Curator Stuart explores the fascinating history of the River Postman, a role that stayed in the same family for nearly 150 years.

As a Curator at The Postal Museum part of my job is to share stories through the objects in the museum’s collections, both in the museum and here online. When researching ideas for a new display, one story that immediately grabbed my attention was the story of the Thames River Postman – a family tale and a story unlike any other.  

This is a very old, black and white photograph of a middle-aged bearded man sat in a long wooden boat, known as a skiff. He wears a dark uniform and a straw boaters hat. He has a long wooden oar in each hand and is looking directly at the camera.

River Postman George Henry Evans in his ‘skiff’ at the turn of the 20th century.

History of the River Postman

In 1800 the Pool of London (the section of the Thames from London Bridge to just below Tower Bridge) employed its first River Postman, a Waterman named William Simpson. The Thames was very different in that period – it was lively, overcrowded in parts with house boats, barges, sailing vessels and generally brimming with life. It was for these reasons a designated Postman was necessary. 

A very formal, bright red 'frock coat', worn by Postmen. It has dark red, velvet cuffs and collar, and gold buttons down the middle and up the sleeves. The bottom is quite frilly, almost like the hem of a dress.

Frock coat typically worn by the River Postman, c.1800

In order to work on the Thames, it was a requirement for the River Postman (and anyone for that matter) to become an apprentice of the Waterman and Lighterman Company, an historic City guild

The River Postman was responsible for delivering and collecting letters from the various vessels on the river, delivering goods and occasionally ferrying people. Operating on the river with its many dangers was no ordinary postal round. All year round they had to manage the tide, winds, cold and fog – not to mention the ships and barges – making this a perilous task and one that required high levels of skill to succeed in.  

The first River Postman, William Simpson, deserves a lot of credit for the initiation of the role. He sent a letter, backed, and signed by many merchants, captains, and owners, to the Post Office claiming that it would “greatly facilitate business” for this role to exist. 

Simpson, with an assistant, started in the role on 10 February 1800. An extra penny was charged initially for every letter delivered or collected, which he would receive at the end of each quarter, making this a more lucrative role than an ordinary Postman. But also an incredibly dangerous one.

In a letter written in 1821 by a later River Postman, Samuel Evans Senior, he gave a clear indication of the dangerous nature of the job: 

‘I must inform you of the accident that happened to the Post Boat on Monday through the violence of the wind. I was delivering a letter on board the Ship Albion near the Tower, when a barge came down and sunk the boat and with great difficulty, I saved my life.’


The first River Postman William Simpson sadly died in 1806 due to injuries caused by falling down the open hold of a ship whilst on his round. Simpson’s assistant had drowned while on duty three years earlier, so his natural successor was not available.

Simpson’s widow produced and sent a petition to the Postmaster General Francis Freeling asking that her son, William Simpson Junior, be allowed to take on his father’s position as River Postman. He was only 16 and was not yet eligible, but having already assisted his father in the role, he was awarded a vote of confidence by the Post Office. Sadly, this trust did not pay off. 

In 1810 whilst at work, the young William Simpson stole £20 notes from an envelope. A warrant for his arrest followed leading to his capture and imprisonment. Simpson was sentenced to death by hanging. This sentence was later reduced to transportation to Australia for a lifetime of labour.  

The photocopy of the old arrest warrant is a bit crinkles and looks old. The text reads "Wm Simpson, a letter carrier, employed on the River is strongly suspected of Felony. Whoever shall apprehend him will be entitled to a reward of £100. He is about 20 Years of age, stout made, rather tall - has dark brown hair, straight - brown eyes- fair skin- some colour in his face; was dressed in a red silk handkerchief about his neck - blue coat with yellow metal buttons, striped waistcoat, yellow - knit pantaloons striped, white colour - hessian boots and a round hat. He went in a Hackney Coach about 10 o'clock last night from Brick Fields, Dock Head. By command of the postmaster general, Francis Freeling, Secretary.

Arrest Warrant poster

This controversy did not end the river letter service, as it had become a valuable resource for the ships on the Thames. Instead, Simpson’s assistant Samuel Evans was appointed, marking the start of a family dynasty unlike any other.

The role was then passed mostly from father to son from 1810 to 1952 when the service was terminated.  

Order of Service         Served 

William Simpson Snr.  1800 – 1806 

William Simpson Jnr. 1806 – 1810 

Samuel Evans Snr.     1810 – 1832 

Samuel Lowden Evans Jnr.   1832 – 1845 

Samuel Evans Jnr. (son)   1845 – 1856 

George Thomas Evans (brother) 1856 – 1885 

George Henry Evans (son)    1885 – 1914 

Herbert Lionel Evans (son)    1914 – 1952 

Bringing the River Postman story to life

A lot of the information I acquired, including insights such as this, were made possible by meeting Clifford Evans – the youngest Grandson of Herbert Lionel Evans, the last Thames River Postman.

