Tag Archives: postal unions

Split duties in the 1890s

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.

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.

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

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.

Christmas mail arrangements in the 1970s

by Gavin McGuffie, Catalogue Manager

As the season to be jolly comes round once again, chance would have it that I have been getting a section of the Royal Mail Archive concerning Christmas arrangements ready for publication on the BPMA’s online catalogue. All being well the material will go live at our end of February upload. These are files which have gone through the Second Review procedure and have been selected for permanent preservation.

The ‘Christmas arrangements’ files make up a sub-series within a new POST class, POST 157, which consists of registered files created by the Postal Operations Department. There are 27 files in all containing documents from 1942 to 1981 but mainly concentrating on the 1970s when the files were created.

I thought I’d share with blog readers a couple of things that have caught my eye going through this material.

One matter that came up on several occasions in the 1970s particularly from the Post Office Users’ National Council (POUNC) under Lord Peddie was the idea of introducing a concessionary rate for Christmas postage (POST 157/36). By early 1975 Director of Postal Operations Denis Roberts felt the Post Office “need seriously to consider whether we can produce a practical scheme to sustain Christmas postings and stimulate a ‘the Post Office cares’ feeling” focussing on locally sent Christmas cards. However by May 1976 the Post Office Board had agreed “there would be no concessionary rate for Christmas cards in 1976”, a decision they felt was vindicated by the experience of Australia Post who had trialled a concessionary rate for Christmas 1975.

The poor state of affairs between the Post Office and unions at the end of the 1970s is exemplified by disagreements as to what services should be provided over the Christmas holiday period (POST 157/41-2). The unions argued that 27 December should be designated a Post Office holiday and that the final collection on 31 December should take place at noon, demands that the Post Office refused to accede to. The action on both days was sporadic with workers not wanting to lose pay. In a situation report for 27 December D E Remmington of Central Postal Control observed: “While services are being provided over large areas of the country, the fact that many major centres are not operating has limited the traffic available for delivery.”

Telex reporting the effect of the 27 December action on the South Eastern Postal Region

Telex reporting the effect of the 27 December action on the South Eastern Postal Region

2010 File Openings

by Gavin McGuffie, Catalogue Manager

Last year I blogged on the 2009 file openings at the BPMA. At the start of every year we make a batch of Royal Mail Archive material available to public research for the first time. These are files that reached the thirtieth anniversary of their closure the previous year, so for last year files which contain material dating up to and including 1979.

This year we’ve opened about 180 files and descriptions, particularly material from the following POST classes: POST 19 (Postal Business Statistics), POST 52 (Stamp Depot), POST 69 (Royal Mail Board and its Predecessors), POST 73 (Regional Administration and Operations) and POST 122 (Registered Files, Minuted and Decentralised Registry Papers). Below I’ll tell you about one or two things which caught my attention while opening these files.

POST 65/178 is a copy of an interim report by the University of Warwick’s Industrial Relations Research Unit into the ‘Post Office Industrial Democracy Experiment’. This involved union representatives from the Council of Post Office Unions being appointed to the Post Office Board for two years. Among the conclusions of the report which focus primarily on the “conflicting interests of management and unions” is what its authors’ call a “paradox . . . that within the Board it was often the management members who stressed conflict and the union nominees who espoused the theme of unity”.

Continuing on the subject of the Board, matters discussed in recently opened POST 69 Board minutes inevitably include many industrial relations issues, particularly the Post Office Engineering Union’s claim for a 35 hour week. Others issues that interested me included the acknowledgement that the “standard of [Post Office] design was a serious responsibility” and that the “double-line alphabet [designed by Colin Banks] and visual identity programme already being implemented . . . [was] the best way to achieve major design impact” (Management Board minute, M79/9), matters relating to developing technology and computing having “widespread and far-reaching implications throughout the Post Office” (Board minute 79/53) and a proposal to acquire St Botolph’s Church as a “wing of the existing National Postal Museum to present visually a comprehensive picture of the development of the British postal services.” (Management Board minute M79/38)

POST 108/55 is a memorandum from the Marketing Department to the Controller of Press and Broadcasting on the imminent publication of the Williams Committee Report on Obscenity. It suggests how best to deal with potential criticism of a “low profile” 1978 change to Post Office procedures for “incoming overseas postal packets containing material which might be deemed indecent or obscene, and which Customs and Excise release to the PO” by which such “postal packets will receive treatment identical to that for any other postal packets opened for Customs inspection and released by them”, i.e. it will be “forwarded to the addressee”. It stresses that ”our defence must be that: our function is to provide postal services, not to act as a watchdog”.

A file in our archive on the Reputation of the Post Office (POST 108/74)

The Reputation of the Post Office (POST 108/74)

Another POST 108 (Public Relations Department) file (POST 108/74) that intrigued me is a report by MORI on the ‘Reputation of the Post Office’ comparing it with 66 other major businesses in the public and private sector. Perhaps unsurprisingly among its key findings was the “widespread appreciation that the Post Office is more than simply postal services and telephones. Two out of three felt that it had more to offer … that the High Street Post Office serves a useful social function.”

The 1979 files and many more can be found using the BPMA’s online catalogue. To view these files please see our Visitor’s Guide.