The Post Office and Christmas in the Victorian era

Reveal intriguing insights into the Victorian postal service with Archivist Louise.

The Victorian era heralded the introduction of the Christmas card. It also saw the tradition of exchanging presents at Christmas become firmly established.

This had a major impact on the Post Office, which had to deal with a big increase in the amount of mail being posted in the days leading up to Christmas and even on Christmas Day! This can be traced through the records that we have here at The Postal Museum.

J F Herring, The Postman, 1840 (OB1994.107)

The amount of mail being posted for Christmas cannot have been that significant in the early 1870s because it did not merit a mention in the annual reports of the Postmaster General (the head of the Post Office) until the late 1870s.

In his annual report of 1878, the Postmaster General said that it had been estimated that during the Christmas and New Year’s season of 1877 ‘4,500,000 letters’ had passed through the Inland Branch in addition to all the usual correspondence.

He noted that ‘A large portion of this additional matter reached the Chief Office [St Martin’s le Grand, London] on Christmas morning. About 1,000 extra bags had to be brought into use.’ He went onto say that:

PMG Annual Report, 1878, Excerpt from Page 10

Christmas 1879

The museum holds a file that gives an interesting insight into how difficult the Post Office was finding Christmas by 1879. It was noted that the ‘figures are truly startling. We are told that the extra weight of registered letters was three and a half tons; that the ordinary letters over and above the usual number exceeded nine millions and that the value in postage is estimated at more than £50,000.’

This was attributed to Christmas cards (which formed ‘the great bulk of it’), ‘Charitable appeals, and Reports which are posted in large numbers for delivery on Christmas morning’ and ‘Trade Circulars and bills’. Not unnaturally this put pressure on the workforce ‘to such an extent as to tax to the very utmost the physical endurance of the men.’

‘Post early’

One way in which the Post Office attempted to tackle the mountain of Christmas mail was to ask the public to post their cards early. The earliest notice that we hold relating to this plea dates from 1879, although you may be surprised to learn that posting early then meant doing so on 24 December!

Notice re Posting Early for Christmas, Dec 1879 (POST 30/407C)

The Post Office also advised the public when they needed to post mail abroad so that it would reach the intended recipients in time.

Notice re posting for places abroad, Oct 1889 (POST 107/975)

Deliveries on Christmas Day

As you will see from the notice below, dating from December 1880, the public could expect to receive a delivery on Christmas Day.

Christmas Day Postal Arrangements Notice, Dec 1880 (POST 107/972)

Interestingly, there is a reference in a notice from 1850 suggesting that it was an ‘annual custom’ to only have a delivery in the morning on Christmas Day in London.

Christmas Delivery in London Notice, 1850 (POST 107/797)

Christmas deliveries ended in 1961 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in Scotland in 1966.

Inclement weather

Apart from the problems associated with dealing with so much mail at Christmas the Post Office also had to contend with sometimes inclement weather conditions. Not only did it make moving the vast quantities of cards, letters and parcels more challenging because the mail trains might be delayed it could also make the public reluctant to post mail early.

Bath Mail Coach or Old Coaching Lines, 1879 (OB2001.41)

The perils of intoxication

During the Victorian era, it was customary to give letter carriers (known as postmen from 1883) a token of appreciation over Christmas and the New Year for work they had done. Unfortunately, this could take the form of alcohol, which could mean dismissal for any letter carrier discovered to be drunk while on duty. This appears to have been particularly prevalent in Manchester.

It was reported that in Christmas 1872 there had been more cases of drunkenness that Mr Beaufort, the Postmaster and District Surveyor could remember, ‘the fault, in almost every instance, resting with the public; who cannot be prevailed upon to exercise ordinary discretion in their mode of testifying their satisfaction with the Letter Carriers, and who will give them drink.’ The Postmaster General appealed ‘to all concerned to refrain henceforth from manifesting their approval of the conduct of the Letter Carriers in a way which is in truth the reverse of real kindness.’

The appeal seems to have been heeded because Mr Beaufort reported fewer cases of drunkenness over the Christmas holidays the following year. Mr Hobson, the Postmaster of Glasgow backed this up noting that

‘at the last New Year’s Day, always, as he observes, a trying time in Scotland, he had not a single man under the influence of liquor.’


Discover more on Victorian Christmas post in our blogs – Victorian Parcel Post and Victorian Christmas Boxes.

– Louise Todd, Archivist

Sign up to our newsletter for stories of extraordinary communication and more.