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 jobs you were offered then DOLE (unemployment benefit) was withdrawn.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.

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7. Telephones

When I was a child the only people with their own telephone were doctors, solicitors and the like; the rest used public call boxes, the red ones*. Gradually phones became more common. The heavy, black ones, with the bell that mobile phones now impersonate, were the only ones on offer. Usually they had a rotating dial, but when I first moved to rural Devon in 1972, the operator at the small exchange was contacted directly on lifting the handset, and the (three digit) number requested. At the same time the ‘party line’ existed; the same incoming telephone line was shared by neighbours as it was cheaper, but had the disadvantage that both parties could not use the phone at the same time. With improvements in electronics and plastics, phones got smaller and cheaper. One particular type was the ‘trimphone’ which was a must-have from Post Office Telephones (the nationalised company which became British Telecom [BT] when it was privatised). The trimphone had a squared unit with a tiny, light handset with a peculiar warbling ringtone, which the mischievous tried to imitate. As I pen this in 2014 most home phones are cordless and in every room, but many homes no longer have a fixed phone line

The breakthrough came when phones became ‘mobile’. Initially this involved carrying a large box with a large battery, but as time moved on, they moved through being the size of a brick to as small as the human hand can cope with. Some adults still shun the ‘mobile’ but even the smallest child now demands a ‘smartphone’ which has internet, email, music playing facilities and apps beyond number.

*Phone calls made from the old red boxes had no time limit. For 2d (1p) you could talk all night, if someone ‘out of patience’ didn’t bang on the glass door to tell you to ‘hurry-up’. The coins were inserted in a slot and the number dialled. On hearing the voice at the other end, a button marked ‘A’ was pressed and you could start talking. If there was no answer the Button-B was pressed and your coins were returned. The system changed to fixed-time calls, but if you were skilled, you could tap out the phone number on the ‘rest’ buttons and get through for free, so I’m told’.