Tag Archives: University of the Third Age

Sports and Participation in the Post Office

As a summer of sport draws to a close, we take a look at sports and participation in the Post Office, through the research carried out by six students during the BPMA and University of the Third Age (U3A) Shared Learning Project at the beginning of 2012…

The U3A students

The U3A students

In the course of his research, Gwyn Redgers found that the Post Office has had a long history of participation in sports – much of which was initiated as a way of coping with split shifts. Postmen in the late 19th Century worked long hours, and often found their duties split into three or four attendances in a single day – meaning that many would start work at 6am and not finish until 10pm. Whilst some postmen took to the pub, others took up sports.

Members of the Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club, 1898.

Members of the Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club, 1898.

By the 1930s, most large towns had Post Office football, cricket and tennis teams and were starting to develop the more recent spread of sports and recreation Associations. Sheilah Lowe scoured the sports pages of The Post Office Magazine (1933-1966) for records of both these groups and of sporting individuals, and discovered a wealth of information – including stories about staff who competed in Olympic Games.

In 1952, the magazine notes that a Mr. K. A. Richmond, Night Telephonist (London Telegraph Region Directory Enquiries) was selected for the Heavyweight Wrestling at the Helsinki Games and took a bronze medal. A little online research revealed that Ken Alan Richmond was a former whale ship crewman in Antarctica, turned wrestler, with another significant claim to fame: he was the shirtless man seen banging the enormous gong which preceded the opening credits of the Rank Organisation’s films, such as Great Expectations and Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Sheilah also found that race walker Ray Middleton, of Golders Green sub-district Office competed in Tokyo 1964, finishing 12th in the 50km walk. Ray is a notable Post Office athlete, with a career spanning the 1960s and extending into the 1970s, during which he won 2 golds, 8 silvers and 4 bronze medals in British Championships and represented England internationally on 11 occasions. He won silvers at the 1963 Lugano Cup and the 1966 Commonwealth Games, and was the first winner of a postal sporting event that has taken place annually since 1962: the Postman’s Walk.

Sylvia Chubbs researched the history of this competitive speed walk event, which is open to postal workers across the UK, from novices to trained athletes. Covering laps of a one mile circuit around Coram’s Field near Mount Pleasant in London, participants originally wore full uniform and carried a sack. Nowadays, the rules are a little more relaxed – the sack is no longer required and shorts and trainers are allowed.

In 1970, 35-year old Ray Middleton led a team of British postmen to victory in the European Postal Road Walking Championship at Crystal Palace – beating teams of competitors from 13 other countries. An article in The Daily Mirror celebrated the success, whilst Ray was later named as one of the top celebrities of the year by comedian Charlie Chester. In September 2011, Middleton attended the 50th Annual Postman’s walk, seeing Dave Allen win for the sixteenth time – making him the most successful competitor in the event ever.

Ray Middleton at the 50th Postman's Walk, 2011, with BPMA Curator Vyki Sparkes and BPMA Access & Learning Manager Andy Richmond.

Ray Middleton at the 50th Postman’s Walk, 2011, with BPMA Curator Vyki Sparkes and BPMA Access & Learning Manager Andy Richmond.

From postmen stomping around London, we move on to look at stamps – the topic of research for three of the U3A students. Olga Selivanova became interested in a stamp she had collected in her native Russia. It showed the bronze statue “Let Us Beat Swords Into Ploughshares” – presented by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959.

This artwork was inspired by a biblical passage (Isaiah 2:4) describing the conversion of weapons for use in peaceful civilian applications. The sentiment of this quote has obvious parallels with the peaceful ideals of the Olympic movement, with many activities related to combat – such as archery, javelin, shooting, boxing, taekwondo, and judo – practised in the Games, but always in keeping with the Olympic Creed and Values of friendship and respect.

Another such sport – fencing – was the subject of Pat Boumphrey’s research. She found many examples of stamps featuring fencing, including ones from places as diverse as Afghanistan and Vietnam. As a keen fencer herself, Pat penned a little ditty to inspire Team GB’s female athletes in advance of London 2012:

There are bad times just around the corner,
The horizon’s gloomy as can be.
The British male,
May often fail,
OUR FAITH IN SPORT IS SHAKEN,
So English girls awaken,
And save the nation’s bacon…

It certainly seems to have done the job: the Team GB women won 10 gold medals and 22 in total, making it their most successful Games ever. At least some of that success can be credited to Dame Marea Hartman. Ray Watkins found a stamp dedicated to Hartman, who is credited with the integration of British women athletes into full competition and parity with male athletes. She was Chairwoman of the Women’s Commission of the International Athletic Federation for 13 years, as well as the first woman to serve as President of the Amateur Athletic Association from 1991 to 1994.

Dame Marea Hartman stamp from the Famous Women issue, 6 August 1996.

