Today is day two of national postal strikes in the UK. We look back at early industrial action in 1890.

Long hours and harsh conditions led postal workers to protest in 1890. Hundreds marched on Post Office headquarters at St Martin’s-le-Grand demanding better pay and conditions. These were early days for the labour movement in Britain and around 450 workers that marched on the headquarters were sacked and the strike was put down. This action however prompted the Government to investigate the struggles of workers and their conditions.

In 1895 the Tweedmouth Committee, an inter-departmental committee headed by Lord Tweedmouth, heard evidence on the hardships of postal workers.

“The result is that the postman wears out fast… The effect was generally to produce premature old age; in other words shortening the life of the worker.” Sir W.B. Richardson

A black and white illustration showing men seated at a table.

The Tweedmouth Committee at work, pictured on the cover of the Postman’s Gazette, 14 March 1896.

Stephen Dowling, a postal worker from Liverpool, complained about the long hours. He found that having his duties split into three or four “attendances”, or shifts, in a single day meant he started work at 6am and didn’t finish until after 10pm. This was know as ‘split duties’, a schedule where working periods are split up by non-paid and non-working periods.

“Imagine, my lord, the postman going into his home 3, 4, 5 and as many as 8 times per day, drenched with rain, or his boots penetrated with snow… Or, worse still, picture him when he cannot get home remaining in wet clothing all day long… Or, think of him working under the fierce rays of a summer’s sun, in the hottest part of the day, when others are seeking shelter, walking along dusty, country roads, in the streets, in loathsome slums, among insanitary dwellings, climbing hills and mounting stuffy buildings – with heavy loads and hung all around with parcels.”


Dowling explained that between duties many of his colleges simply went to the pub.

“In many instances the intervals between the parts of our long duties are frittered and whiled away in the streets – often, I regret to have to say (and this, I think, it reflects rather on the Department than on the men), in public houses. These very intervals have been the cause of many a man’s ruin.”


To illustrate this The Committee heard the story of a man named Nevins.

“He was rolling about in the principal thoroughfare at a quarter-past three in the afternoon in a state of intoxication, and he was then in uniform.”


Nevins had kept his job but had his good conduct stripes removed, leading to reduced pay. Good conduct stripes are shown in the below photography of postal worker William Gates.

A black and white photograph of a man in an old postman's uniform, with th four white horizontal stripes on the left side of the jacket.

John Henty, a postman awarded Good Conduct Stripes. Jevington, Sussex, c1895.

Others took up sports to pass the time, but split duties caused problems for them too. Tired from an early start, postal workers at the General Post Office on Lombard Street complained that an afternoon of rowing or cricket was spoilt by the thought of having to go back to work afterwards.

“This is making work of play indeed, and small wonder that the G.P.O., notwithstanding its immense staff, can scarcely equal for all round proficiency some of the district offices, who, in point of size, are as his satellites are to Jupiter.”


A letter to the union journal The Post joked that “split duties are like a long engaged couple – they should be joined as soon as possible”.

A sepia photograph of postal workers.

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club

When the Tweedmouth Committee issued its report, postal workers were dismayed to find that no concessions were made on split duties. But, this was the first of a series of major parliamentary enquiries around the turn of the century that slowly produced results, improving conditions for the lowest paid and leading eventually to the establishment of Joint Industrial Councils or Whitley Councils.

Blog adapted from research by Peter Sutton, former Curator at The Postal Museum.

If you’re interested in the impact of working conditions on postal workers, you might be interested in Addressing Health.

This three-year project explores the timing and geography of ill health in the Victorian and Edwardian Post Office and the responses of the Post Office and the workforce. The Post Office was a major British employer and understanding the shifts in the pattern of morbidity and mortality of its employees will transform the understanding of health during this important period of epidemiological change.

The project is funded by a Wellcome Collaborative Award in Humanities and Social Science and is a collaboration between King’s College London, Kingston University, University of Derby and University College London, in partnership with The Postal Museum.