Tag Archives: women workers

They came to do a job and they did it

Head Postmaster of Dover AWB Mowbray kept a typed account of the Blitz years in what became known as ‘Hell’s Corner’, recounted here by BPMA Curator Vyki Sparkes.

Mowbray wrote with pride when a member of his staff, Miss W N Scanlan, was awarded the British Empire Medal in October 1941. This was announced in the London Gazette alongside a notice that the same award was awarded to two other female supervisors in charge of Post Office telephone exchanges.

Medal awarded to Miss W Scanlan during World War II for bravery during bombing raids on the Telephone Exchange at Dover. (2004-0024/01)

Medal awarded to Miss W Scanlan during World War II for bravery during bombing raids on the Telephone Exchange at Dover. (2004-0024/01)

Little more is known of these women’s particular acts of bravery, aside from what is written in the newspaper:

These three Supervisors of Women Telephone Operators have, by their courage and devotion to duty, set a fine example to their staffs. Throughout the air raids in the areas where they work, they have maintained an efficient telephone service during periods of constant danger.

According to the General Post Office press release, eight other female supervisors and telephonists had previously received awards and commendations.

Over 100,000 women had been employed by the GPO by November 1941 – more than one-third of the total staff. Due to the shortage of manpower, women worked a range of duties including some previously considered ‘male’ occupations – such as telephone engineers and the first ever female motorised van driver.

Mowbray describes how, in Christmas 1941…

… the kaleidoscopic effect of the multi-coloured jumpers and overalls of the women temporary sorters who fluttered about like so many butterflies was unmarred even by 2½ hours of shelling in one evening…they came to do a job and they did it regardless of the large quantity of roof glass.

Additionally, one-third of the Sub Post Offices in the country were controlled by women. It is clear that without them, the vital communication networks cared for by the Post Office could not have been maintained.

In addition to these examples there are many other notable tales of bravery by postal staff during the Blitz. A total of 27 post office staff died on duty in 1941. By the end of that year, over 100 men and women had received commendations and awards from the King, while on Civil Defence or Post Office Duty. These ranged from 38 British Empire Medals to eight George Medals.

Mowbray himself was to be included in the New Years Honours list in 1942, as a Member of the Order of the British Empire. In 1941, 117 staff were also commended by the Postmaster General for their work on the home front. For every Post Office worker who won an award, there were countless others behind them who received no official recognition. Miss Scanlan announced the award to her staff by flourishing the letter and saying ‘Girls we’ve got the British Empire Medal’. And, as Mowbray himself readily acknowledges, it was the co-operation of the police, fire, transport and military services, and the cheeriness of the population that helped his staff cope with the strain of war.

We do not like the phrase “We can take it”. It would be more honest to say “It’s forced on us”, but the Dover people and Dover Post Office staff do their utmost to make the best of decidedly unpleasant circumstances.

Vyki Sparkes’ podcast The Post Office and the Blitz can be downloaded for free from the BPMA website, iTunes or SoundCloud.

See Shells Over the White Cliffs and Harder times in Hell’s Corner for more from the AWB Mowbray accounts.

Women in the Post Office

On International Women’s Day we look at women’s employment in the Post Office.

The postal service is considered to be a pioneer of women’s employment in the UK. From the late 19th Century it employed women in large numbers, starting in 1870 when the General Post Office (GPO) took control of the telegraph service. The telegraph service employed large numbers of female telegraphists, and records from this time held in the Royal Mail Archive indicate that the employment of these women by the Post Office was viewed as an “experiment”. Happily the experiment was judged to have been successful, and as the telephone network expanded women staffed telephone exchanges.

Row of telephonists sitting at manual switchboard, Holborn, 1904. (POST 118/114)

Row of telephonists sitting at manual switchboard, Holborn, 1904. (POST 118/114)

Before (and after) 1870 women were employed by the GPO in rural areas, as postmistresses and letter carriers. Margaret Birkinshaw’s blog post from 2011 describes the work these women undertook and the stamina they required. Some women held positions in the GPO for decades, such as Mrs P. L. Matthews who was photographed for the Post Office Magazine in 1935 and described as “Cornwall’s oldest postwoman. Has walked 11,400 miles in 35 years.”

Mrs P. L. Matthews, Cornwall’s oldest postwoman, 1935. (POST 118/231)

Mrs P. L. Matthews, Cornwall’s oldest postwoman, 1935. (POST 118/231)

In 1876 the Post Office introduced a “marriage bar” which required most female employees to resign upon marriage and forbade the employment of married women in the majority of positions. During the First World War the Post Office suspended this rule as female labour was required to fill positions vacated by men. This saw women working in a variety of non-traditional roles such as driving horse-drawn mail carts.

