Sorting the Past

03 May 2017

Join our Archivist Matt Tantony as he goes on a photographic tour of a mechanised sorting office in the 1960s.

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Matt inspects some photographs from the Archive.

I’m currently checking the photographic prints and negatives in our Archive, making sure they’re secure before they move to The Postal Museum. I’ve taken a few out of their archival packaging to show you something fun.

When you catalogue photographs, you have to scrutinise the subject matter and memorise as much as you can, especially when you’re trying to match up shots of the same subject from small details. One consequence is that you can feel uncannily familiar with people, places and eras you’ve never seen in person.

An assortment of photographs of Leeds Parcel Sorting Office.

Assorted snapshots of Leeds Parcel Sorting Office.

Leeds Parcel Sorting Office (opened 1959) is a place in the past I feel I know curiously well. In fact, I can take you on a parcel’s journey through the elaborate machines of Leeds, entirely through photographs taken in various different years…

Parcel bags being unloaded at Leeds, May 1960 (POST 118/15743).

Leeds: Parcel bags being unloaded, May 1960 (POST 118/15743).

It’s the early 1960s and you’re a parcel. Square, taciturn and papery, you want to reach your destination (let’s say Rochdale, Lancashire) via the best technology the era can provide. You arrive at Leeds in a bag with other parcels posted nearby. The loading yard staff tip you through a trapdoor onto a conveyor.

Leeds: Parcels being conveyed to glacis, May 1960 (POST 118/15745).

Leeds: Parcels being conveyed to glacis, May 1960 (POST 118/15745).

You travel up a series of rising conveyors to the top of the building. You’re heading for what’s called the Primary Sorting stage.

Leeds: Primary Sorting station, May 1960 (POST 118/15746).

Leeds: Primary Sorting positions, May 1960 (POST 118/15746).

You emerge from the conveyors onto a huge sloped platform called the glacis. This is where newly arrived parcels accumulate before Primary Sorting. There’s a short wait here, so why not get to know those exciting parcels of Oxydol detergent and Fairy Snow washing powder near the front?

Leeds: Close up of parcel sorting machine operating position, May 1960 (POST 118/15755).

Leeds: Close up of parcel sorting machine operating position, May 1960 (POST 118/15755).

Now it’s your turn to be sorted. The Primary sorters read your address and press a button on the keyboard for the general area to which you’re headed (Lancashire). Then they drop you through the hatch.

Leeds parcel sorting machine keyboard, c.1964 (POST 118/16155).

Leeds parcel sorting machine keyboard, c.1964 (POST 118/16155).

That keyboard up close. Can you read any of the 24 buttons? The sixth button on the middle row is for Lancashire.

Leeds: Parcel being discharged from hopper, May 1960 (POST 118/15748).

Leeds: Parcel being discharged from hopper, May 1960 (POST 118/15748).

You fall onto a moving hopper train running the length of the building. Underneath the hopper trains, at right angles to them, is a set of 24 conveyor belts. Your hopper opens up over one of these conveyors, depending on which button the Primary sorter pressed.

Leeds: Chutes leading to Secondary Sorting positions, May 1960 (POST 118/15751).

Leeds: Chutes leading to Secondary Sorting positions, May 1960 (POST 118/15751).

Each conveyor leads to a different Secondary Sorting station on the ground floor: one for each of the Primary Sorting buttons.

Leeds: Mechanical memory, [1959] (POST 118/16454).

Leeds: Mechanical memory, [1959] (POST 118/16454).

The sorting machine works thanks to this giant pinwheel memory machine in a glass cabinet. It translates the button presses into timed drops from the hopper train.

Leeds: Secondary Sorting position, Nov 1963 (POST 118/15813).

Leeds: Secondary Sorting position, Nov 1963 (POST 118/15813).

The Primary sorter pressed the Lancashire button, so here’s where you emerge: the Lancashire Secondary Sorting station. Here, the staff do more detailed sorting, working only with parcels addressed to Lancashire. You’ll go into one of those labelled bags on the right. Can you see the Rochdale bag? Maybe those Heinz parcels are going your way too?

Leeds: Outgoing chain, 1959 (POST 118/2418).

Your Rochdale bag goes onto the chain conveyor, which carries it out of the Sorting Office building.

Leeds: Loading platform, 1959 (POST 118/15810).

And you finish back in the loading yard, headed to Rochdale for further sorting and delivery. Meanwhile, a new crowd of parcels is going in through the trapdoors, on their way to experience the magnificence of Leeds Parcel Sorting Office.

A final look at the photographs before they’re packed away.

These prints are all going back into their protective boxes now. They won’t be opened again until long after they – and we – have moved to our new home at The Postal Museum. Hope to see you there.

– Matt Tantony, Archivist (Cataloguing)