Rowland Hill and Postal Heritage

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In 1927 Bruce Castle Museum became the new home for this large collection of postal history. It had been collected by a telephone and post office worker, W V Morten, between the 1880s and 1923.

Following Morten's death, the collection was put up for sale. In 1923 the Union of Postal Workers (now the Communication Workers' Union) stepped in to save it for the Nation, purchasing it for £1,592 15s 6d. As there was no national museum of postal history at that time, Bruce Castle was considered the most appropriate place to establish the collection, given its historical connections with Sir Rowland Hill, the postal reformer.

You can access this postal history collection yourself by contacting Bruce Castle Museum and Archive. For further information please email or telephone 020 8489 4250.

As part of the project, Bruce Castle Museum and Archive developed an exhibition called 'Postal People'. The people featured in the exhibition either had a connection to the Post Office or with postal history. They shared their knowledge and chose something from the collection to talk about. Here is what they said.

Alison Nunes

Alison Nunes

Alison Nunes came to Britain from Jamaica in 1964. She worked as a Postwoman and supervisor for the Royal Mail 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.

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Bettina Trabant

Bettina Trabant

Bettina Trabant has worked in a variety of museums. At Bruce Castle Museum Bettina worked on the Morten Postal History Collections

When working at Bruce Castle Museum I developed a fascination for postal history and discovered the wide variety of topics that fall under its banner. Roads and Travelling, Art and Design, Labour History, Military History, Telephones, Letter-writing and Christmas are just some of the many themes you can encounter by looking through the collections.

At Bruce Castle there is a large number of wrongly or strangely addressed envelopes and many bearing the ‘Return to Sender’ stamp. There is also several envelopes that show just a picture rather than an actual written address, including one of a large bull. Letters addressed solely to a town without a street are also very common.

The post office had a special section called the ‘Dead Letter Office’ where it dealt with post that could not be delivered.

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Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson is a retired town planner and lives in East London. He had been a volunteer working on the postal history collections at Bruce Castle Museum and has had the chance to see this historical material during his working life.

As a town planner interested in postal history, maps are obvious favourites for me.

The Cary’s Pocket Plan of 1792 shows London‘s Receiving Houses. King George III was on the throne, and letters were put into the postal system at ‘Receiving Houses’. These were mostly shops and inns. There were no local post offices then. The mail was sent from the Receiving Houses to the main post office for franking. The recipient in most cases would have paid for the postage, as was the practice at that time.

Cruchley’s Postal District Map of 1859 is some 67 years later. Queen Victoria was on the throne. Rowland Hill’s postal reform, postage stamps, the Penny Black and universal Penny Postage, and District Post Offices were all part of everyday life. The use of ‘the post’ had grown so much. There used to be three or four deliveries a day. To aid the sorting of the mail, London was divided into postal districts – the origins of the post-code system we use today.

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Ian Cook

Ian Cook

Ian Cook was the Librarian of the Communication Workers Union library (formerly Union of Post Office Workers – the UPW). One object in  the collection holds a particular fascination for him.

When I began working at the Union I began to develop an interest in the wider aspects of postal history. The Library still holds its own archives and postal trade union journals from a century ago that show that the postal service was about people improving the lot of Post Office workers whilst maintaining a pride in their job and their organisation. I very quickly became acquainted with Mr. W. V. Morten and his postal history collection, as one of the first tasks I undertook was sorting postal material with the ‘WVM’ stamp which had come to light.

One object in the collection is a Bristol Ware jug decorated with a mail coach. There is a note on the bottom, signed by Morten himself in 1913, giving the jug’s identification. Morten has, no doubts, given the date (now obscured) its inscription “Quick Travelling”, the shape of the coach and the fact there are no outside seats, that this jug was made to commemorate the introduction of the Quick Travelling Mail Coaches invented by John Palmer of Bath in 1784.

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Keith Shallcross

Keith Shallcross

Keith Shallcross lives in Tottenham. From 1980 he worked for the Post Office, which later became Post Office Counters Ltd. For 20 years Keith was a manager of different post office branches throughout the Borough of Haringey and North London generally. In 2005 he took early retirement and has since volunteered working on the postal history collections at Bruce Castle Museum. Through looking at the collections first hand, Keith was inspired by the many posters that would have been displayed in any of the branch post offices he once managed.

Christmas time for Post Office counters was always extremely hectic and stressful. Double pensions, Christmas cards, overseas parcels, queues going out of the door from opening to closing time. Customers also needing to charge electricity and gas tokens. We were still expected to ensure that 95% of customers were served in 5 minutes – an impossible task at this particular time of year. We of course needed to make sure that every person was greeted courteously and dealt with politely at all times.

I remember we were asked some funny things by our customers too at this busy time. One Christmas Eve I was asked if it was possible for a card to reach the USA by Christmas Day!

As our Christmas poster said, ‘Post a little Happiness’. Happiness for us workers was closing at 12.30pm on Christmas Eve after having endured four weeks of Christmas pressure, and then retiring to the pub.

