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Mail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service online

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gang^vays, eye-straining "half lights," dangerously rough
lurchings from the engine driver, or freezing trips following
an unheated stationary period (advance time) are all too well


knoAs'n. When the Avindows of one car ^vere suddenly ^vashed
thoroughly, the staff commented, "We must have been mis-
taken for first-class coaches!" (It all sounds strangely familiar
to American clerks, as does the sometimes-disregarded pro-
vision that the T.P.O. coach should be separated from the
engine by another carriage if possible. The objection is the
rough riding, rather than a safety factor, however.)

The staff consists mostly of post-office sorters who volunteer
for traveling duties and are detailed largely from the London
G.P.O., although provincial staffs hail from Birmingham,
Glasgow, and so on. They wear no badges. (A Civil Service
Commission appoints these clerks originally by competitive
exams, exactly as with us.) Most T.P.O. sorters are, or soon
will be, classed in two principal grades— Po5/777Y7n Higher
Grade and Postman— under the current reallocation of staff;
the officer in charge, or O/C (clerk-in-charge), is of the Assist-
ant Inspector grade thereunder, although many are in the
old grade of Overseer at this writing. Popularly, the O/C is
called the guv' nor or gaffer; he is required only to attend to
supervision and the necessary reports, any assistance he may
give to a sorter being purely voluntary. He does not, as per-
sistently reported (even in a film), occupy a private office on
the train; at least not in any modern T.P.O. Nor does he,
as on United States lines, sell stamps to the public.

The average sorter works on the lines only on a term basis;
each four or five years' road duty is followed by a required
period of two years or more in a stationary (or static) office.
He may still be considered a reserve officer for emergency
T.P.O. runs; and conversely, during road terms, any extra
duty needed to equalize time must be done in post offices-
there are no P.T.S. terminals. Acting additional clerks are
called pressure men, but there are no substitutes. Promotion
is from the ranks, but mostly to post-office positions. Sorters
in service prior to 1947 may travel permanently.

While sorters average only about $38 a week in total pay^

*Pre-devaluation pound values, a more accurate economic picture, arc used


and allowances, they are furnished many special items free-
all necessary medical attention, protective clothing (work
clothes), free soap and towels, free grips {tot. bags), and certain
ration privileges. And, of course, British living costs are low-
er. Travel pay consists of a duty allowance ($1.80-$2.10
weekly) to compensate for the strenuous work, payable even
when on leave, and a subsistence or trip allowance ($1.30 to
$2.40 per trip) covering board and lodging. Largely because
of the six-day week, British clerks also have shorter rest days
or layoffs than American clerks; but here again their days off
are free from all studies and home duties, and they have much
more annual leave— twenty-one actual days yearly. They av-
erage about one and one-half to two days off per week, depend-
ing on size of the line; but if a five-day week is introduced,
as the postal union is urging, length of time off will be only
slightly under American standards.

New men, freshly detailed to a T.P.O. from the post ofRces,
are given two weeks' tuition in T.P.O. duties at the Central
Training School, London, or at regional schools elsewhere.
Demonstrations in sidetracked T.P.O. carriages, as well as
instruction trips, follow; on short lines such trips may be the
only instruction available. The London T.P.O. school pro-
vides the only example of T.P.O. sorters using practice cards;
they are a postwar innovation and still used by new learners
only, and are not sorted to T.P.O.'s. Clerks on all runs termi-
nating at London are drawn from the various London post
offices, while provincial lines and outlying short runs [half-
way jouryieys) are staffed from their terminal offices. Round
trips [return journeys) on the latter are made within one day.

In most cases a T.P.O. sorter is an English gentleman— and
dresses accordingly, even when on duty. Business suits and
spruce white shirts are not an uncommon sight in the mail
car. Clerks on medium-heavy work slip protective clothing
(like P.T.S. officials' "coveralls") over street wear; but only the
neivs rats and others on heaviest assignments have to change
clothes. Meticulous and rules-conscious, they are required to
refuse unauthorized privileges asked by the public (such as
irregular postmark impressions); but their courteous and


helpful attitude to all comers, including collectors, is pro-
verbial. The O/C can even approve the admittance of a
visitor, at his discretion. Most sorters are of a high degree of
intelligence, culture, and good nature, although they jokingly
call themselves topers in spite of their usual temperate
habits. They usually work on a five-week cycle but rotate
among the various assignments (numbered, as in our crews)
as listed on the running sheets (register of runs). Denied use
of schemes, most T.P.O. men— especially the R. L. officer, who
is the key distributor— carry a tip book of important local

