Regular readers of this column may recall that some past articles have referred to Harrogate’s postal history following the Post Master General’s 1797 decision to designate the town as an “independant post town”.
Another article mentioned the first James Street Post Office, which opened in 1865 in one of Richard Ellis’s buildings on the corner of Prince’s Street, later moving across James Street to one of George Dawson’s buildings on the corner of Petergate.
To the best of my recollection, I have never written about the men who delivered Harrogate’s mail, so I will try and remedy this omission this week. In 1885, only one year after Harrogate had become a proper municipality with wards, an electoral system and a mayor and corporation, the James Street Post Office had a handsome public room opening on to James Street, with a sorting office at the back, where the staff entrance was located, and - on the first floor - an instrument room, where various machines were located, and eventually, the early telephone exchange.
The post master at this time was a Mr I Johnson, who was in charge of a clerical staff of four men and three women. The male clerks were Mr DR Goodyear, who was chief clerk, and John Slater, William Strafford and David Forest. The female staff were Miss A Checkley, Miss Turnbull and Miss S Johnson, who was the post master’s sister.
In those days, staff tended to stay in their posts for long periods, which generated a strong bond of loyalty that was usually a two-way process. There were about 13 outdoor staff, or postmen, although their number was augmented in the summer with “auxiliaries”, who worked three hours in the morning and two in the evening. Victorian e-mails were a little slower than their modern counterparts, but it was possible for someone to send a postcard in Harrogate at 2pm to inform some other person in Harrogate that the sender would be late for their evening meal, the card being delivered before evening.
A typical day for an 1885 postman began with the 5.30am collection, followed by the 7am delivery completed by 9.15am. Then a collection at 10am to 10.45am followed by delivery between 11.45am and 2pm. The final collection and delivery round was between 4.30pm and 7.30pm.
This system meant a nine and a half hour working day, and on Sundays, a working day of 8am to 10.30am without extra pay. Postmen with an unblemished record were awarded gold bars on their uniforms, which were given every five years, and a gold bar entitled the wearer to an additional shilling a week. A postman with 15 years unblemished service could draw a wage of 25 shillings a week, and also enjoy holidays of 12 days a year, which had to be taken between January and March, or October to December, in order not to inconvenience the customers whose main use of the service was during the spring and summer months. Beginners were paid 16 shillings a week.
The postmen’s uniform seems to have been dark blue, and was provided by the post office. It consisted of a cap, jacket and trousers, with a big leather belt. The jacket buttoned up to the chin, and had a red uptight collar with a number and the letters GPO in brass. The buttons were also of brass, and the two at the back of the jacket were notorious for damaging any chairs against which the wearer might be tempted to lean.
The parcel post seems to have been established in 1884, but information on this subject is scarce. It seems that a retired policeman named Thomas Goodyear was placed in charge, and he was responsible for parcel delivery across the whole town. The oldest of the 1885 postmen was John Smith, who had once been Harrogate’s only postman, when the service had been run from the Park Parade office. His first uniform had been a long red coat with brass buttons, and a shiney top hat, which in winter was worn at his peril, as High Harrogate’s boys made it a target for snowballs.
Lack of space prevents describing other postal characters, such as Sam Forrest, who on his rounds would raise money for the Boer War victims by singing Kipling’s Absent Minded Beggar, or the four telegraph boys, who had to clean the pavements outside the post office if telegrams were in short supply. Maybe on another occasion! When the Great War broke out in August 1914, the Harrogate postmen recruited in droves, as this week’s photograph shows..