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Ken Gay (1923-2015)

Ken Gay

The late Ken Gay was a local resident in Haringey. His father worked as a postman in Stratford where the family then lived. Ken was delighted by some caricatures in the Morten collection showing postmen in their uniform, which reminded him of his father.

My father was born in 1888 and left school at 14 to work as a post office messenger boy in Whitechapel. He became a postman, mostly serving at Stratford E15 office. His brother, my uncle George, worked as a postman at Forest Gate E7 office. Born in 1923, I grew up in a post office family.

My father wore a dark blue issue uniform with a red stripe along the sides of his trousers. He wore a helmet called a ‘shako’, a sort of peaked helmet. (I later learnt it was based on an Hungarian military helmet). In about 1936 the post office replaced these by a peaked cap. These smart uniforms seem to have vanished.

My father delivered letters in his round, or ‘walk’ from a white canvas sack he carried over his shoulder. Sometimes he brought one home empty after his work was finished. He worked shifts and at one time did an evening delivery, getting home about two in the afternoon. I came home from school after four and often found him asleep in his armchair. But this did not stop me waking him to ask for sixpence to go to the cinema with.

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Les Rawle (1925 - 2012)

Les Rawle

The late Les Rawle started in the Post Office as a messenger when he left school at 14 in 1939. After he was called up for the Second World War, he returned to work as a sorting clerk in the North District Post Office. In 1948 he passed the exams to work at the counter. He remained working for the Post Office until his retirement.

Looking at the old telegrams brings back memories. During the 1950s I worked in the South Tottenham Post Office. One room had the tele-printers which received and sent the telegrams. Beyond that a further room where the Messengers sat before going out. For telegrams, people paid you the money, so you stuck stamps to the value of that on the forms. The forms were in a box. They wrote their telegrams and brought it to the counter. You’d count the words. I think a minimum was 1/6d and then so much a word, stick the stamps on. Then I’d take it to the tele-printer room. You’d have to allow for those stamps when you cashed up.

Both men and girls worked in the tele-printer room. Holloway and Finsbury Park had a pipe system, compressed air tubes, which sent the telegram upstairs to the tele-printer room. At South Tottenham, there was a partition between the Post Office Room and the tele-printer room. Teleprinters were like large typewriters, electronic, with spools of white gummed tape and as the message appeared on the tape, they’d tear it off, stick it on a form, envelope it and the Messenger would take it out. For elsewhere in the country the tele-printer room would send it electronically to the Delivery Office nearest the address.

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Richard West

Richard West

Richard West is a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society, a distinguished philatelist and an authority on stamps and their history. He shares his love of collecting stamps by writing books and articles. Richard is also a member of the prestigious Stampex Committee, is involved in Stamp World Exhibitions, the London 2010 Stamp Festival and promoting the educational side of stamp collecting through the British Philatelic Trust.

Rowland Hill’s reforms of the postal system included not only the idea of cheaper postage, but also that the sender - rather than the recipient as hitherto - should pay the cost. Hill thought the public would prefer to use envelopes and lettersheets on which the postage was pre-paid. For these envelopes an illustration was designed by the artist William Mulready RA.

These items of stationery came into use on 6 May 1840. Their design however was quickly ridiculed by the public, which preferred the adhesive postage stamps - the Penny Black and Twopenny Blue had been introduced at the time. Many caricatures or lampoons were produced by stationery manufacturers whose livelihood was threatened by the new lettersheet.

Only six days after their introduction, on 12 May, Rowland Hill wrote in his journal: ‘I fear we shall have to substitute some other stamp for that design by Mulready the public have shown their disregard and even distaste for beauty.

The Mulready stationery was unfortunately short-lived, but it is a fascinating aspect of the history of Britain’s postal service.

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Phil Bowerman

Phil Bowerman

Phil Bowerman became a Postal and Telegraph Officer in 1971, working at the Head Office Counter in St Andrews Street, Cambridge. He joined the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) and quickly became involved in his local branch activities. He progressed through the Union at area and regional level, finally working at the Union’s Head Office in Wimbledon.

I retired from the Communication Workers Union (formerly the Union of Post Office Workers) in 2008 after 23 years service as an employee and 14 years as a representative. I look back, with pride, at the things I have achieved and at the part people have played in developing the service. Whether it was a need for a transatlantic cable to be laid, a postal delivery to be made to some far flung outpost of the Empire or a freezing ride on the top of a stagecoach carrying “His Majesty’s Mail” - it was a Post Office Worker who did it!

That’s the great thing about the Morten Collection. It focuses on the people in the Post Office and gives a real insight into the way they lived. It doesn’t hurt every now and then to remind ourselves what our forefathers went through to get us to the standards we enjoy today. Post Office people form a great brotherhood and sisterhood who would always look out for each other in times of need. For those who may doubt the value of Trade Unions today, in the Morten collection there are such parallels with modern times that people could not fail to be convinced of their continuing relevance. We owe it to John, the UPW Subscriptions Collector, not to forget.

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Page last updated:

January 17, 2022

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