Clifford wrote a four-part article on the subject in 2017 which I found online that helped a great deal with understanding the story. I also found his contact details. 

It was my intention to create a display in the museum on this fascinating subject, and it was clear that Clifford had a lot of great content, far more than we did at the museum. I wanted to arrange a possible loan of some of these items. Clifford was happy to meet me at the museum to discuss the subject where he unexpectedly donated his entire family history collection, relevant to the story, to the museum.

His collection consisted of photographs, news articles and further research that he has personally carried out, which provides a deep insight into the lives of the River Postmen. Although not a postal worker himself, Clifford is proud of his family’s legacy and welcomed The Postal Museum’s interest into his family lineage. There are some incredible photographs within the collection. The earliest includes three Evans’s all of which will have served as River Postman. 

Everyone in this photograph looks very Victorian. Only the 3 small children sat at the bottom of the picture are smiling. The two rows of adults, a mixture of men and women look stoic. Not all look directly at the camera. A few of the people are quite blurry. Everyone has dark hair apart from the elderly gentle man sat in the middle of the second row, two women either side of him. He has white hair and a white bushy beard. The top row of people stand boy, girl, boy, girl, boy girl.

H.L.Evans bottom middle, G.T.Evans middle row, and G.H.Evans top right

Clifford spoke with great pride about how the boats used, known as ‘skiffs’, were named after the River Postman’s mother. The Postman supplied their own skiffs and oars, with the costs and repairs covered by the Post Office. 

The last River Postmen

George Henry Evans was River Postman for 29 years. When he retired, he was awarded the Imperial Service Medal, given to civil servants with a good record having served at least 25 years. His boat “Jessie” was put to rest following his retirement.

All 20 men in this black and white photo have facial hair, except two, the youngest looking men. The first two rows of men are sat down, the back row stands up. All look at the camera with varying degrees of happiness on their faces. George Evans looks to be the heaviest set man of the lot, the rest are fairly slight. They all wear postal uniforms; trousers, a tie and waistcoat, a thick jacket and shiny black shoes.

George Henry Evans (far left) with his colleagues in the EDO (Eastern District Office), where he will have collected his mail

In 1914, George retired his skiff and handed over the duty to his son, and assistant, Herbert who became the last River Postman.

It’s a position Herbert would go on to hold for a staggering 38 years. Herbert also received an Imperial Service Medal for his services and his time as a River Postman is the best documented in photos of all who had the job. They tell the story of this remarkable role perfectly: 

Herbert stands in the skiff, which is oared to a dock by a thick rope, handing a letter to a man, stood next to his young family. The woman stood next to the man, bending over to grab the letter, wears a white smock and is carrying a little girl, also in a dress. An older little girl stands on the far right of her family holding her toy pram.
Herbet climbs up a rickety rope ladder, hanging off the side of a large ship. The ladder isn't fixed at the bottom of the boat, so climbing up and down would require a lot of core strength!
H.L. Evans c.1924
Herbert, wearing his uniform and white sack slung over his shoulder, hands a stack of letters to a man, popping up from below deck of his ship. You can see the steam from the ship's engine coming out of the chimney on the boat.
Herbert delivering mail
Herbert looks much older in this image than he does in the previous. An older, larger Herbert, with greying hair once again has his trusty white sack slung over his shoulder. He is walking along a wooden bridge, which leads away from a large industrial warehouse. The bridge goes over the Thames.
Herbert possibly on his last shift in 1952
Herbert stands on one of the seats of his skiff, handing a white envelope up towards a man stood on the dock. Herbert is wearing his all black uniform, with postman cap, with a white sack tossed over his shoulder. The man he is handing the letter to looks directly at the camera and wears baggy looking dark clothes, a hat and a long trench coat.
Herbert possibly delivering his last ever letter as River Postman, 1952

Towards the middle of the 20th Century the nature of the Pool of London had changed significantly. It was no longer the community of boat dwellers and local merchants it once had been, but more of a haven for industrial shipping and a passage through for huge commercial ships. The many dangers for a River Postman in a small vulnerable skiff, plus the decrease in actual mail to be collected and delivered, saw the end of the role entirely. Herbert the sixth and final Thames River Postman named Evans.

Today it’s hard to imagine a job like this existing on the Thames, but we feel fortunate through the museum collections and through the donation and research of Clifford Evans to be able to share this wonderful story. 

A middle aged, stocky and tall, white man wearing glasses stands in front of a museum display case. He is dressed in smart-casual attire with a zip up fleece, black suit trousers and comfy shoes on.

Cliff Evans visiting the River Postman display at The Postal Museum

A display of the River Postman story will be included in the museum’s permanent exhibition from Monday 3 July. 

You can watch a video produced in 1933, “The River Postman – A cameo of the Thames”, about Mr Evans, The River Postman.