The Post of Christmas Past

Mail Coach in a Snowstorm - Royal Mail Group, 2013

Mail Coach in a Snowstorm - Royal Mail Group, 2013 - Credit: Archant

As funds are being raised for a flagship museum of the postal service, June Lewis reveals that one of the service’s early problems was mice nibbling postal orders. “In 1868 it was agreed that a shilling a week would be paid to keep a cat to control the mice.”

World's first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Calcott Horsley RA upon request

World's first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Calcott Horsley RA upon request by Sir Henry Cole. Lithographed and hand-coloured. - Credit: Archant

Letters for the Rich, Letters for the Poor, for the shop on the corner and the girl next door…’ Ah! What a nostalgic echo that stirs in the memories of the Night Mail as WH Auden coupled practicality with poetry; the rhythm of the old steam train wheels, iron upon iron, took the development of the postal system through another era in its long history.

Poster promoting Christmas cards. Poster artist: Not known. Poster printer: Robor Ltd.

Poster promoting Christmas cards. Poster artist: Not known. Poster printer: Robor Ltd. - Credit: Archant

Jane Austen had nothing but praise for the efficiency of the system in Emma. “The Post Office is a wonderful establishment” said she. “The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!”

The Postmas, c.1840 - Royal Mail Group, 2013

The Postmas, c.1840 - Royal Mail Group, 2013 - Credit: Archant

It was Charles Dickens who saw the enormous change in postal communication during his lifetime, in which it is recorded that the prolific letter-writer sent some 14,000 letters to more than 2,500 different correspondents. Dickens also referred to the postal system many times in his fiction and journalism and this is the subject of a festive talk to be given by Dr Tony Williams at The British Postal Museum, after the future of Britain’s Postal Heritage is presented by the Director, Adrian Steel.

It is interesting that when letters for all classes, rich and poor, became cards to send seasonal greetings when the world’s first Christmas card was sent in 1843, it was the same year in which Dickens wrote his evergreen classic, A Christmas Carol. In that pioneering year, one thousand cards were made; today, it is anticipated that the number of Christmas cards sent this year will be over 1.8 billion. Immediately after the Second World War the volume of post at Christmastide caused many regulations to be broken simply to provide the man power needed to cope: Italian and German prisoners-of-war worked alongside troops in uniform drafted in to help; the soldiers worked unpaid alongside schoolboys who were making a decent casual wage. At the outset of war, the sacred gender barriers had started to be breached – women were in the post workplace, from sorting offices to driving post vans (with the unions’ proviso that the women drivers were not full-time!). Unions have played their own hand in the running of the postal system: back in 1974 there was no support for delivering the Christmas cake, made traditionally and specially for the Queen by a celebrated baker in Peterborough; a young graduate recruit somehow found his training course included two tickets for the train from Peterborough to London – a seat for him and a seat for the cake. He duly arrived at King’s Cross station and handed over Her Majesty’s cake to a uniformed Palace official.

Despite the increasing competition from computer generated greetings cards, more use of the technical systems to communicate, the rising prices of postage costs and a less traditional and more cynical approach to Christmas generally, to many people it is the only time they keep in touch with less connected families and old friends. Nothing, to me, can compare with the comforting ‘plop’ on the doormat as a card comes through the letter box, then the anticipatory turning over of the envelope looking for clues of a postmark, handwriting style and tell-tale form of address, before opening it and enjoying the message that I have been in someone’s thoughts. Gone are the days when the postman delivered on Christmas Day. The last Christmas Day post in England ended in 1960.

Christmas card design warrants a whole feature of its own, but long after the railways had consigned them to history, it was the old mail coach in the snow that proved the most popular. It epitomised the idyll of English life, spiced with romance and bravery in facing the elements and highwaymen. Disciplined and efficient, the mail coach service was something akin to the dash and glory of a military service – helped from the outset by the uniform of the guards in bright scarlet tunics, embellished with blue lapels and gold braiding. The drivers were given smart Royal Mail uniforms. After a spate of indiscriminate shooting by the guards at anyone suspected of being an escaped French prisoner of war during the French wars, and paid £5 for each one killed or wounded, an Act of Parliament of 1811 prohibited the use of the guards’ blunderbuss except in self-defence.

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The Post Office saw the potential of using the railways from the outset, and sent mail on the first commercial line, the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1830. Initially the whole mail coach and its guard were loaded onto the back of the train – then it was deemed a better idea just to load the mailbags and guard on to the train – rather than the whole coach!

Duncan Campbell-Smith, who holds Visiting Research Fellowships at the Institute of Historical Research and at the Centre for Contemporary British History at King’s College, London, has dug deep and delved wide to produce his latest book, Masters of the Post, the authorised history of The Royal Mail. And what a history!

Looking back to the origins in the early Tudor monarchy, five centuries of the exciting and revolutionary development covers the progress and politics of the Royal Mail, the intrigues and spies in royal courts, delivering to the troops in both world wars, how postal engineers built the first programmable computer for the wartime code-breakers of Bletchley Park, the Great Train Robbery of 1963, to the future of this ‘pillar of public service’.

One of the early financial problems was mice nibbling the paid money orders kept in the office for processing. In 1868 it was agreed that a shilling a week would be paid to keep a cat to control the mice (sixpence in rural offices) – this was still applicable in 1944. Once enshrined in the rule book, rules and regulations are kept for centuries and account for the extraordinary volume of records that are neatly stacked on more than two miles of shelving at the British Postal Museum and Archive. What a treasure in our national heritage!

Funds are currently being raised to build a new flagship museum in Central London, due to open in 2016. This will reveal the stories of the postal service from the time of Charles I to the present day, and if sufficient funds are raised, to open up a part of the old Post Office Underground Railway, the Mail Rail that ran from 1927 to 2003. Among the historic artefacts sitting in the vaults is an impounded copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses on instructions from the Home Office that all copies of the work be treated as obscene material. All credit to the museum in resisting to cash in its value today, thus conserving another important historical aspect of the service. The auction of duplicate postage stamps held at the museum is sure to interest some of the estimated 2.5 million UK collectors, plus millions worldwide, when the stamps go under Sotheby’s famous hammer in February 2014 to raise funds for the project which will feature spectacular exhibition spaces, state-of-the-art learning centre and research facilities while adding an exciting new dimension to the capital’s cultural landscape.

This year, for the first time in 30 years, Royal Mail launched a national competition for Primary age schoolchildren to draw a postage stamp with the theme ‘What does the Christmas season mean to you?’; the winning two entries – one for first class, and one for second class – have to be approved by the Queen before being printed and released to go on this year’s Christmas cards. It is not the design but the way stamps were stuck on letters that became the battle for rights between the Hill and Chambers families – a feud that raged in intensity for over a century by their descendants until well into the 1950s. The relatives of James Chalmers of Dundee made a permanent memorial of this achievement by inscribing on his tombstone: ‘Originator of the adhesive postage stamp’.

I am grateful to Harry Huskisson, Communications Manager of the British Postal Museum and Archive for his enthusiastic help in preparing this feature and the BPMA for supplying images from the archives. More information can be found on the website: including the Dickens and the Director talk on 3 December starting at 6pm.


Masters of the Post by Duncan Campbell-Smith is published by Allen Lane

This article is from the 2013 Christmas edition of Cotswold Life magazine.