Step into the shoes of Coding Desk Operator Matthew and find out what it was like to work with sorting machines in the 1980s.

Watch a short video with Matthew or read the full interview below.

Hi Matthew, can you tell us about yourself and your work with Royal Mail?

Hi, my name is Matthew Mangan, I started working with Royal Mail in 1982 as a postal cadet, I think I was in the second generation of postal cadets as I recall the messenger roles closed in 1980. I started in June 1982 in the Bradford Mechanised Office. There were 6 postal cadets on my intake, and we performed a rotation of duties, within Collections and Delivery, but mainly on the new automation. We worked on the ALSMs (Automatic Letter Sorting Machines), the pre-sorter and of course we also fed the code sort operators at their coding desks with live mail.

Since then, I have worked as a manager across all the functions. I have been the senior manager in large delivery sectors containing up to 18 delivery units. I have also worked in the Mail Centres as a Plant Manager. Recently I was service delivery lead for Yorkshire, heading up the whole pipeline, collections, delivery, and the Mail Centres. I am now working on a national programme to raise the quality of service at a national level. In June this year, I will have worked for Royal Mail for more than 40 years.

Matthew with a Second Generation Coding Desk, of the type he operated, at the Museum’s Object Store

How did you get the job as a coding desk operator?

Prior to the introduction of mechanisation, to be promoted to PHG (Postman Higher Grade), you had to have a lot of service and experience. PHGs were supervisors essentially, looked up to, they wore long brown dust coats with golden crowns on their lapels. Mechanisation changed all that as the ‘younger’ people found coding easier to pick up. The people feeding the code desks or taking mail off the pre-sorter were postmen and women or postal cadets. Whereas the coders were PHGs, as this was classed as skilled work. So, it became a natural progression from postal cadet to PHG. There was quite a pay difference, so at a time when my friends outside of work were on youth opportunity schemes, on low pay from the government, I was earning a good living with plenty of opportunities for overtime as the coding desks never really stopped 7 days a week. We applied via letter to be trained as PHGs – code sort operators.

What was the training like and what skills did you need to learn? Did you have to memorise codes?

The training lasted four weeks. two weeks in the classroom and two weeks ‘live’ with managers performing regular checks. We had to sort 1600 items per hour with an error rate of less than 1%. I think the training package was excel based, all on an old-fashioned monitor, with a very green screen. If you didn’t pass you couldn’t be a PHG at that time.

Training was varied and focused on different aspects of the job. You had to be able to set up the machine for operation and insert an ‘ident’ key which provided a unique identifier on the mail to show who had coded the letter, a bit like logging on to a modern computer. Keyboard skills were also important, being able to type codes in quickly and accurately without looking down at the keyboard.

What was it like to work on a coding desk?

I became a coder at 17 so my first year was working early shifts, Tuesday to Saturday. Saturday was a long day, 06:00 – 16:00, and there were late shifts 12:30 to 19:00. We couldn’t do nights under 18 years of age, but when I turned 18, I worked all shifts. Nights were tough.

We were tasked with 2000 letters an hour once we were fully trained. Depending on the mail type that was very achievable. Many of the coders could average 2400 to2800 an hour, but it was tough on the eyes with single customer postings and London postcodes (WC & EC). We were tracked on speed, measured by our clock counter and accuracy following tests by the quality team. The time clock on the machine measured our down time.

Interior close-up view of a male operative in front of a coding desk, 1987 (POST 118/17313)

Can you tell us about a particular coding desk that you worked on?

I worked on the second-generation code desks. The desk was fed by a colleague, they put the mail the same way up on a conveyor belt that fed to the other side of the desk. The letters were presented the same way up on the conveyor in front of you. There was a moving light that showed you which letter was due to be coded next, so you didn’t get out of sequence. The desks were very reliable, but the belts slipping off or snapping were the main problems. If it just came off the rollers, we were able to quickly put them back on, but if it was a larger belt or it had snapped, we had to get an engineer to help. You had to keep wiping the ‘magic eyes’ with your fingers as the dust from the paper could cover the eyes and then the mail would just move on its own and end up in the system with no code.

Second Generation Coding Desk, known as ‘Easy View’ (2003-0520)

What were your colleagues like, and have you stayed in touch with any of them?

It was a great time. We could have Walkman headphones on while working, so it was like getting paid for listening to music with your friends. You could work as much overtime as you wanted. Many of my colleagues saved for big holidays, paid for cars or paid off mortgages off the back of the overtime that was available to code sort operators. In the 1980s Bradford had some of the biggest senders in the county like the Halifax Building Society, Grattan’s, Empire stores, Damart, the Yorkshire Building Society, Provident. They all posted monthly statements out via mailing houses that would go through the code desks. The biggest was the Tax Office based at Shipley, they could literally post hundreds of thousands of letters a day. Then you had all the councils and the dentists and GPs that posted to patients every month.

How did postal workers or the unions feel about mechanisation and automation in your time at Royal Mail?

There was always a fear that automation would replace people, but I only remember the coding desks. Even so “jobs will go” was often heard and the unions at the time were fighting Sunday working and later starts.

Have the skills you honed as a coding desk operator been useful outside of work?

Clearly, my typing skills have always been very good. I moved into management with the use of a laptop and the introduction of emails. My time as a coder has really helped me work more efficiently. I do get challenged about the pace of my typing as it puts people off, but you can always tell an ex-coder. Whichever Royal Mail building you walk into the keystrokes will be fast and very loud.

– Matthew Mangan, Service Delivery Leader at Royal Mail