Women drivers of horse-drawn Post Office vehicles, c.1914-1918.

Women drivers of horse-drawn Post Office vehicles, c.1914-1918.

During the First World War more than 75,000 men left their positions in the Post Office in order to join the war effort. By November 1916 the Post Office employed more than 35,000 women and girls, but most lost their jobs after the war ended. The marriage bar was finally abolished in 1946.

For more on this topic see our webpage Women in the Post Office, or view archive images of female postal workers on Flickr.

Miss Walton – Post Office Heroine

Over the past few months, I have been cataloguing many of the lantern slides in the BPMA’s collection as part of our documentation backlog project and scanning the slides ready to be added to our online catalogue. The slides cover a wide range of subjects, from Post Office buildings around the world to the hustle and bustle of the Sorting Offices, providing a snapshot of a variety of postal activities. Many also contain some interesting and surprising stories, such of that of Miss Walton, a ‘P.O. Heroine’.

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide with a oval portrait of a woman in a high collar in the top half of the image, with the caption 'MISS WALTON' underneath. (2012-0157)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide with a oval portrait of a woman in a high collar in the top half of the image, with the caption ‘MISS WALTON’ underneath. (2012-0157)

This unassuming hand-coloured slide shows a single storey building below the portrait of a woman in Victorian dress. Curious to know who Miss Walton was and what she had done to earn the title of ‘P.O Heroine’, I started to investigate a bit further. Miss Walton was Postmistress at Van Wyk Vlei, in the Northern Cape of South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and bravely refused to hand over the keys to the Post Office when armed rebels arrived in the village.

Her account of the incident on 13th March 1900 states:

I was told it was of no avail trying to stand against the force, and commanded to hand over the keys of the offices and safe. I placed myself against the door to guard it, whereupon one of the party pointed a rifle at me and exclaimed “I will shoot you dead!“ I replied, “Shoot, coward, and kill me; then you can have the keys, not otherwise”.

The rebels broke down the door of the Post Office, cut the telegraph wires and took the telegraph equipment but left Miss Walton unharmed. She recovered the office valuables and travelled safely with them to the town of Carnarvon two days later.

Miss Walton – Post Office Heroine (detail) (2012-0157)

Miss Walton – Post Office Heroine (detail) (2012-0157)

Miss Walton’s plucky conduct was honoured in a song in Punch magazine later the same month:

This is the song of a heroine,
Mid the heroes of the war
The song of a maid, who was not afraid,

But stood to her trust as a man should stay,
Who scorned the threats of the rebel raid,

And looked down the rifle without dismay,
British born! True to the core!

I’m not sure many employers today would expect such commitment from their employees!

Sarah Jenkins – Assistant Cataloguer

Women in the Post Office

Each month we present an item from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication
Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) have been working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

In this final blog looking at the Morten Collection, former Royal Mail worker Alison Nunes looks at women postal workers from the Edward period and compares it her own experiences. Alison came to
Britain from Jamaica in 1964. She
worked as a Postwoman and
supervisor from 1967 until 1993.

“As far as I know, during my time employed in the Post Office, messengers were boys from school. They were the cream of the Post Office staff, well looked-after by too many bosses. Boy messengers were encouraged to do sports and were taken on days out. In return, the Post Office gained a trained work force. They were disciplined in time-keeping and dedication to the job, with built-in promotions.

Girl messengers were the forerunners of women working in the Post Office. They were employed on a temporary basis, on a bit less pay than male staff. Women during my time worked duties equally with men – three shifts per twenty-four hours. Some bosses and trade union representatives (all men) did not want or respect us women workers. They were always critical and looking for ways to get someone sacked. Messengers went out of fashion at the same time as apprenticeships were phased out. Recruitment of women in the Post Office started again in 1965-66. They are now a valued part of the workforce.

Female postal worker delivers to a farm, c. Mid 20th Century

Female postal worker delivers to a farm, c. Mid 20th Century

All women working for the Post Office in my time were all measured for uniforms. When they arrived about one woman out of ten had a fit. The post-woman in the picture looks well-fitted – hat, boots, and all. Mine did not look anything so special even after they were remade. They were never comfortable to wear, being made of a coarse wool material. It was warm in winter but boiling hot in summer, until a cotton one was provided. Boots or shoes were unwearable. The mail pouch/bag full of mail and packets weighed 27lbs! A lot of what I did was enjoyable, and I met lots of people.”