To view a typical British T.P.O. run, let's take a trip on
the great Down/Up Special of the Midland and Scottish
Regions, British Railways. We would call this route the Aber-
deen Sc London R.P.O.; but the British apply titles to each
train only, the line's other trains being designated as the North
West T.P.O. and so forth. World's largest R.P.O. train, the
Down/Up Special is faster than the line's speediest passenger
train as it roars through the night up to Scotland— yet it does
not actually pass througJi a single large city! T.P.O.s leav-
ing London are Down Mails and those arriving there Up
Mails (regardless of direction); so our train is really the
"Down Special" to begin with. It is often dubbed "The
Longest and Largest," "The Night Mail," or just the Special;
but in railway circles it is the West Coast Postal or Postal
Special. It is one of two pairs of non-passenger, all-mail trains.

At about 7 P.M. the ftfty-odd sorters manning the Special
begin to converge upon the Euston Station mail room from
all parts of London and its suburbs, carrying handbags. Most
arrive via suburban train, bus, underground (subway), or
tram (trolley), but even those commuting in by train over
the Special's own route must pay fares; their official warrants
(commissions) are no good for deadheading to work. At the
mail room, with its lockers and bulletin boards, the sorters
pick up their black cloth tot bags which they use instead of
grips. Their contents are mostly work clothes, for the British
clerk need carry no headers, schemes, schedules, slips, or
labels; such of these as he requires are sent direct to the car in


the train-supplies bag (labeled "T.P.O, Stores"). Since the
tot l)ags arc not heavy, there is no grip man.

A "rather fussy little shunting engine" brings in the long
line of sixty-foot coaches from the Willesden yard, where they
are marshaled (made up), and spots them at Euston's No. 2
platform. Fully five cars are sorting carriages, while the rest
are for stoxuage or storage mails (one devoted largely to the
catcher apparatus). By seven fifteen, the reporting time, the
sorters are inside the car and donning their coveralls; the
handbags containing overnight needs are stowed on overhead
shelves; all sorters sign the lick sheet (like our old arrival-and-
depnrture book!), and the 1 14-hour stationary period begins.

All slips, labels, and letter bills have been previously fur-
nished, stamped, and run out by ofiice personnel; and twine
and sealing materials accompany these supplies in the "stores"
bag. Three of the jimior sorters or mail porters (postmen
under reallocation) thereupon hang some 250 to 280 bags
on the pegs in each R.P.O. car, in limp Christmas-stocking
style. Bag labels contain extra holes for quick hanging on
pegs or in surplus-label ro^vs overhead. Each sorting coach is
also equipped with sealing presses, car keys, reference books
such as the Postal Guide and P.O.'s in the United Kingdom,
a postmarker, rubber stamps, various pairs of official scissors,
and (in one car) an "official watch"— a standard timepiece
brought up by runner from the G.P.O. Inland Section.

In th.? absence of headers, many sorters use a piece of duke
(or Duke of For/^j— chalk— to mark or abbreviate the names
of the various selections (boxes) in the letter frames. Some
prefer a cardboard diagram of the case arrangement, showing
all the names, hung overhead. But the more expert sorters
often dispense with both and pretty much "work blind,"
guided only by the consecutive numbers from one to fifty-
four or so. Newspapers are simply sorted into the big pigeon-
holes at the nczvs desk, gathered up, and "bagged off" w'ith
the letters. Most sorters arrange their cases by standard letter
plans (diagrams) furnished by the Department, but do other-
wise if preferred. Separate cases and plans are used for each
postal division of England and Scotland, for certain heavy


counties, for cities, for foreign mails, and for the mixed (nn-
sorted). Since even short-letter boxes are five inches Avide and
the other cases have wider ones, there is no trouble with
wade greeting cards! Oflficial diagrams are usually alphabetical
in the horizontal plane, except for heaviest separations (placed
near bottom center, according to "position values" deter-
mined by test); most selections are directs, others are Forward
or Dist. (dis) boxes, and very few wdll be labeled to connect-
ing T.P.O.s.

