‘Always at Work’: Oh to be a Post Office Horse?


Natasha Preger, King’s College London

We are delighted to share this blog, which was runner up in the 2022 SHS Postgraduate Prize. You can read the announcement here.

He begins his week’s work at four o’clock on Sunday afternoon; he ends it at half-past ten on Sunday morning; and at any time during that long week his is liable for instant service, and has only five and a half hours’ undisturbed rest … that is the only respite he is sure of – just enough, as it were, to go to church and digest the Sunday’s dinner.”

This quote did not detail the life of the Victorian postman, but that of the Post Office horse. It came from William John Gordon’s The Horse-World of London (1893), who was the author of other such works as How London Lives and The Story of Our Railways’. Despite the increasing presence of motorised vehicles in turn of the century London, Gordon’s work revealed the continued ubiquity of the horse in the city. He also covered an extensive range of equine duties. He wrote that ‘in the horse-world of London, the highest circle, the most exclusive set’ was that of the Queen’s horse’ but that it was the omnibuses that were ‘the greatest users of living horse power in London’. Nevertheless, it was ‘the mail horse’ that was the least conspicuous of draught animals’, being as they were overshadowed by the scarlet of the mail cart which accompanied them. Seemingly, even though Post Office horses worked such tiring hours, their toil went unnoticed. Gordon even extended this conclusion to the human postal worker as well. Yet, to work for the Post Office was seen as an opportunity not to be missed. This theme ran through much of the literature from the period.

Image of post office cart
Two horse contract mail van c. 1900
(With kind permission of the Post Museum)

From reading Gordon’s reflections on Post Office horses, it appears that they were overworked and underappreciated. To keep up with the mail, the Post Office horse was practically ‘always at work’, ‘what with ‘mail inwards’ in the morning, ‘mails interchangeable’ during the day, and ‘mails outwards’ at night’. Horses also had to work with the “foreign mail’s arriving before their time at all hours of the day and night’, on top of the length of the working week. The problems with this did not go unnoticed by Gordon. He even framed the Post Office horse as having responded to his workload in a characteristically human fashion, with ‘quite enough to employ and worry him’. This is then underscored with the note that, compared with the tram horses who were worked for four years and the omnibus horses who were worked for five, the mail horse had to wait six years on average to be released from service. From such perspectives, the lot of the Post Office horse does not seem to have been an enviable one.

Overall, however, Gordon’s assessment of the life of a Post Office horse is positive. Although they began work early, finished late, and had to keep up with the hustle and bustle of the nineteenth-century Post Office, Gordon stressed that mail horses were not often sick. For the most part, Gordon attributed this to the ways in which they were cared for. He was looked after and checked up throughout his working life, at the railway stations and at the various stables he moved between. The horses’ living quarters too were rigorously managed, regularly disinfected and scrupulously whitewashed. Such commitments help to explain as well why the Post Office horse cost more than his omnibus competitors. But, as Gordon stressed, the high costs proved worthwhile. Regardless of his workload, everything was done to keep the Post Office horse in good health, very much like his human colleagues.

Records from The Postal Museum show a similar view. A highlight of their collection is a note from 1898, which stated that ‘Mr T. C. Poppleton’s horse of the Post Office is suffering from sore shoulders’, rendering him unable to perform his regular duties. Consequently, the horse was granted sick leave. The horses’ diet was also of great importance. For instance, their forage was measured out and documented in detail, and depended on the amount of a horse had performed. There was an allowance for horses who had worked for longer than the average as well. If a horse had worked longer than five hours in a day, he was granted an extra 2lbs of corn. It was even acknowledged that, if underfed, hard work could not be expected of the horses and that — in cases of extreme hunger –the Post Office horse might resort to eating his bedding. Gordon also identified the importance of diet, and stated that ‘the Post Office horse is fed well – indeed, if he were not, he could not stand the work’. That this was so fastidiously overseen by the Post Office is noteworthy and demonstrates how important the work of the Post Office horse was.

It is true that Post Office horses could excite animosity. More so than their human counterparts, they could be unpredictable, and so were associated with inefficiency and risk in the workplace. In 1909 there was an inquiry into accidents involving mounted postmen and Post Office horses and if they qualified for compensation, for example. This also helps explain why they were so carefully managed. Furthermore, it provides an alternative way of thinking about how different postal workers worked together and saw each other, across occupational (and interspecies) boundaries.

So, would you have liked to have been a Post Office horse? Probably not, but it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which these non-human workers were better off in the Post Office than not. What is clear, however, is that the Post Office horse was integral to the successful running of the nineteenth-century Post Office. Postal workers were the ones who delivered and sorted the mail, but horses were the intermediaries who helped get it from place to place. They may have passed unnoticed alongside their human colleagues, but the service they facilitated did not.


About the author:

I am undertaking a doctorate at King’s College London on health care and worker responses in service sector occupations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I completed my BA in History at the University of Sheffield (2015 – 2018) and my MA in History at the University of Manchester (2018 – 2019). My main research interests concern how medical progress informed the Victorian and Edwardian workplace and the impact this had on the treatment and perception of workers, and how they responded to this. I am also interested in age (youth, adulthood and old age) as a category of difference, and how it can be utilised in histories of the body, of medicine, and of the workplace. I am passionate about interdisciplinary research and how this can improve the accessibility of research to wider audiences.

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