14. Christmas Post

Until the advent (no pun intended) of email, Christmas was the busiest time of year for Royal Mail. Extra staff was taken on for the week(s) before. Students, like myself, were employed temporarily, but so were the unemployed of the time.

You should understand that it was unusual to be unemployed at that time (~1960) as, not only were there more than enough jobs to go around, but also if you turned down more than 3(?) jobs you were offered then DOLE (unemployment benefit) was withdrawn. It’s safe to say that such people were not willing employees and often posted their first bundles of mail in the nearest post box and went home. In passing, I don’t actually recall seeing a female postman at that time.

The sorting office, often set up in a local church hall for extra space, was interesting. The first job was to arrange all the letters the same way up and the same way round, for the electric franking machine. Then they were sorted into areas by experts who knew the town. Each area(round) had a pigeon-hole for every house arranged in a carefully thought-out sequence depending on how the street was numbered e.g. odd one side and even the other, or how the route took you up a side street before returning to the original (all clever stuff).

Parcels were different as, then, as now I believe, bags were suspended from a metal frame of squares; each square corresponding to a town or city. Parcels were then ‘lobbed’ into the correct square/bag (or sometimes accidentally into the one adjacent). It is no accident that a parcel for Newcastle ended up in Newark! I remember someone marking a parcel “FRAGILE – PLEASE THROW UNDERHAND” – he must have done my job at some time! Marking a parcel as FRAGILE in any case was a forlorn hope as however gently we handled it, when it went into the bag, the sealed bag was thrown unceremoniously onto the van and then the train to complete its final journey.

Sorting started at some ungodly hour eg 3/4 am, followed by bacon sandwiches and tea, before departing in the dark to the required destination. Usually this was by normal service bus, full mailbag and all. There were at least two deliveries per day (which was normal at any time of year), but at this time there were often more. In this run up there were also Sunday deliveries and indeed at about this time I was part of the last ever delivery on Christmas day itself.

Dogs were, and still are, the bane of the postman’s life: either barking threateningly, actually biting your legs, or catching your fingers through the letterbox. Incidentally there seems to be no standard design or position for a letterbox. Some are big and some too small; most are horizontal, but some vertical; most at waist height, but some almost on the ground; some have soft springs and some so tight that two hands are required to open them without ripping the envelope.

Other hazards include the occupants: young wives answering the door in nightwear excited, but scared, a naive young man like me, and the many offers of a Christmas drink might well have prevented me completing the rounds particularly on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Delivering packages was a bonus, as actually coming face to face with the occupant usually resulted in a tip.

It was memorable time. I expect it was usually cold and often wet and tiring, but I would do it tomorrow – if my knees would let me.


2. Coaly Tyne

Until The Clean Air Act 1956 all homes and factories had been heated solely by coal fires (although on the approach of the act, smokeless fuel, gas fires and oil-fired or gas central heating took over)

This meant that the only form of heating (and cooking) was an open hearth in all rooms, including bedrooms.

Obviously coal fires produce ash which fell through a slotted grate to be removed and disposed of. This dusty ash was messy to deal with so the whole process, with the re-laying and re-lighting was a dirty, tedious, daily business. It was possible to keep a fire alight overnight by using finely crushed coal known as dross with a sprinkling of water to make it burn slowly through lack of air.

The coal itself had to be delivered and stored. In my time coal merchants delivered sacks of coal by motor lorry; although I have seen horse-drawn wagons as late as the 1960s. Sometimes an enterprising seller would ‘hawk’ his coal around the streets shouting “COAL” to all who could hear. My grandfather claimed he had a parrot who imitated this cry so well they people rushed to their doors to find an empty street. The ‘coal- man’ unloaded 1 hundredweight (cwt) hessian sacks on his shoulders/back and tipped them into the coal-house/bunker/cellar. (1cwt = 50kg)

Miners and ex-miners were entitled to free coal which was dumped outside their homes by a lorry. This huge pile had to be moved by bucket and shovel and helpful neighbours got their share.

The smoke and sulphurous gases were particularly nasty. Town buildings were all blackened by it; fog turned into smog further damaging the buildings and the lungs of all who breathed it in.

Coal mines once dotted the landscape all over Northumberland and Durham, but by the end of the 20th century they were almost all gone. Deep mining is dangerous and expensive and the deeper the mines went, the more prone to flooding they became and since many went below the sea this is not really surprising.

Open-cast or surface mining still exists in quite large quantities in this area, but it does not produce enough to feed the appetites of the coal-powered power stations, so from being once the supplier to the world, the Tyne now imports coal from all over the world.