England Occupations Post Office Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Post Office

History of the Post Office

The Royal Mail was instituted by James I in 1603 and carried letters for the king and his court. Very few private letters were allowed so merchants had to depend on commercial carriers or their own private arrangements. Charles I, who was always short of money, opened his posts to the general public in 1635 as a fund-raising effort. By the mid-17th century towns throughout England and Wales, and later Scotland and Ireland, were connected by a postal service run along the farming method common at the time. This was such that individuals paid an annual fee for the privilege of running a post office, then ran the postal service as a private business making whatever profit they could. In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed the General Post Office which is why the surviving records only date from 1670.

The Post Office has been one of the largest British employers since the 18th century. Its contributions towards the development of the country include improvements in commerce, communications, literacy, technology and transport.

Mounted post-boys carried the letters along the main roads, each having their own area and passing the bag of mail to the postmaster at regular posts. He would give it to the next post-boy, in relay. Post boys were frequently robbed but from 1784 mail coaches were used and these had a smartly-uniformed, heavily armed guard on board who also acted as timekeeper, for they were run on a very strict schedule. On approach to towns where the coach did not stop, the guard would sound his posthorn to alert the postmaster, who would lean out of an upstairs window to exchange incoming and outgoing mail bags with the guard. Despite popular literature there was only one recorded attempted hold-up of a mail coach, in 1786, which was promptly thwarted by the guard who shot the highwayman dead (Perry).

The first letters were carried on the railways in 1830, with the first sorting office on board in 1838. By 1846 the railways superceded the London-based mail coaches, and the same happened to the rest of the provincial towns during the 1850s. However, in 1887 horse-drawn long-distance coaches were re-introduced for parcels. Motorization came about in a limited fashion in 1902 and the first fleet of post office vehicles appeared in 1919.

At first payment was collected from the addressee and the amount depended upon the distance carried, until 1840 when Rowland Hill’s Penny Post, using the famous Penny Black stamp for prepayment was introduced. Jerrold (The Postman in Portraits of the English-Vol V: Working Lives) wrote a wonderful piece concerning the days when the recipient paid the postman.

Post Office Archives

Although its records are, by law, public ones the Post Office is not a government department and does not transfer its records to the Public Records Office at Kew. Its records have to be made available to post office officials in the course of their work, and access has to be provided to the public for unpublished materials over 30 years old. The archives is called Post Office Heritage and is situated at the back of the main sorting office at Mount Pleasant in London, not far from the London Metropolitan Archives and the Family Records Centre, the local pub being the Penny Black.

The records are organized into various POST categories according to the type of information they contain. There are over 120 POST classes with items within each class identified by a piece number, the same as the system used at The National Archives (TNA). The indexing system is based on the first letter and first vowel, thus White is indexed under Wi. The articles by Squelch and Perry describe the archives, the latter giving much more information than the web site. A guide to the archives is available as well as detailed class lists. Sadly, nothing seems to be microfilmed yet.

Postal Employees and Their Records

Material from the late 17th century is available, with senior officials being traceable in accounts, salary lists and correspondence from 1672. There are three main series - pensions and gratuities, appointment books, and the establishment books followed by the lists of principal officers. There are also a number of records specific to particular groups of employees.

Pensions and Gratuities

As with other occupations, the pension records are often the best place to start because they will outline the person’s whole career at once and thus enable prior documentation to be found quickly if it exists. Records of Staff Pensions in POST 1 are in correspondence files for all employees from 1859, but only for senior or clerical staff and the occasional hardship case before that time. The forms record names, ranks, pay, date of birth, years of service, wages, reason for application, appointments held, absences and general conduct. It seems that in 1940, when the Post office took over the administration of its pensions from the government, many of the original records were destroyed and all that remains are the index books.

The normal retirement age was 60, but ill health forced some to retire early and others worked longer in order to increase benefits. The pension was worked out on the best paid of the last 3 years, and in addition there was a lump sum that depended on the length of service (personal communication, search room supervisor).

Appointment Books

This is the next group of records to access since all full-time staff are recorded in the appointment books from 1831-1952 in class POST 58, arranged by surname. The original appointment papers have not survived, but these bound volumes contain names, dates of appointment, grade and place of work.

Establishment Books and Lists of Principal Officers

Lists of senior staff including all the postmasters, called establishment books, were made from time to time from 1742 until 1856 and are found in POST 59. These manuscript books contain the names of all those who worked in a certain place, and are good for tracing those who entered before 1831 when the appointment books begin.

Replacing the establishment books in 1857 come the annual printed lists of principal officers which were published from 1857-1980s and contain names, ranks, salaries, places of work and dates of appointment, plus dates of birth from 1916.

Postmasters and Subpostmasters

The earliest postmasters were called deputies as they ran the local postal service as deputies of the Post Master General. Most were innkeepers until about 1800 since they needed to provide horses for the post boys as well as handle the mail. Later they were chosen because they had a business in a suitable location, but by 1850 purpose-built Crown Post Offices were provided whose sole business was the mail. Early records are in POST 1-3, 9, 58-59 and 94 and are described by Perry. Subpostmasters and Subpostmistresses were usually not Post Office employees thus records for them are sparse. The post office counter was in their sweet shop, public house, stationery shop or general store as an added attraction for customers. Perry lists the post classes for some records from 1792.

