Curator Joanna tells stories of postal workers in crisis.

Postmen and women have faced disastrous obstacles while trying to keep mail moving around the country and across the world. Freak weather and calamitous accidents have, on occasion, been deadly to postal workers, committed to maintaining communication.

Freezing fog, 1891

On Monday 21 December 1891, dense fog shrouded London for four days. A ‘silver frost’ on Christmas morning made travel almost impossible. Five mail carts were stranded in St Paul’s churchyard, unable to move at all. Staying still was the safest option, a lesson learned by the Brighton parcel coach just three days before.

London to Brighton parcel mail coach, snowbound, 1891 (POST 118/1820)

While travelling from Brighton to London, the parcel coach drove straight into Thornton Heath pond, at such speed that all four horses mounted a wall nearly 14 meters from the pond’s edge. The coachman dislocated his shoulder, falling from his seat, and was unable to continue the journey. So it was left to the guard to take up the reins and drive the recovered coach the rest of the way. The guard assumed position at the front of the coach, exposed to the cold. By the time he arrived in London, his clothes had frozen stiff.

The deadly weather spread across the city. Letter carriers working by the London docks were equipped with life-belts after 20 labourers fell from the quays and drowned in the December fog.

Onboard Titanic, 1912

On 15 April 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean and sunk less than three hours later, killing more than 1,500 people. Amongst the dead were five postal workers, British citizens James Williamson and Jago Smith and US citizens William Gwinn, John March and Oscar Woody.

Titanic leaving Southampton – a black and white photographic lantern slide (2012-0126/04)

The Titanic had a Post Office and Mail Room deep in the ship on decks F and G. The blueprints below, held by the Postal Museum, show their position.

Blueprints showing the Post Office and Mail Room situated on the RMS Titanic

The five postal workers were tasked with sorting much of the mail which had been brought on board the ship, 3,364 bags in total, as well as dealing with any letters which were posted on the ship by passengers and crew.

When the ship struck the iceberg, the postal workers were celebrating Oscar Woody’s 44th birthday. However, they soon realised that the Mail Room was flooding and so attempted to move 200 sacks of registered mail to the upper decks in the hope of saving them. They even forced several stewards to help them, one of whom later recalled:

I urged them to leave their work. They shook their heads and continued at their work. It might have been an inrush of water later that cut off their escape, or it may have been the explosion. I saw them no more.

Flooding in Horsey, Norfolk, 1938

Join postmen Claude Simmonds and Bob O’Brian in their rubber boots, on a postal route like no other. In 1938, half a mile of sea wall gave way in Norfolk, following exceptionally heavy flood tides. The village of Horsey became an island, its roads more than a metre under water.

1938 Horsey, Norfolk promotional film © GPO Film Unit/EAFA

Bob, who had already capsized his post van three times, and Claude, a former fisherman, drive as far as they can before joining a local boatman. They row six miles across the marshes to Horsey and isolated farms.

The narrator and the posties bring good humour and determination to their mail delivery, in a film showing the stark devastation of flooding. The film ends with ‘a race against weather and tide’, to close the remaining 100 yards of sea wall in three days before the high tides return.

Tay Bridge Disaster, 1879

On the 28 December 1879 the first Tay Bridge collapsed into the Firth of Tay at Dundee, as a travelling post office passed over. All of the train carriages crashed into the water, killing everyone on board, at least 60 people.

‘View of the Broken Bridge from the North End’ illustration taken from the Illustrated London News, 3 Jan 1880 © Science Museum/SSPL

Eyewitnesses called to the Board of Trade Inquiry described the violent storm lashing the bridge, a bright glow of light from the direction of the train and the sudden darkness, as the bridge collapsed.

Local Dundee newspaper The Courier reported two days after the accident that:

‘40 mail bags, large and small, were carried on the ill-fated train. Of those… over 30 had been recovered. Two of them had been picked up in the middle of the river by the North British Railway steamer while crossing to Tayport. Six bags had been found washed ashore at Broughty Ferry, followed by another three later the same evening. These were despatched by taxi to Dundee by Miss Barclay, the postmistress at Broughty Ferry.

The dripping wet bags were brought into Dundee Post Office and their contents spread out on a large board before a huge fire. Some of the letters were tied up in bundles, and those in the centre of the bundles were found to be in a fair state of preservation. But others had their stamps washed off and had smudged addresses. Those that were legible were forwarded as soon as possible.’

Discover more stories of postal workers in our Make a Connection hub.

– Joanna Espin, Curator