Working for the Post Office

Not all Post Office employees were Postmen. Staff were employed in a variety of roles, from Boy Messenger to Telegraphist to Packet Ship Captain.

Postmasters and Postmistresses

Postmasters were originally known as ‘Deputies’ when the postal service or ‘King’s Posts’ first began in the early 1500s. They ran local postal services as deputies to the head of the service, the ‘Master of the Posts’, later known as the Postmaster General. The earliest letters we have to Postmasters from headquarters about local services and salaries date from 1672 onwards. There are also records of appointments of a few women as Postmistresses as early as the 1680s.

In later centuries, Postmasters would usually have worked their way up through the ranks of the Post Office, learning the business and passing examinations in order to qualify for the responsibility of the position. This would include managing all the postal services offered and sending reports and accounts to Head Office.

‘Watford – Postmaster’s office’. Black and white photograph. 1935. (POST 118/413)

Sub-Postmasters and

Most Sub-Postmasters and Sub-Postmistresses were not employed directly by the Post Office (as is often the case today). They had a main business, like a shop or blacksmith’s, which also offered post office services. Like Postmasters they had to know all the rules and regulations, of which there were many, in order to provide postal services effectively and report on them.

‘Sub-Post Office, Latimer (interior)’. Black and white photograph. 1947. (POST 118/1793)

Letter Carriers and Postmen

Until well into the 19th century letters were delivered by the ‘Letter Carrier’. This job title was changed in 1883 to the one familiar to us of ‘Postman’. They could be employed in an ‘established’ role, which meant they were entitled to a pension and other benefits, or in an ‘unestablished’ role, which gave fewer benefits (this applied to other roles in the Post Office too). The roles were mostly filled by men. It was not until after the First World War that there began to be more Postwomen.

‘Letter Carrier (Joe Hunt)’ – Watercolour Painting. 1842. Artist: Livock. (2004-0184)

A Postman’s Day

A postman’s day would begin with sorting the letters for his route, known as a ‘walk’. He would then walk, or once bicycles were invented he might cycle, along his route delivering letters in all weathers.

‘Bristol Sorting Office’. Black and white photograph showing postmen sorting mail. 1938. (POST 118/823)

Town and Country Deliveries

In cities and towns there were several deliveries a day, six days a week. In some areas there were Sunday deliveries too. In rural areas especially, the routes could be very long and might be completed on foot, on horseback or even by boat.

One anecdotal account of a Victorian postman’s country route gives it as 17 miles, which he walked 7 days a week (with every other Sunday off). As well as delivering letters, rural postmen might also accept letters from customers to be posted.

‘Wisbech - postman delivering by boat’. Black and white photograph. 1937. (POST 118/591)

Telegraph Messengers

Telegraph services were at first provided by private companies. However, in 1870 a monopoly for running the telegraph service was given, by law, to the Post Office.

Boys between the ages of 13 and 17 were employed to deliver the messages. To be appointed, they had to live within a reasonable distance of their workplace, be not less that 4ft 8in in height (without boots!) and show a ‘satisfactory’ health certificate. They also had to pass an exam covering English, handwriting, geography, arithmetic, spelling and history.

‘CTO [Central Telegraph Office] delivery room’. Black and white photograph. 1947. (POST 118/1788)

A high standard of behaviour was required: ‘Wearing as they do the uniform of the Queen, they are under an obligation to conduct themselves in a manner which shall never bring that uniform into disrepute’.

They were expected to attend classes to enable them to progress in the Post Office. Most became Assistant Postmen from the age of 16 onwards, and later Postmen. They could also apply for other roles in the Post Office, for example as a Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist or in the Engineering Department.

Girls were not employed as messengers initially, however there are records showing some were employed from the First World War onwards.

Working Conditions

Around the late 19th century and early 20th century, Boy Messengers worked 50 hours a week, usually between the hours of 8am-8pm, although in some larger offices it could be between 6am-9pm. They had 12 days holiday a year, sick pay and free medical care if their Office had a Medical Officer. They did not receive any contributions to a pension.

This is an original account written by a London Telegraph Messenger in 1895:

‘The daily routine is: on arrival, signing on duty, then delivery till dinner: after dinner…delivery till your duty terminates. A kitchen is supplied for the boys, over which an overseer presides.’

‘Telegraph boy/Telegram messenger on a Bicycle’ – Lantern Slide. Early 20th Century. (2010-0461)

Bicycles to Motorcycles

In 1897 the Post Office began to provide bicycles for Boy Messengers. Then in 1933 the use of motorcycles was trialled in Leeds, where boys of 17 years were able to volunteer (with parental approval!). The trial was a success and motorcycles were quickly introduced in other towns and cities.

Motorcycles were ideally suited to the telegram service. The fleet was mainly BSA 125cc motorcycles and boys were expected to ride at an average of 15mph. This 1950s poster for internal post office use, advises motorcycle riders to ‘deliver the telegram quickly and safely’, and crucially, ‘to the right address’!

‘Deliver the telegram quickly, safely and to the right address’. Poster. April 1951. Artist: Pat Keely. (POST 110/1595

The last of the Boy Messengers

In 1944 the school leaving age was raised to 15 and then to 16 in 1972. So the Messengers would gradually have become older. Also, by the 1970s fewer people were sending telegrams and in 1977 the Post Office decided to abolish the inland telegram service. The service survived for a few more years finally coming to an end in 1982.