The "order book" is used in England, as here, except that
it is kept on the train; "authorized amendments and correc-
tions" to circulation (routing) instructions must be noted
therefrom. (Like check sheets, extra trips, primary-secondary
residue, G.P.O., Postmaster General, this is one of the few
terms ivhich is common to both British and American prac-
tice.) The neatly dressed officer-in-charge, presiding at a spare
(unused) letter frame equipped with a stool, keeps not only
the order book but also the tick sheet, which is a combination
check sheet (pouch record) and trip report; the main circula-
tion list, the nearest thing to an R.P.O. schem.e; the forroard
list (alphabetical list of all bags made up and dispatched);
the time bills (T.P.O. train schedules); the postal volumes
mentioned; and T.P.O. rule books and duty schedules. The
tick sheet mtist show the date stamp of the postmarker, signa-
tures of all on dutv, especially of the carriage searcher, and re-
ports of all mail mis-sent or overcarried (carried by).

One of the first bags received in the coach contains the daily
orders from the chief superintendent (of the T.P.O. Section)
for the train and official mail for the O/C. The "guv'nor"
is permitted to ansiver his official correspondence in detail
while on duty; at the halfway point his replies (all enveloped
and postmarked) are sent back to London via the transfer bag
(go-back pouch). Answers will be in the office by 7 A.AL of
the day following that when the letters ^vent out.

Ne^\'s reporters enthusiastically describe the Special as "a
thing of beauty inside and out," \vith beams of lifjht from its
"big electric bulbs giving a dazzling and bizarre effect." Mails
arrive at trainside in motor vans or on trolleys (hand trucks)


and are quickly separated and lined up to the proper coach by
station postal employees. A ShefTield newsman, the first ad-
mitted to a T.P.O. (lf)31), stated, "The perfect organization
commences with the loading . . . No rush, just organised
speed." ("Speed" is right— many "Special" clerks sort seventy
letters a minute!) A sorter called the clerk "ticks off" both the
letter bags and newspaper bags on the check sheet as another
officer calls the labels. All inbound bags of identical origin
are in the same series regardless of contents, but instead of
using serial numbers, the last bag of the series (the "X," as
we say) is called the final, and any others, extra bags. (The
final bag has a pink tag showing total number in series.)

The regular (final) bags are stacked behind the bag open-
er's table (part of the case ledge), and the extra bags, usually
containing newspapers, behind the appropriate neu'S desk.
From all of London and southern England the bags come
flooding in— from the suburbs, from the London district
offices (branches), and especially from the huge Inland Sec-
tion, or "Big House," which sorts all the provincial mails (par-
ticularly in daylight hours, when T.P.O.s seldom operate).
The highly graded bag opener opens up each bag with the
official scissors (its ends curved to avoid injuring the bag), for
British mailbags are tied with string and lead-sealed at the
ofiice of origin, the sealing press stamping its official signet
thereon. Cutting the string also detaches the big 2x5 inch
cardboard label from each steel-ringed bag (which is stenciled
"GREAT BRITAIN-POST OFFICE"), then the opener
must turn each bag inside out lest any mail remain therein.

Meanwhile one clerk has been stationed in each stowage
brake (non-passenger cars are "brakes") to pile the storage
mails as diagrammed in his bag-duty book. As in the United
States, bags are stacked carefully in station order with the
first-off ones close at hand, and the stowage-van officer is ad-
vised to chalk up the names of the various separations. But
he must also lock all doors with a key, later surrendering this
to the O/C, unless railway employees are detailed to this.

In the T.P.O. coach the bog hiimper (dumper) must quick-
ly locate the tied-up entry items (registers and urgent matter)


with attached letter bill which are looked for in each final,
or "bill," bag. The bill, a postmarked green form listing all
registered and special-delivery (express) items, jury sum-
monses, mailed telegrams, parliamentary notices, and other
official matter, must be included in each regular bag whether
entry items are present or not; if six or more items, they come
inside a small enclosure bag. All entry items and bills arc
placed in a nearby tray, checked by totals, and transferred to
the R. L. officer (register clerk) with an initialed form against
his receipt. (On British lines the R. L. officer may accept
mail from the public for registration.)