Packet Boat Agents and Captains

The packet boats were the ships that carried mail to and from the continent (of Europe) and they also provided a reliable service for passengers and for goods. Packet stations had been established at Harwich, Essex in 1660 for the Holland mail; Falmouth, Cornwall in 1689 for Spain and Portugal; and Dover, Kent in 1700 for France and Flanders. The post office appointed packet agents to supervise these stations and their salaries can be found in POST 4. The ships were hired from the packet captains and these records are in POST 1, 2, 3 and 43. Appointments of both agents and captains will be found in POST 58-9. A distant relative, William Dashwood (1754-1794) of Falmouth was the captain of H.M. Packet Expedition, and such people rated an obituary in Gentleman’s Magazine and a PCC will. Encounters with foreign privateers were part of life on the packets, and Perry recounts one such tale.

Letter Carriers, Postmen and Postwomen

Up until 1883 those who delivered the mail were officially letter carriers, but when the parcel post was introduced then the title changed to postman. There were few postwomen before the First World War. The names and appointments of London letter carriers in POST 59 date from 1742, and other classes of use are POST 7, 35-38, 42 and 59 mainly from the mid-19th century but including those outside London. There are more details about those who created problems or gave outstanding service, than there are for the average employee.

Clerks

POST 59 includes details for the London, Edinburgh and Dublin clerks from 1742, and from 1857 they appear in the annual list of principal officers, with details of their appointments and salaries. Clerk appointments are in POST 58 and salaries appear in POST 7.

  • Telegraph Service

The post office acquired the monopoly of handling the telegraph service in 1870, and uniformed Telegraph Messenger Boys of 13 and up delivered telegrams by bicycle. Those under the age of 16 were not normally put on the records so their appointments won’t be found in the regular series, but there is a special series in POST 58 for 1871-1882 for trainees. They could progress further by taking an exam at age 16 and then become a junior postman, sorting clerk or technical tradesman.

  • Post Office Savings Bank

In 1861 the post office introduced savings facilities for ordinary wage earners in over 700 post offices, at a time when there were few banks outside major towns, and only the well-off were served by them anyway. This proved extremely popular as by the mid-1880s there were 31/2 million accounts in thousands of post offices. Postal orders were introduced in 1881.

  • Telephones

The post office took over the National Telephone Company in 1912 and staff records are kept at the post office archives, even though the working papers have been transferred to British Telecom Archives.

  • Case Papers of Incidents

There is a précis of case papers of incidents reported to Post Office Headquarters 1794-1973 in POST 35 and 38, each year being indexed. If the post town or sub post office is known then incidents such as appointments, applications for wage increases, dismissals, promotions, drunkenness, and even the purchase of wooden legs, can be easily found. Squelch gives some wonderful examples from these incident records.

Other Records include those of specific post offices, salary lists from 1793, and recruitment records from 1861. Post Office Heritage also has a museum of artefacts and a large archive of photographs, including plenty of individual staff.

My great grandfather, William Eves, was a very ordinary postman in Greenwich, south-east London and what I have found out about him so far is shown below. This work was done nearly 20 years ago when things weren’t so organized at the post office archives. I need to revisit and check such things as the staff magazine for 1913, 1926 and 1944 for significant events in his life; the Post Office and Greenwich Local Studies photographic archives; and the incidents book.

CHART: Career of Postman William Eves

Date
Item
1888 Jun
Appointment as Boy Copyist. Nomination Paper # 193825. Appointment Minute #8743/88
1889 21 Mar
Auxiliary Letter Carrier (birth son William)
1890 16 Dec
Letter Carrier (birth dau Winifred Edith Maria)
1891 5 Apr
Auxiliary Letter Carrier (census)
1891 Sep
Appointment of Wm EVES as Postman South East Region NP # 343023. Another record gives NP 3 356563 and AM #18474
1913
He received the Imperial Service Medal, given to civil servants with 25 years service.
1916 1 Jan
Postman (wife’s death)
1916 22 Sep
Postman (marriage dau Winifred)
1926 13 Dec
Retirement at age 60 after 38 years service. Pensions and Gratuities Minute #15140. William EVES Postman LPS SE P 119959-376 Nov.
1944 1 Sep
Postman (retired) (his death)

The Post Office published an annual court and commercial Directory for cities and major towns which had an extensive information section on its services at the back; 65 pages in 1846! Herein will be found:

  • Postal rates.
  • Lists of all places in the British Isles containing post offices that issue money orders, with time of pick-up and delivery for London mail, and many having the names of their post masters.
  • Designs of obliterating stamps (postmarks) so one can tell from whence a letter comes.
  • Places throughout the world where mail is dispatched.
  • Hours of delivery in the London area -inner areas had five deliveries per day in 1846!
  • and much else.

In other trade directories the postal arrangements are one of the features given for each place, thus in Pigot’s Commercial Directory for Cheshire 1834 we learn that in Mottram the Post Office was run by Robert Wagstaff, post master, and letters from Manchester arrive every evening at half-past five and are despatched every morning at twenty minutes before seven. In Runcorn there is a list of times (in terms of the tides) for packets for passengers and for goods going to Liverpool, Manchester, and Northwich.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.