‘Telegram boy on motorcycle’. Black and white photograph. 1964. (POST 118/17832)

Sorting Clerks & Telegraphists

Before mechanisation in the 20th century, all post had to be sorted by hand.

‘The Post Office. Plate 63’ – Aquatint. 1809. Artists: [Augustus Charles] Pugin & [Thomas] Rowlandson. (2009-0070/1)

From 1870 onwards, in larger offices the roles of Sorter and Telegraphist were separate. However, there are many records of appointments in smaller offices to the combined role of Sorting Clerk & Telegraphist. The work covered a wide range of postal, telegraph and telephone duties. This included, sorting the post, telegram and telephone call operations, selling stamps, postal orders, sending money orders and dealing with savings bank and licence enquiries. They might also carry out typewriting duties at the local Branch or Head Office.

Recruitment and Training

To become a Sorting Clerk & Telegraphist you had to study and pass exams to gain a certificate in Radiotelegraphy, as well as in English, history, geography and arithmetic. You also had to have ‘satisfactory handwriting’! In the 1930s there was an age restriction of 15-17 years to apply to take the exams. Applicants also had to pass a medical and their height had to be ‘Not less than 5 feet (without boots).’

Boy Messengers and Girl Probationers were recruited as Sorting Clerks & Telegraphists if they passed the exams. If there were not enough applicants from these groups, then applications were opened up to those not already working for the Post Office. If appointed there was a probationary period of just over two years before becoming an ‘established’ Sorting Clerk & Telegraphist.

‘Prefabricated hutments, Ilford’. Black and white photograph of telegraphists. 1945. (POST 118/1587)

Working Conditions

Working hours in the 1930s were 48 hours a week over six days, including some Sundays. Male (but not female) Sorting Clerks & Telegraphists might work shifts very early in the morning or late at night. Males under 18 did not usually do night work. An ‘established’ Sorting Clerk & Telegraphist received 14 days leave a year in the first five years of employment and 21 days a year after that.

Working conditions have changed since then, but even now some post still has to be sorted by hand.

‘Manual primary sorting’. Black and white photograph. 1970. (POST 118/18564)


The Department of Travelling Surveyors was set up in 1715 to oversee postal business and practices. A Surveyor would ride around on horseback, with a portable writing desk or ‘slope’, carrying out random inspections of the Postmasters in their area. They would also request supplies for Postmasters and liaise between them and Head Office. The archive contains reports, maps and accounts which give an insight into the Surveyors’ work.

In the late 1700s, England was divided into six Districts. A Riding Surveyor was assigned to each one and there was one additional one, a certain Francis Freeling, with a ‘roving brief’. Freeling later became head of the Post Office and was responsible for significant postal reforms.

‘Armed and unarmed rides’ [in Mr Karstadt’s district]. Map. 1823. (POST 21/134)


In the early 1850s, a member of the Surveyors’ department was heavily involved in the introduction of the letter box to the UK. Although, he has become much more widely known for his activity outside the Post Office, as the author Anthony Trollope.

‘Queen Victoria Channel Islands Pillar Box’. One of the first pillar boxes introduced in the UK in a trial overseen by Anthony Trollope in 1853. (OB1996.653)

Post-War Change

By the 20th century, there were 21 Surveyors covering provincial and metropolitan districts. However, times were changing after the First World War. In the 1920s-1930s developments in technology and telephones, as well as the organisation of the Post Office, meant that the role of the Surveyor was no longer fit-for-purpose.

‘Watford – Assistant Surveyor checking accounts.’ Black and white photograph. 1935. (POST 118/414)

Then, in the 1930s there was a huge re-organisation in the way the Post Office was run, and the role of the Surveyor came to an end gradually between 1939-1942. Some Surveyors retired while others became Head Postmasters.

A Wide Range of Jobs

People worked in many other roles in the Post Office too. They included, for example, Medical Officers, Nurses, Telephonists and staff working in the Savings Bank, Engineering and Telephone Sections.

‘Post Office – Medical Department’. Black and white photograph. 1935. (POST 118/370)

Packet Ship Captains

In the 16th-20th centuries there were Packet Ship Captains, as well as Packet Ship Agents and shipping lines, such as the White Star Line, working for the Post Office. They operated mostly on a contract basis, transporting mails all over the world, sometimes at great risk.

‘Packet Ship Officer’ – Oil Painting. c.1750. Artist: circle of Thomas Gainsborough. (2004-0140)

Mail Guards

Mail Guards were the only post office employees aboard the horse-drawn mail coaches which ran in the 18th and 19th centuries. They had to keep the mail safe and ensure the mail coach ran on time. They carried a clock or ‘timepiece’, which they could not adjust, and had to fill out a ‘time bill’ proving the coach had run on time, or explaining why not if it was delayed.

‘Mail Guard’s Time Piece’. Wood and brass time piece. c.1820. (2009-0060/14)

Time for a Tea Break!

Like most of us, after all their hard work postal workers enjoy a cup of tea too!

‘L.P.S. [London Postal Service] Postmens Retiring Room. Tea Time’ – Lantern Slide. c.1930-c.1940. (2012-0049/13)

If you would like to find out more about any of these roles in the Post Office or research any ancestors that may have worked for the Post Office, please see the pages below and contact the archive team, or visit us in the Discovery Room.