Londoners puzzled at the arrival of new ‘post box’ mistake it for a stove, (Punch , January 1855)
The postman seems to have been a British institution for as long as we can remember. Every day (except Sundays and Bank Holidays), all over the country, the Royal Mail deliver letters and parcels (and a considerable amount of waste paper) in a system that has its roots in the 15th century. The first mention of the term ‘postman’ was in 1526 (according to the OED) and literally means someone who delivers a message by post.
The English postman really rose to prominence in popular culture after the introduction of the penny post by Rowland Hill in 1840. Hill’s innovation – to create a standard rate for letters – was followed up by the adoption of a (whisper it) French invention, the pillar box in the 1850s. Now ‘ordinary’ people could stay in touch with loved ones wherever they were in the country, just as long as they could read and write (or find someone that could) and had a penny for the stamp.
The arrival of the post (so much more exciting than the arrival of an email) was an event; if you had a relative or friend living far away, or serving in the armed forces, how special must it have been (in the days before telephones) to get a letter from them? As one contemporary remarked:
Who has not heard with pleasure the sharp, loud, firm ‘ rat-tat’ of the postman? What a stir it causes in the house!
Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)*
I am struggling to find out whether ‘postman’ is or was an official term. The title ‘letter-carrier’ seems to be interchangeable with postman and it certainly appears to mean the same thing. Given that postmen (and women these days) are out in all weathers, walking long distances, carrying heavy loads, and fighting off the attentions of over-anxious canine guards, they have retained our affection.
However, as this case shows not all ‘posties’ were held in high esteem, at least not by everyone, and not when they ‘let the side down’.
Senior Stoker (which sounds more like a job description than a name) was charged before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street Police Court with being ‘drunk and incapable while employed as a letter-carrier for the General Post-office’.
Stoker, the court was told, had been working for the post office for five years. He had been found, as the PO’s solicitor (Mr Breton Osborn) testified, ‘helplessly drunk while in charge of a bag containing several post letters which should have been delivered’. The charge was ‘serious’ he said, and ‘of great public importance’.
The postman had been found ‘staggering about helplessly drunk’ by PC Knighton (230C) in Greek Street, Soho at half-past three in the afternoon, the bag over his shoulder. The policeman stopped him and asked what he had in the sack. ‘Only some cold boiled beef’ replied Stoker. PC Knighton didn’t believe him, checked, and found it actually contained about 30 letters.
Imagine the consternation in the Police Court; here was a public servant who should have been delivering the missives and messages of love, hope and congratulations to homes in the West End when instead he was as a drunk as a lord and swaying through the streets.
Not only that but Stoker had apparently got himself inebriated fast. One witness, Edward Powell (the assistant overseer of the Western District post-office) declared that Stoker had left the office at 2.15 and then he was sober. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have been allowed to start his deliveries.
In his (albeit very weak) defence Stoker said that he ‘was short of food’ and ‘some drink he had in the morning took effect on him later in the day’. That must have been some delayed reaction if he was telling the truth. More likely he had met some ‘pals’ and stopped for some refreshment in a local beer-house.
The magistrate, Newton, asked Mr Osborn if Stoker would be dismissed from his job. That did ‘not always follow’, the Post Office’s solicitor explained, it was ‘at the discretion of the Postmaster-General’. Mr Newton was pretty convinced that this sort of behaviour should mean that Stoker lost his job, and said so, but in the meantime he fined him £5 or one month in prison.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 08, 1880]
*http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm [accessed 7 April 2017]