Tokens of esteem: Postmistresses in the Victorian Post Office

Guest blogger Professor David Green explores the lives of Victorian postmistresses and gifts they received on their retirement.

Maria Beeson

Miss Maria Beeson, who took over as postmistress at Honiton in 1894, was clearly a person of strong opinions and with an aptitude for organisation. She had first been employed by the London District Telegraph Company in 1859, prior to it being taken over by the Post Office in 1870. After helping to set up the Jersey telegraph office, she took over as the Honiton postmistress

‘tactfully enforcing the rules of the Department which had long lain a dead latter, and ultimately overcoming the prejudice of both officers and townspeople to a female head of the Post Office’.

Image of Miss Beeson, St Martin’s-le-Grand, 1900, vol. 10, p. 220 © The Postal Museum

She retired,  aged sixty, in 1899 and when asked by the editor of the in-house Post Office magazine, St Martin’s-le-Grand, ‘To what cause do you assign your promotion or want of promotion?’, her reply was

‘Lack of promotion for twenty-three years for the serious offence of being the only woman in an office.’


The photograph that accompanied the account of her career shows Miss Beeson at her desk gazing confidently at the camera surrounded by maps, books and official paperwork – very much in control of the complex and demanding tasks that a rapidly growing Post Office required.

To mark her retirement, she was presented with a handsome marble timepiece on behalf of the staff of the head office and the fourteen sub-offices under her control. Given the forty years that she had served as a telegraphist and latterly as a postmistress, it was a well-deserved token of esteem.

Long lived postmistresses: Eliza Adamson, Mrs Limond and Elizabeth George

In contrast to postmen and sorters, many of whom had to retire early because of ill health, postmistresses often worked well into their sixties and seventies. Our research into the lives of postal workers, part of the Addressing Health project in collaboration with The Postal Museum Archives, shows that in the second half of the nineteenth century, more than a third of postmistresses were aged over 54 compared to just four percent of sorters.

Postmistresses were some of the longest serving as well as some of the longest lived of all Post Office workers during the nineteenth century. Eliza Adamson, who was reputed to have been the oldest postmistress in Britain when she died in May 1898, had served for 58 years in the small fishing village of Auchmithie, on the east coast of Scotland. Eliza Adamson’s age and length of service were noteworthy but not exceptional.

Mrs Limond, who was born in 1815, was the subpostmistress of Minishant, a village in Ayrshire, for 53 years. She had met Sir Rowland Hill on several occasions and in 1906, by which time she was aged over ninety, and she was described as

‘tall and erect, lithe and nimble, with memory and eyesight unimpaired, her handwriting, for legibility and steadiness, resembling that of a lady of nineteen rather than of ninety.’


When they retired, postmistresses and subpostmistresses had worked on average for more than 25 years and, like Eliza Adamson and Mrs Limond, nearly one in six had performed the role for forty years or more. Many of the hundreds of postmistresses and sub-postmistresses employed in the Post Office could be found in small market towns and remote rural areas. They often inherited their role from their parents or took over from their husbands, but in many cases, like Miss Beeson, were also appointed in their own right. Their longevity and their role which they, and often their families before them, had performed for many years meant they were familiar and highly respected figures in their communities.

In 1900, following her retirement as the town’s postmistress, the grateful inhabitants of Tewkesbury presented Mrs Elizabeth George with a beautiful diamond and sapphire ring and an illuminated address to recognise the long service she, her deceased husband and her parents before her had given to the town since 1841.

She was not alone in receiving such gifts. Gold chains, bracelets and signet rings, clocks, silver tea services and epergnes were amongst the many gifts presented by grateful inhabitants to postmistresses in villages and towns across the country to mark their retirement from office – tokens of esteem to recognise their status and the valued role that they performed in their local communities.

– David Green, Department of Geography, King’s College London

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