Archivist Susannah uncovers how Telegram Messengers went about their daily duties by exploring one of their first-hand accounts.

Telegraph services started to operate in the UK around the 1850s. These were firstly run by private companies. It wasn’t until 1870 that the Post Office took over all telegraph services in the country. Since then and until 1982, they employed a new division: the Telegram Messengers.

Who were the Telegram Messengers?

The Telegram Messengers, or Boy Messengers as they were also known, were mostly young boys aged between 13 to 17 depending on the time period. One of many roles in the Post Office, they were in charge of delivering telegrams. These often contained vital messages, bringing joy and sometimes great sadness too. A big responsibility, although they seem to have found time to have some fun too!

Two boys play table tennis while others watch. They are wearing their Telegram Messenger uniform.
Four white boys in uniform play darts.
Boys playing darts at the Boy Messengers' Institute in London, [1937] (POST 118/16691)

In 2012, Jim (Dusty) Miller, a former Boy Messenger, kindly wrote down some of his memories for The Postal Museum. These follow below.

Dusty’s story

I remember how excited I was to receive the letter that told me to report for duty at the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) on 15 May 1946, having passed the medical and scraping in a half inch above the minimum height required of four feet ten and a half inches.

After a brief welcome, I was passed from office to office, signing and filling in various forms. I was also given my weekly allocation of meal vouchers each worth 1/- [1 shilling, about £2.50 in today’s money]. Finally, I was taken to the Chief Inspector of Messengers.

My duties would consist of 6 eight-hour shifts which could start as early as 7am and finish as late as 7pm. I would be allowed a 40-minute meal break each day plus a breakfast or tea break of 20 minutes at the Inspectors’ discretion.

My starting pay would be 21/6 per week [21 shillings and 6 pence, about £52 in today’s money]. I would be given two uniforms a year, one winter and one summer weight. I would also receive one pair of shoes and one pair of boots a year, plus overcoat and walking cape (to be replaced when I outgrew them), and a pillbox-type hat with badge that was unique to me.

A blue pillbox cap with peak, red edges and red bottom at the top.

Boy Messenger’s peaked cap, 1911 (2011-0106)

My holiday entitlement was 12 days a year to be taken between May and October. The senior boys had first choice so junior messengers like me had to take our holidays in either May or October.

Having been told all the terms and conditions I was whisked away to the Inspector in charge of the stores. Here I was measured for my uniform, given my pouch belt and armband (these had to suffice until my uniform was ready) and walking cape.

Blue armband with red embroidered text that reads ‘Boy Messenger E.C. 100’. This is within two concentric circles also in red. The armband has a metal buckle and five metal eyelets.
Brown leather belt with silver buckle. The leather is worn from use.
Messenger's Belt, c. 1958 (OB1995.459/21)
Black leather rectangular pouch about 13cm high, 19cm wide and 4cm deep, with a metal clasp.
Telegram Messenger's Pouch, 1967 (OB1996.290)

I was then taken to the delivery room which was located at the rear of the CTO. The delivery room was a fairly large room with some of its windows still bricked up following the war. It had three large desks in the corner set in an L shape. The Inspectors in charge sat at two of them, one was responsible for sending the boys out on deliveries. He worked out the time it took to deliver the telegrams by allotting a time for the farthest point of call then adding 2 minutes for each other telegram. The other one booked you back in and decided when you should have your meal break, etc.

When I arrived in the delivery room I was allocated to a Senior Messenger whose job it was to teach me the walking part of the area. I was told that I would be taught by him for two weeks then I would go to a School in Chelsea for a two day course to learn about the forms we were expected to use then I would be sent out on my own (a daunting prospect).

The room also contained a number of wooden forms [another word for benches] where messengers sat between deliveries, and it also contained a number of bicycles. These were the heavy old red bicycles used by the Post Office at the time.

A Telegram Messenger next to his bike and in front of a house with the number 30 on its gate. He looks down at his pouch as he gets a telegram out of it.
A young Telegram Messenger looks down at a telegram a man is writing on a paper form. The man is wearing a suit and hat and is smoking a cigar. Behind them is a train carriage with open doors.
Boy Messenger at Paddington Station wearing a large, illuminated badge so he can be seen in the crowds, 1935 (POST 118/424)

I started delivering telegrams by easy stages firstly by delivering the addresses close to the office then as my confidence and knowledge grew to addresses further away. I continued to learn the area until one day I was asked whether I would like to become a cycling messenger. I immediately agreed and was told that I would have to pass a test first. This entailed cycling up the narrow road at the rear of the CTO and turning round without falling off. A Senior Messenger watched and he decided whether you had passed or failed.

 

 

Dusty stayed with the Post Office and went on to become a Postman when he turned 18.


Learn more about the Telegram Messenger boys from other first-hand testimonies and a unique display case at our Dressed to Deliver exhibition, opened until September 2024.