Dame Marea Hartman stamp from the Famous Women issue, 6 August 1996.

Finally, to bring our story full circle, we return to Gwyn, who found the following quote from an early edition of the St. Martin’s circular. It shows that, as with many things, the Post Office led the way in encouraging British sportswomen:

Not the least of the many medical and scientific discoveries in the 19th Century is the fact that athletic exercise can be indulged in by women without injury to their bodily health. … we have discovered that, as a result of open air exercise, women retain their youth for a longer period than at any time in our history

from St Martin’s 1898, pg. 395.

– Andy Richmond, Access & Learning Manager

Archive Open Day: Sports and Participation in the Post Office

Since the beginning of January 2012, eight students from the University of the Third Age (U3A), plus their team leader, have been working with us to carry out research and work across two areas. Six students have been researching Sports and Participation in the Post Office, whilst the remaining two have been summarising oral history recordings taken in Bringsty Common, Herefordshire.

The group researching Sports and Participation have made some fascinating findings: from truly ‘Olympic’ feats carried out by postmen in the course of their everyday duties, through stamps from across the world featuring a myriad of sporting endeavours, to the current role of the Post Office Sports Foundation in funding activities across the country. These students will be on hand at our Archive Open Day on 14 April 2012 between 1-3pm to share their findings.

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club, 1898

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club, 1898

One intriguing quote discovered by a student in the Post Office circular ‘St. Martins’ of 1898 gives an insight into early attitudes to women’s participation in sport:

Not the least of the many medical and scientific discoveries in the 19th Century, is the fact that athletic exercise can be indulged in by women without injury to their bodily health.

The students summarising oral history recordings have discovered the personal stories of former postmen, the local postmistress, and post office user, all living in a rural and scattered community with dwindling postal services. Their work will help the BPMA to provide greater access to this unique material, through exhibitions, blog articles, and magazine pieces.

Feedback received from the group has been very positive, and indicated that the students have gained a number of things from the shared learning project, including: insights into social history, new IT skills, enjoyment from working in teams, meeting new people and companionship.

Our Archive Open Day runs from 10-5pm on 14 April and is part of the Archive Awareness Campaign. You do not have to book to attend, but for more information, call 0207 239 2568 or email info@postalheritage.org.uk.

The Open Day also offers one of the last opportunities to see our current exhibition, Treasures of the Archive, which features special highlights of the collections. This includes a design for a stamp that was to be issued in the event that Scotland won the 1978 World Cup. It was, of course, never adopted!

Scotland World Cup Winners 1978 stamp artwork

Scotland World Cup Winners 1978 stamp artwork

Andy Richmond – Access and Learning Manager

Find out more about sport in the Post Office in our online exhibition Playing for the Cup.

Jobs for the Girls – Women in the Post Office

The follow blog is based on a talk given by U3A volunteer Margaret Birkinshaw, and draws on her experience of working with editions of The Post Office Magzine.

Fanny Biggerstaff

Fanny Biggerstaff

“Postman Pat, Postman Pat and his little black cat” – most people are familiar with this children’s song. The choice of the name “Pat” is striking, because it is a woman’s name as well as a man’s –and it seems that, from its early days, unusually for the time, the Post Office was employing women in post offices and as letter-carriers. The Act establishing the Post Office was passed under Oliver Cromwell in 1657 but it was not until 1840, with the introduction of Rowland Hill’s prepaid penny post, that a massive increase in the use of the post occurred[1]. The importance of the work of women at this stage is shown by the fact that, as early as 1838, a portrait was drawn of Fanny Biggerstaff, then aged 62, with the inscription “during the past thirty-seven years she has been an honest, punctual and trustworthy postwoman from Thame to Brill and the surrounding villages. Any correspondence she could not deliver to users she used to leave in the family pews in church”.[2]

Considerable information on post office work can be gleaned from the book “Lark Rise to Candleford” by Flora Thompson which, unlike the recent television series of the same name, is factual and gives details of the author’s life in the post office and as a postwoman in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the beginning of that century any work outside the walls of the home was taboo for a woman who had any pretension to refinement. However as time went on post office employment became largely the preserve of ministers’ and schoolmasters’ daughters, mainly because the pay of a learner in a large office was very small and not nearly sufficient to live on away from home. This did not apply to letter-carriers, who usually came from a different stratum of society. Flora Thompson describes how every morning the postman who had brought the mail sorted out his own letters for the village delivery and the two women letter-carriers, who did the cross-country deliveries to outlying homes and farms, then did their own sorting.[3]

