Tag Archives: uniforms

Postal Uniforms: 1855

by Claire McHugh, Cataloguer (Collections)

To continue from my last blog on early postal uniforms, the adoption in 1840 of a Uniform Penny Post and other related reforms initiated by Rowland Hill encouraged the development of the Post Office; this growth was reflected in the increasing workforce and the amount of uniform needing to be issued. In 1851 it was estimated the amount of individuals being supplied with post office uniforms had risen to about 1,700.

Parisian postman circa 1850

Parisian postman circa 1850

1855 marked the replacement of the previous cut-away tail coat by a skirted scarlet frock coat. The wearer’s identification number was no longer on the buttons but had now transferred to being worn on the collar, while the beaver hat was replaced by a glazed hat modelled on one used by the Parisian postmen.

Though scepticism over its practicality was present from the start, even from those involved with its production; a contemporary English contractor suggested that the hat would probably not be very comfortable to wear owing to ‘its lack of resiliency’, even being quite impractical due to ‘its attraction [sic] the rays of the sun; in cold weather the japann becomes so brittle that the least pressure or fall would cause it to crack’.

Nevertheless, the counter plea won with the response that what was satisfactory in France should prove satisfactory in Britain. The vogue for this hat soon waned as the predicted problems became apparent; in 1859 the glazed hat was superseded by a hard felt hat, which later was replaced by the single-peaked shako.

A letter carrier in the new uniform, The Illustrated Glasgow News, 30 June 1855

A letter carrier in the new uniform, The Illustrated Glasgow News, 30 June 1855

Other additions to the uniform included the issuing of a waterproof tippet (cape) to protect the easily soiled coat. But most importantly the outfit included grey trousers – the letter carriers no longer had to wear their own much maligned, tattered and unmatching trousers. This resulted in a much neater appearance which saved the letter carriers blushes – and if a letter from the wives of postmen addressing the Queen with the request that their husbands be given trousers is to be believed, their wives too (POST 92/1144).

Reaction to the new uniform was mixed; on the one hand it was admired for its smarter more coherent look, contemporary newspapers even going as far to say that ‘The unmarried portion of the corps will now have so many admirers that doors will open spontaneously, knockers will rust on their hinges, and bells will only be rung to celebrate the merry peal and the utter extinction of bachelors in red habiliments. We have heard that all the domestic servants are now in a flutter of excitement when the double knock is heard.’ (The Illustrated Glasgow News, 30 June 1855).

'The Postman's Knock' - Colour lithographic song sheet. c.1860

'The Postman's Knock' - Colour lithographic song sheet. c.1860

But on the other hand there was criticism of the new outfit. Punch (1855) found the uniform to ‘glaring’ and ‘more fitted for the Fire Brigade’ and couldn’t ‘comprehend the taste which has pinned a large pair of scarlet skirts to the coat of the postman, and caused us to mistake him for a sentinel off his post, by his resemblance to a Foot Guardsman’. This criticism of the military aspect of the frock coat design can be seen in others derisive comments, for example one paper questions whether ‘the coats or the [scarlet] cloth at least, must have been cabbaged from the Crimea.’

Regardless of the criticism, 1855 can be regarded as the first collective post office uniform that created a smart and more coherent look for the Post Office, as it successfully brought the London District and the General Post letter carriers (who up until then had worn separate uniforms) into line, as both classes now appeared in the same scarlet uniform. Over the next few years this issue gradually spread to the provinces until the next significant uniform change in 1861.

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.

Badges of the GPO

by Terry Carney, BPMA Volunteer 

Some of the many badges worn by GPO and Royal Mail employees over the years

Some of the many badges worn by GPO and Royal Mail employees over the years

Although I have been interested in Military badges for many years it was only a few years ago after being given a small collection of GPO and Royal Mail badges that I became interested in this subject. In an attempt to find out more about the badges worn with GPO uniforms, I decided to visit the British Postal Museum and Archive. Unfortunately the items I was interested in seeing are not on show at present. However there is an album of photographs which show many of the BPMA collection of badges enlarged, available to anyone wishing to do their own research. Using the research facilities I found several lists and documents referring to a large number of metal and embroidered badges worn by Postmen and Postwomen over the years.

Since then I have been making a list of as many of these items as possible, with the intention of adding illustrations to the list. One of the documents that I found most useful was the Pattern Register for the period 1948-1966, which lists most of the badges worn at the time. Each badge being given its own pattern number, many of the entries contain a brief description and details regarding who the badges were intended for, however some entries carry little or no information and require further research.

I was very fortunate in being given the opportunity of becoming a volunteer at the archives and helping staff catalogue some of the badges in the BPMA collection. While working with the badges I came across some with labels which had been attached many years ago giving details which had not been included in the pattern register enabling some of the gaps to be filled in. Apart from making badges for their own employees the GPO were also responsible for having badges made for other organisations through their suppliers. I am hoping to complete my list shortly and will be supplying a copy for the BPMA. I am sure amongst readers that there will be several including former GPO staff, who are knowledgeable on this subject who will be able to add further information and any corrections that are necessary.

To find out more about volunteering at the BPMA please see our website.