The Pandemic Victorian Post Office

Categories:

Professor David Green and Dr Laura Newman, King’s College London


Much has been written in the news lately about how best to protect the health of postal workers during a pandemic. At a time when we’re all beginning to reconsider what or who constitutes a ‘vital’ worker, it’s becoming increasingly apparent just how critical Royal Mail workers are. Both Royal Mail employers and employees have played a big part in this: they have been designated as an essential service by the government, and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) has suspended planned strike action. Postal workers will become even more critical if plans to distribute home testing kits for Covid-19 are scaled up.

But Royal Mail workers today face a difficult job, and not just because of growing traffic in parcels of essential goods —such as medicine — as people self-isolate. Recently, CWU members have staged walkouts following complaints about a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and insufficient working space to observe government rules about social distancing. Dave Ward, Secretary General of the CWU, has criticised bosses for continuing to prioritise commercial mail, and failing to protect its workers by not implementing rotational working patterns. Ward expressed fears over the effects this could have not just for Royal Mail staff, but for the public at large: “many of our members […] [worry] they could become ‘super-spreaders’”.

These are not recent concerns, however. Because of the public-facing nature of much employment in the Victorian Post Office, and the handling of letters and parcels in London that circulated throughout the entire country, there has always been concern about the spread of infectious disease through contact with the mail. Much of this concern focused on the dangers that such diseases posed to staff. The Victorian Post Office provided relatively generous rates of sick pay and free medical care – the former to encourage workers to report sickness earlier and the latter to check against malingering. Postal staff were expected to quarantine themselves if they or a family member became sick from diseases such as scarlet fever, for example, and the Post Office Medical Service provided free vaccinations for all staff for diseases such as smallpox.

A drawing of a street and corner view of the General Post Office St Martin's le Grand.
St Martin’s le Grand,1892. Lantern Slide reproduced courtesy of The Postal Museum.

At the same time, there were often complaints that the working conditions of the Post Office were often responsible for the spread of these kinds of diseases.  These concerns became very apparent during the 1889–90 influenza epidemic, where postal workers across the country were amongst the first reported to have contracted the illness. At the General Post Office in London a third of the staff were reported as having contracted the flu, though it was frequently recorded as catarrh, cold, fever or something similar for the purposes of official expediency or because of inadequate diagnoses. Telegraphists, who worked in two large rooms at the General Post Office building in St Martin’s le Grand, were very severely affected, with over 38 per cent of the workforce contracting the disease. Commentators at the time were aware of how the cramped conditions might have encouraged flu to spread through the workforce. Unions were active, too, in trying to agitate for conditions to better protect staff from the dangers posed by infectious disease: in the interwar period, for example, workers complained frequently about the ‘death germs’ they encountered when handling damaged parcels.

This new phase in the medical history of the Post Office that we’re all witnessing reminds us that these are not new problems: rather, managing the spread of disease has been a concern that has long plagued postal employers, employees, and the public, too. The tension amounts to the fact that all kinds of physical communication – including the postal kind – leaves us vulnerable in a pandemic. At the same time, however, that very same communication is also critical to our collective physical and mental well-being. As a project, we will be spending the next few years thinking about how Post Office employers tried – and often failed – to articulate and resolve such tensions in ways that pleased both its workers and its public. In the meantime, perhaps consider putting up a note to your postie to say thanks.

 

About the Authors: David Green is Professor of Human Geography at King’s College London and the Principal Investigator on the Wellcome-funded project ‘Addressing Health: Morbidity, Mortality and Occupational Health in the Victorian and Edwardian Post Office’. Laura Newman is the project’s Postdoctoral Research Associate and is also based at King’s. The project is examines the timing and geography of ill health in the Post Office, and links between health and mortality. You can follow the project on Twitter or via its website.

Thanks to the Postal Museum for allowing us to reproduce the lantern slide. For more information, see http://catalogue.postalmuseum.org/collections/getrecord/GB813_2010_0426_02

 

One response to “The Pandemic Victorian Post Office

  1. Dear David and Laura

    I’m writing from the new community newspaper for the EC1/ Clerkenwell/Smithfield area, the EC1 Echo. https://www.ec1echo.co.uk/

    I am planning the next issue (June/July) with a Covid-19 theme and really enjoyed the above post.

    The Mount Pleasant Post Office and Postal Museum are both in our area, the former being one of the biggest local employers.
    Would you be prepared to allow us to use the above blog post, with due credits? We can’t pay, I’m afraid, but it would be a piece of great interest and we would be delighted to add any credit you wanted. We’d get our own picture.

    Please see our website above for an idea of how it might look. Our hard copy circulation is 5,500 (via doors and selected cafes, libraries, restaurants etc). We are backed by the Peel Centre in Islington and published by a social enterprise publisher, Social Spider. We’re doing it to provide information and news – and also to celebrate the Clerkenwell area at a time of change.

    Do hope you can help.

    Best wishes and thanks,

    Oliver Bennett
    EC1 Echo editor,
    134 Farringdon Road EC1R 3AP
    07764 941873

Leave a Reply to Oliver P Bennett Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *