Curator Jessica explores the museum collection and archive researching the Postal Service’s use of dogs in the past…

The first recorded use of the term ‘man’s best friend’ can be found as far back as Frederick, King of Prussia (1740-1786).

Mail Mint Stamps, ‘Working Dogs’, 5th February 2008. Designed by Redpath Design.

Dogs are not just wonderful companions and friends, they have become invaluable as working dogs. In February 2008 Royal Mail produced commemorative stamps featuring working dogs, including this wonderful image of an Assistance Dog carrying a letter.

Dogs from the Police, dogs’ homes and family pets were even recruited in the First World War. Incredibly they were used to carry messages between the lines, though we have no evidence in the archive that any letters were delivered in such a way.  They were also used to sniff out enemy soldiers, pull machine guns and carry first aid kits to the wounded showing their great skill and bravery.

Dog Cart, found on a farm near Swansea. The cart was in use between Leeds and Cross Gates for mail bags sent on Sundays, likely pulled by hand. (OB1996.445)

There is no evidence that the Post Office ever actually employed dogs themselves for pulling small mail carts. The archival evidence is further muddied by terms such as ‘mail cart’ and ‘dog cart’. The former could refer to any small cart used to transport wares or luggage, or sometimes as children’s toys. The term ‘dog cart’ could refer to a small cart or barrow, something used to transport dogs in, rather than being hauled by dogs, or it could be a small cart pulled by one or more dogs.

While there is little surviving evidence, this was probably quite a common practice. In 1854 it was stated that in Sussex and Hampshire alone, there were some 1,500 people making a living from dog carts. Use was far more common on the continent; in 1854 there were 200,000 draught dogs in Belgium alone.

‘The Dog Cart’, by Vincent de Vos, oil on panel, c. 1850-1875. © Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Birkenhead.

In the archive there is a record of a contractor’s mail cart, pulled by four dogs, being used from 1830 to 1850 to transport the mails between Chichester and Arundel. Running through the lonely Arundel woods one night, an attempt was made to rob the mail by a thief dressed as an old woman who sought a lift. The driver saw a weapon being pulled from beneath ‘her’ cloak and immediately pitched the highwayman off the side onto the road before speeding off.

Old White Hart, Bishopsgate’, by John Charles Maggs, oil on canvas, c.1885 (2004-0149)

The practice of using dogs to pull carts was made illegal on the 1st of January 1855, 15 years after it had been stopped in London. It almost certainly stopped in London earlier as horses were easily frightened by dogs. In 1837 the Secretary to the Post Office was complaining about the frequent accidents caused to mail coaches due to the erratic behaviour of dog-drawn carts. The London and Manchester Mail Coach was ‘upset’ in July 1837 when the horses took fright and several of the passengers were injured, the driver later died of his injuries.

Post Office Dog – Solomon, Lantern Slide, c.1890 (2011-0442/3)

Dogs have had for a long time a bad reputation when it comes to their relationship with the post, however, this is not always the case, after all, they are man’s best friend! Solomon, an accomplished retriever dog with a fondness for Postmen was presented to the postmen at the Surbiton Post Office in 1913.

‘Solomon, The Postman’s Dog’, Scottish Record, 1st Feb 1913 (POST 111/62)

As part of the Christmas boxes presented to the men, Solomon received a share of the gratuities; a new studded collar, a dog licence at the cost of £3 and the remaining balance to ‘delicacies’ for his meals. As you can see from the image it was, in fact, a dog who was the first animal to wear a postal hat!

Can’t get enough of the cute postal canines? The story continues here.

– Jessica Woolf, Curator