Most incoming mail consists of working bundles— quickly
tossed to the proper sorting frame, perhaps to the broad-ac-
cented warning, "Coming ov-aaar!" If too many bundles
come flying over, the sorter may cry, "Take it easy, sonny
boy!" or something similar, whereupon further packages are
relegated to the skips, which are baskets for overflow mail.
Letters to be worked, cut open with the oflicial scissors, are
usually stacked on end between the case and the front board;
balls of heavy twine are in overhead holders. American
twine knives, first introduced in 1949, are becoming popular;
but most sorters use the official scissors to cut all twine both
on working bundles and when tying iip after finishing. No
sorters are armed, not even the R. L. man; but registers are
properly convoyed.

As the R. L. oflicer prepares his outgoing letter bills, the
short stationary period nears its end. By then he must have
his tally sheets (balance sheet), outgoing extra-bag record,
transfer sheets (bulk-receipt forms for bag opener), and his
sealing press all functioning properly. His registers are dis-
tinctively marked with two crossed blue lines (+) and neat
printed labels showing both registry number and origin— a
convenience adopted in nearly every country but the United
States. Mail containing coins or jeAvelry is given compulsory
registration, if detected, at the addressee's expense.

The last collection has been made from the station's late-
fee posting box, and the zero hour of eight-thirty approaches.
Mail trucks with the final loads from Euston Square Post


OfTice, and latecomers with letters to mail, hurry to the train-
side. At a prolonged blast from the whistle the great Night
Mail slo"\vly pulls out; it crawls under Ampthill Square and
Ilampstead Road and gathers speed, passing Regent's Park on
the left and the Camden Town section to the right. It is carry-
ing at least three thousand bags of mail, including five hun-
dred or more "workers," containing seventy thousand letters
(about two thousand, eight hundred packages) and thousands
of newspapers all to be sorted. Mail received later may equal
and even exceed this total. The electric tea urns are switched
on, and some men place soup or other food in the various
handy electric ovens.

The Special rushes through South Hampstead tunnel, past
Killburn Station and Willesden Junction, then crosses the
London city line into the thickly settled Middlesex suburbs;
Wembley (8:43) is first, but not served going north. Sorters
are busy in all five T.P.O. coaches— the two English cars, the
tTvo for Scottish divisions, and the Glasgow city car. The bag
opener is thro"\ving letter bundles in all directions— the
labeled bundles (directs) going right into the proper outgoing
bag, of course. Nine storage cars precede and follow them!

At exactly 8:46 the train is due to make its first "catch"—
the apparatus working at suburban Harrow, Middlesex. All
Harrow letter bundles have now been tied out, the R. L-. man's
billed bundle of entry items is ready, and all mail is put in
the bags due off here; each bag is sealed with the T.P.O.s im-
print. Then they are stuffed into the outgoing leather pouclies
and tightly strapped. The pouches to be caught have been
previously hung on the lineside apparatus (mail crane) by
Harrow's local apparatus postman (mail messenger). The
gallows-shaped structure has from one to three pouchfuls of
mailbngs hung on its high projecting arm. Attached to the
standard are suitable lights, plus a permanent folding receiv-
ing net at the bottom; all fittings are at the exact proper height
to engage the identical complementary equipment on the
train. Since wayside signs erected at approach points are hard
to see at night, the iron man or apparatus officer (local clerk)
must expertly recognize the exact sound of the overhead


bridges and so on which constitute the fix-on for this particu-
lar catch.

Outgoing pouches are hung on the "despatching arms" be-
side the regular doors— only one to each arm, but with t^venty
such arms on the train there is far more than enough equip-
ment. With speed up to 60 mph and more, precision timing
in working the iron is vital. As soon as the crane is sighted,
the apparatus officer presses levers which lower both the car-
riage net and despatching arms into working position; an
electric bell also rings continuously to warn clerks not to ap-
proach the open center of the apparatus coach (where the
big safety door beside the net has also opened automatically).
With a thunderous roar, the po^verful strap of the carriage
net catches the incoming pouches, which bound into the car
with great force; simultaneously, the outgoing pouches are
trapped by the wayside net, whereupon the despatching arms
fold back automatically. When the carriage-net lever is re-
leased, it too folds back, and the bell stops. It is a ticklish busi-
ness to lo'wer the projecting devices at the exact proper in-
stant onlv, for they Avoiild quickly engage some station plat-
form, signal, or other railroad structure if extended too quick-
ly. Important stations have several lineside standards in op-
eration, permitting the exchange of over half a ton of mail at
one time— despite a sixty-pound limit on each pouch contain-
er. Expert iron men learn to recognize fix-ons instantlv by
counting wheel clicks, by listening for the rattle of points
(switches), and so on.

