins in the long history of postal mechanisation and automation.

Let's meet under the GU1 3AA. Please use your postcode

Royal Mail poster about using postcodes, circa 1980

In the next post we delve a little further into the history of the postcode after 1945, summarising the simple economics that made it such an attractive scheme to Post Office officials as well as highlighting the diverse range of factors that helped shape its design.

Valued volunteer and postal historian retires

Recently one of our most highly valued volunteers, Mike Bament, retired, hanging up his tweezers for the last time. Mike has been volunteering at the BPMA for more than 20 years and is also a well-known postal historian.

This is the earliest recorded example of a mileage mark, 65 ARUNDEL, struck on a letter sent to Horsham in Sussex on 1st October 1784. The BB stands for By-Bag.

This is the earliest recorded example of a mileage mark, 65 ARUNDEL, struck on a letter sent to Horsham in Sussex on 1st October 1784. The BB stands for By-Bag.

The study of postal markings is often called “postal history”. Postal markings include datestamps, rate markings and indications of the origin, route and arrival of mail. With more modern mail they also show evidence of automatic cancelling and sorting. The BPMA’s extensive collections cover all these, as well as more than 200 albums dating from before and after the introduction of the first adhesive postage stamp in 1840, including entire letters, covers, envelopes, postcards and postal stationery.

Before the advent of airmail all British mail going abroad, and coming from abroad, had to travel by sea. The earliest known handstamps were not recorded until early in the eighteenth century when the first handstruck stamps were issued by the General Post Office indicating that mail had arrived by sea.

A letter sent from Liverpool to New York in 1841

A letter sent “pr Britannia” from Liverpool to New York on 19th April 1841. The postage was ‘PAID AT / LIVERPOOL’ where the BCC type 60 framed handstamp with chamfered corners and dated was struck in red. This type of handstamp is found on some maritime mail from about 1840 to 1850.

One of Mike Bament’s recent projects has been to compile postal history material, which have then been digitised for the BPMA website, making them accessible to more people.

The latest listings went online recently and consist of four postal reform listings: Ship Letters, India Letters, ‘Paid at’ Stamps and Postal Reform. This is a continuation of the project which saw postal history items for the listings Penny Posts (including 5th Clause Posts), Mileage Marks and Missent Marks go online early last year.

Mike Bament has contributed invaluable work to the BPMA throughout the years, and he will be greatly missed. His work has and will continue to increase access to BPMA’s unique collections, and will be of great benefit to postal historians researching these subjects.

Would you like to volunteer at the BPMA? Visit http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/support/volunteer/ to find out more.