Thank you gifts for letter carriers, an unpopular ban and petitions across the country. Read about the history of these Victorian Christmas treats.

During the Victorian era, it was traditional to give letter carriers (known as postmen from 1883) a token of appreciation at Christmas, rather like we give tips to waiters and waitresses for good service today. In my previous blog you can read about when The Post Office started its first parcel delivery service.

London Twopenny Post Letter Carrier, later known as London District Letter Carrier, Period of use of uniform 1837-1855 (2011-0463)

These tokens were known as Christmas boxes, gifts or gratuities. Although the form that these tokens of appreciation took is not described in official papers (probably because everyone knew what they were) they almost certainly took the form of money or alcohol. There are a number of pleas from the Postmaster General in his annual reports asking members of the public not to get letter carriers drunk!

It is not clear when this tradition began but it is described as happening from ‘time immemorial’ and being a national custom. As we shall see, this custom was of immense importance to letter carriers and it was a brave person who dared to interfere with it!

‘An oppressive tax’

In July 1852, Lord Hardwicke, who was Postmaster General (head of the Post Office), issued an instruction to ‘all Postmasters, Sub-Postmasters, Clerks, Letter Receivers, Letter Carriers, Post Messengers, and others, employed in the Service of the Post Office’ banning ‘any officer’ from soliciting for Christmas gifts from the public.

Instruction re Ban on Solicitation of Christmas Boxes (POST 30-1812)

Lord Hardwicke considered the solicitation to be an ‘oppressive tax’ that would seriously affect the conduct of Post Office officials towards those unwilling or unable to pay. It seems that he did not object to letter carriers being given Christmas gifts if this was done voluntary but more to the active solicitation by officials. This instruction led to what one minute written many years later described as ‘agitation … throughout the kingdom.’

Friends in high places

Letter carriers quickly tried to have the ban lifted. The attempt to do so shows how important it was to have friends in high places, which letter carriers in London obviously did!

John Masterman, MP, wrote to the Postmaster General on 30 July 1852 stating that his ‘Letter Carrying Friends’ were alarmed that they would receive no compensation for being deprived of ‘Christmas Gifts’. He went onto say that

‘These men have laborious duties to perform & any little deprivation of this kind materially affects their small incomes’

A deputation consisting of John Masterman and others was received by Lord Colonel Maberly, Secretary of the Post Office, on 13 August 1852 to discuss the matter.

Mr Smith, Superintending President, London District Post, and Mr Bokenham, Superintending President, Inland Office, wrote a letter on 7 August 1852 setting out how seriously such a ban would affect letter carriers in London. They noted that ‘The number of Letter Carriers of every description who participate in these gratuities is upwards of 1300; the sum divided amongst them is not less than £8000 a year. There are few that get less than £1, some £5, others £10, and in some cases more than this. In most cases, the senior men get the largest amounts as they work the best walks.’

The representations worked and letter carriers in London, Edinburgh and Dublin were exempted from the ban.

Agitation throughout the kingdom

Portsmouth

On 13 September 1852, letter carriers in Portsmouth and neighbouring towns met and decided to petition the Postmaster General for an increase in wages to compensate for being banned from soliciting for Christmas gratuities.

They also agreed that ‘the more extended and simultaneous the movement, the greater would be the prospect of success for all’; therefore they decided to print their petition and send it to the letter carriers in each post town, along with a letter suggesting that they wrote to the Postmaster General with a similar petition (or one that set out the views and circumstances that they faced).

Printed Letter from Portsmouth (POST 30-1812)

Printed Petition from Portsmouth (POST 30-1812)

In all 369 memorials (petitions) were received. These memorials, some of which are held within the museum, provide a rare and poignant insight into what life was like for letter carriers prior to the introduction of pensions, holiday and sick pay. While most of these memorials followed along similar lines as the one written above some deviated as you will see from the examples below.

Leeds

Letter carriers in Leeds pointed out that prohibiting them from asking for Christmas boxes or gratuities would ‘make a difference in the wages of the undersigned of from two to three shillings per week, a serious reduction in our limited incomes. By recent additions to the mails here, our hours of labour have been increased by two hours per day & without any addition to our wages.’

The memorial was signed by James Toakley and 19 others.

Leeds memorial from Christmas Boxes: soliciting by Postmen, papers 1846-1910, part 1 (POST 30/1812)

Norwich Post Office

Letter carriers from Norwich said, amongst other things, that ‘their several duties have latterly increased through the extension of buildings in all directions, the growth of population and the avowed increase of Letters, whilst for many years there has been no increase of hands to distribute them, ‘til at length their physical energies are daily exhausted, and their duties rendered painfully onerous.’

They went onto say that ‘in casual sickness our pay cease, that a holiday is never granted us, & on becoming superannuated by age or infirmity, as there is no provision for us, as is known to be the case in other branches of the Government service, the poor house is our only refuge; for the weekly wages we receive & for which we work seven days, afford no surplus to fly to in our need’.

The memorial was signed by John Coan and 7 others.

Norwich memorial from Christmas Boxes: soliciting by Postmen, papers 1846-1910, part 1 (POST 30/1812)

Glasgow Post Office

Letter carriers from Glasgow explained that their salaries were ‘only sixteen and seventeen shillings per week with the exception of the four senior letter carriers who receive eighteen shillings per week which is a Salary below the ordinary wages of mechanics of this city, and having nothing now but their small salary to depend upon they will scarcely be able to maintain the Respectability of appearance that is expected by their superiors and the public.’

The memorial was signed by James Walker and 57 others.

Glasgow memorial from Christmas Boxes: soliciting by Postmen, papers 1846-1910, part 1 (POST 30/1812)

How much were Christmas boxes worth?

The memorials above show why these Christmas boxes were considered to be so important.

Further evidence is provided by financial returns for 1847-1848 that set out how much the public gave. London letter carriers alone were given £8000 (worth approximately £641,000 today). A skilled tradesman would have needed to work for about 40,000 days or just over 109 years to earn that kind of money!

Dublin letter carriers were given £425 (worth around £34,000 today). Enough to pay the wages of a skilled tradesman for 2125 days or almost six years. As we can see these gifts were worth a lot of money.

The Postmaster General holds firm

Despite receiving all these memorials, Lord Hardwicke held firm and a circular (instruction to staff), dated November 1852, was drawn up stating that the ban on solicitation would not be overturned. It is not clear if this was sent out, but it does show that he had not been persuaded to change his mind.

Printed Circular, Nov 1852 (POST 30-1812)

Victory

However, Lord Canning, Lord Hardwicke’s successor, must have realised how deeply unpopular the ban was because in April 1853 it was withdrawn.

Find out more about The Post Office in the Victorian times on your visit.

– Louise Todd, Archivist