Christmas Post in the Second World War

Curator Joanna explores the difficulties facing the Post Office when delivering wartime Christmas post.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the General Post Office (GPO) controlled virtually all civil communications channels: mail, telephone and telegram. The country truly depended on the GPO and the reliable continuation of its services to keep in touch with friends and loved ones, especially at Christmastime. However, the Second World War brought many disruptions to the GPO which put great strain on the service and its employees.

Mobile Post Office, c.1940-45 (POST 56)

Many skilled workers left the GPO for military service and the organisation faced difficulties recruiting temporary workers to take their place. Bombings destroyed postal buildings and posed a great danger to postal workers, especially those working in buildings with glass ceilings.  Furthermore, the extensive bombing of homes disrupted delivery, as many of the addresses mail was to be delivered to simply no longer existed on the street.

The Post Office Rescue and Salvage Squad, c.1940

There were increases to administrative processes as growing numbers of people were evacuated from cities, changing their address. Working conditions were made even more difficult under the blackout. All of these issues were compounded each December, by the increase in mail at Christmas time.

Here we look at some the changes experienced each Christmas throughout the Second World War, and the great efforts made to ensure morale-boosting mail was delivered in time for the festive season.

Christmas 1939

People were encouraged to post earlier, to ensure delivery. Though this wasn’t a new message, it was perhaps more important than ever.

‘Post earlier to ensure delivery by Christmas Day’ poster, Christmas 1939 (POST 110/1162)

Christmas 1940

On the 16 December 1940 people were encouraged to write their house number in chalk, should the number have been destroyed by bombs. As you can see in this film, repeated bombings meant people sometimes had to change their address more than once.

The Firebomb attack on London on the night of 29-30 December 1940 was one of the most destructive air raids of the London Blitz, destroying many buildings including the medieval Guildhall, and the Central Telegraph Office. Some 1500 fires were started, and the night was dubbed ‘The Second Great Fire of London’.

Central Telegraph Office under reconstruction after the fire of 29 Dec 1940 (POST 118/17124)

Central Telegraph Office – Part demolition following 1940 destruction (POST 118/18880)

In December 1940 the Post Office asked its male workers in London to bring along their ‘wives, sweethearts, sisters and lady friends’ to help deliver Christmas mail. Subsequently, thousands of women turned up at the local post offices and employment exchanges, eager to be put to work. By Christmas 1940, the GPO employed women to drive mail vans for the very first time, a job normally reserved for men only.

Christmas 1941

On 18 December 1941 Scots, Irish and Grenadier Guards were photographed lending a hand with Christmas mails at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, London. Post early campaigns again urged the public to get their mail sent with plenty of time. Alongside the regular ‘post early’ posters, the GPO produced another film, encouraging ‘the British public everywhere’ to ‘post now for Christmas and save transport for the war effort.’

Your Christmas packets and parcels should be posted by Dec. 18, 1941 (POST 110/1178)

Christmas 1942

On 7 December 1942, an order came into force giving the power to compel women to perform fire guarding duties at government premises, which included Post Office buildings. The Sub-Postmistress of one Post Office complained of ‘having to go on the roof’ to watch for fires, but as no ‘volunteer was forthcoming’, she was obliged to keep watch. Such insights are hints in the historical record of peoples’ resistance to putting themselves in danger, running counter to the popular ‘all pulling together’ in the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ narrative.

Postwoman delivering mail in bomb-damaged streets, 1942 (POST 118/1360)

The high level of post, combined with lack of staff, led to 200 school children in Slough sorting and delivering the mail, in Christmas 1942.

Christmas 1943

The public was urged to send Christmas Airgraph forms, a service first launched in 1941. Messages were written onto a special form that was then given an identification number and photographed onto microfilm. The microfilm was flown to its destination, developed into a full size print, and posted to the recipient. Sending 1600 airgraphs on microfilm weighed just 5oz compared to 50lbs for the same number of letters. Copies of the microfilm were kept so that if they were shot down the messages could be re-sent.

Poster advertising seasonal airgraphs by artist Austin Cooper, 1943 (POST 110/1185)

Christmas 1944

Christmas letters offer a glimpse into the traumas experienced by people subjected to the stresses of living through a war. The Postal Museum has one such letter in its collection dated 17 December 1944, an extract from which you can read here:

“Dear Aunt

Another Christmas drawing near and the war still goes on. We often think about you and wonder if you are safe and well after the trying times we have been through. We have had a very noisy time lately with all the rocket bombs it makes one feel at times that you can’t stand very much more. My elder boy has had nerve trouble and been attending hospital its these dreadful bangs. My dear mother… often talks of you… and wonders at times if you feel as lonely as she does… We have some many friends bombed out of their homes some have been through it several times you feel so sorry for them it’s a miserable time.”

Letter dated 17 December 1944 (2019-0026/03)

You can read more about the Post Office during the Second World War in this blog.

– Joanna Espin, Curator

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