There does not appear to have been any sort of uniform in those days. Postwomen wore thick stockings, stout shoes, long skirts and coats, shawls, a pull-on felt hat in winter or a sunbonnet in summer.[4] They were hard-working, dedicated and loyal. In fact all post office staff had to sign a Declaration before a magistrate which began “I do solemnly promise and declare that I will not open or delay or cause to suffer to be opened or delayed any letter or anything sent by the post”.[5] Another benefit arising from the employment of women is the fact that they live longer than men. By the end of the nineteenth century males born in the UK could expect to live to around forty-five and females to forty-nine.[6] The Post Office Magazine refers to a number of women still working at a great age. For example in 1947 Miss Parry, sub-postmistress of Handsworth, had worked there sixty years[7] and in the same year there is reference to Jane Williamson, who was then Scotland’s oldest postmistress. She celebrated her ninetieth birthday that year and had no intention of retiring. Even more unusual was the fact that she was only appointed to the post at the age of 85.[8]

Fanny King

Fanny King

However women were appreciated not just for their longevity but also for their resourcefulness and their stamina. A couple of examples are Mrs Rogers who, in the mid-twentieth century, was postmistress of Tristan da Cunha, an island 1,500 miles from South Africa and South America. Mrs. Rogers date-stamped the letters and placed them in a bag which hung on a nail in her bedroom. When a passing steamer was spotted there was a cry of “sail ho” and a boat was rowed out to the ship and the mail bundled aboard.[9] And consider Fanny King, a postwoman in the Cotswolds at the same period who, at 65 years of age, was still trekking nine miles every morning delivering to isolated farmsteads. “I think I should die if I didn’t have my morning delivery” she said.[10]

From the mid 20th century onwards women’s achievements did not gain so much publicity and their work was taken for granted – though brave women foiling raiders still made the news. The request, made in 1961 by the Postmasters Association, that the title Postmistress be discarded and that all officers controlling sub-offices be entitled to the title Postmaster was agreed to[11] – however even today the national press still uses the term postmistress.

And does work in the post office still appeal to women? Yes, it seems that it does. An item in The Times in October 2010 tells how a British doctor, Helen Joannidi, is moving to Goudier Island in Antarctica, the southernmost Post Office in the world to run it for five months (the Daily Mail also covered the story). The building has no central heating, running water or electricity and the average daytime temperature in summer is minus 12 degrees.[12] You cannot get more dedicated to post office work than that.


[1] Hutchinson Encyclopaedia
[2] Post Office Magazine June 1939 p.285 (portrait owned by Mrs. Graham of Highfield)
[3] “Lark Rise to Candleford” – Flora Thompson, 1939
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Office of National Statistics – Social Trends no. 34
[7] Post Office Magazine – November 1947 p. 348 (vol. 1946-8)
[8] Post Office Magazine – December 1947 p.10
[9] Post Office Magazine – July 1946 p. 7
[10] Post Office Magazine – March 1939 p.104
[11] Post Office records – POST 122/8082
[12] “The Times” – 9 October 2010

U3A Shared Learning Project

 Over 10 weeks from September 2010, BPMA welcomed a group of 10 volunteers from the University of the Third Age (U3A). BPMA was taking part in its first Shared Learning Project with the U3A which culminated in a presentation day in January.

The U3A volunteers.

The U3A volunteers.

U3A Shared Learning Projects are research projects that take place between a group of U3A members and an organisation like a museum, gallery or library. The topic of the research can be proposed by the group or the organisation and the work should be beneficial to the volunteers and the organisation. U3A has worked on projects like this with the British Museum, The Foundling Museum, Museum of London and others.

The group spent the 10 weeks with us researching copies of the Post Office Magazine, the staff magazine which ran from 1934 into the 1950s. BPMA has an extensive photograph collection, much of which is catalogued and available online.

A page from the May 1939 issue of the Post Office Magazine.

A page from the May 1939 issue of the Post Office Magazine.

There are many photographs which we don’t have very much background on and the project team were tasked with both indexing articles from the issues of the Post Office Magazine and also noting any photographs in them which also appeared in the online catalogue.

Photograph of a postman and two beefeaters at The Tower of London, as published in the Post Office Magazine, February 1939.

Photograph of a postman and two beefeaters at The Tower of London, as published in the Post Office Magazine, February 1939.

This project has been hugely beneficial to the BPMA. Over 1000 records of articles have been created and around 200 links to photos on the catalogue have been found.

The group also researched a topic of interest related to our collections and presented their findings to each other and BPMA staff. The topics were varied and included Women and the Post Office, Art in the Post Office, The Postcode System and the Post Office Rifles.

John gives a presentation on the Post Office (London) Railway, also known as "Mail Rail".

John gives a presentation on the Post Office (London) Railway, also known as "Mail Rail".

We have also learnt a lot about carrying out a project like this which will help us in the future when we hope to run another Shared Learning Project with the U3A. We would like to thank all those involved in the project for their help in making it a success.

Shared Learning Project volunteer Margaret Birkinshaw’s presentation on Women and the Post Office will be posted on this blog on Friday.