The bags "caught" must be opened at once, examined for
damaged items, and the immediates (No. 1 local packages)
separated from the labeled bundles and No. 2 or No. .8 work-
ing bundles; the immediate bundles must be cut and sorted
at once, as mail for nearby stations mav be included. The
entire process, including the numbered line separations, close-
Iv resembles American practice; ho^ve\'er, many small ^vay
offices are served only by indirect conveyance.

With the suburban area well behind, the Down Special
speeds through the darkened countryside with its mvriad
twinkling lights to work apparatus marks (catches) at Wat-


ford, Hemel Hempstead, and Berkhamstead-Tring; then the
train enters Buckinghamshire to serve Leighton Buzzard, Bed-
fordsliire (just over the county line) and Bletchley. Bucking-
hamshire, all non-stop. The bag opener bags up his inspected
empties (in one of the bags, as we do), and labels them to the
Inland Section, which is the "bag control office" for most
T.P.O.s, for forwarding by opposite trains. Of the many
enclosure bags included in his dumped-up mails, not all con-
tain registers; ordinary "dis" mails for close connection at
some distributing office are often placed in these little inside
bags, perhaps labeled "IMMEDIATE" for instant attention.

The busy sorters make an exceedingly fine distribution for
all points in Scotland and Northwest England, making up
selections (directs) for practically every post toivn (independ-
ent post office) in the territory. (The smallest post offices all
consist of sub-offices, each operated as a rural station of some
post town, and their mails are included in the same bundle
or bag with the proper post town's.) Sorters do not distribute
mail by scheme, for the routing of British mails is based en-
tirely on the grouping of all these post towns into a number
of divisions (consisting of one or several counties), each with
its central distributing centre— a.t some large post office— which
sorts practically all mails for its area (for closed-pouch for-
warding) during daylight hours.

Each T.P.O. has its own main circulation list showing the
proper dispatch for all points from that train; and clerks are
simply expected to gradually memorize the proper routings
from continual experience therewith. Many smaller "directs"
on the frame will become labeled selections, to be thrown into
a bag for some distributing-center office. By this process all
mails are delivered in Britain within twenty-four hours— by
closed-bag dispatch if posted early in the day, and by T.P.O.
sortation when mailed toward evening.

Now it is teatime; for tea, not coffee, is the T.P.O. man's
beverage. Instead of one volunteer handling the tea, a formal
tea club is organized on each T.P.O. with a duly elected chair-
man, secretary, and treasurer. Members receive a small hono-
rarium (for the extra work involved), plus possible dividends


at the end of the year, from the profits. Customers pay only
four pence (seven cents)— for six cups— per round trip, on
the Special. Supplies having previously been purchased by
club members assigned thereto, the brewing is done by the
first member to get "on top of" his sorting duties; when ready,
the huge steaming pots are carried through the cars by two
char wallahs (tea men) starting from each end. In normal
times tea clubs on the Down/Up furnish a complete "commis-
sary" of chocolate, biscuits, cigarettes, and what not— at a
$6,000 annual turnover! Official meal allowances of thirty
minutes in each four hours are credited to each sorter in his
wages, but two or three quick ten-minute snacks each way are
about all actuallv taken, and then only if mail volume permits.

The tea clubs themselves date back at least to the 1890s. One
tale from those days tells of an officer who threw out his old
cracked teacup; it struck a telegraph pole, crashed into bits,
and the pieces flew back to hit the guard (conductor) in the
face. The "brains" thundered back into the T.P.O. coach at
the next station, profanely demanding (in \ ain) to knoAv who
had thrown it. Following such occurrences, T.P.O. officials
evolved the current rule covering such playful habits, with
severe penalties: "The throwing of bags, packets, balls of
string, or anv kind of missile, either inside a Mail or outside
... is forbidden."

"While most of the train's distribution is for the Scottish Di-
visions, English mails for the local North West Division are

Online LibraryBryant Alden LongMail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service → online text (page 25 of 38)