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

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being busily sorted in two cars. Now the Night Mail is ap-
proaching Rugby, \\^ar\\'ickshire, its first actual stop; here, at
10 P.M., dispatches to nearby Birmingham and much of "War-
u'ickshire are made. Huge loads of bags from the East Anorljan
counties and Lincolnshire are taken in, brought over by bas
tenders of the "Peterboro Line." After pulling out, the "Peter-
boro" mails must be sorted at top speed; for it is only fifteen
minutes to the very "fast mark" (by apparatus) at Nimeaton,
Warwickshire, and the correspov.dencc due off there must be
fully separated for dispatch at this 70-mph catcher station. No
less than 360 pounds of mail (in nine forty-pound pouches)
are exchanged in both directions at its three mail cranes.


The huge receipt at Nuneaton must be sorted in time for
connection at Tamworth, Staffordshire, the next stop— the
closest point to Birmingham, and the line's first T.P.O. junc-
tion. Mails for that city, as well as for the northeastern coun-
ties, are received and dispatched here, a connection being
made with the key cross-country Midland T.P.O. (LMS— now
Midland Reg.) from Bristol to Newcastle-on-Tyne. The pro-
portion of English mail has been steadily decreasing, and as
the train passes Stafford (the Up Special's junction with the
LMS's Crewe-Birmingham T.P.O.), the two English divi-
sions coaches commence their gradual conversion into "Glas-
gow city" cars. A second respite for tea is enjoyed along here.

At 11:42 P.M. the Special reaches Crewe, a Cheshire town
which is England's Chicago— the nation's largest railroad and
T.P.O. junction. In normal times thirteen T.P.O. trains enter
or leave Crewe station between 11 P.M. and 2 A.M., alone,
each night. Several Glasgow toxun sorters get on here; while
certain halfway officers (short-stop clerks) get off, to work back
to London on the Up Special. Numerous intersecting T.P.O.s
are connected here, including the LMS's Crewe-Birmingham
and Shrewsbury-York T.P.O.s, the Crewe-Cardiff (GWR),
and others. Vast loads of mail, fifteen hundred bags or more,
are dispatched and received from Liverpool, Manchester, Bir-
mingham, and so on. With only 16 minutes here, speedy and
delicate timing is essential; the transfer bag is put off for the
"Up" (containing some mis-sent items, even as with us!), and
outgoing bags for the three big cities mentioned (all near-
by) and for many parts of Ireland, Wales, Cheshire, York-
shire, and South Lancashire are ticked off. As we pull out, at
least fifty-five men are now tackling the mail on our train.

Starting at Crewe, the three Glasgow coaches are redesignat-
ed as a separate unit, the Crewe-Glasgow S.C. (sorting carriage;
i.e., a small R.P.O.), which will later diverge to the west. The
town sorters are working Glasgow mail out to stations, post-
man's walks, and suburban sub-offices. Any out-of-course (de-
layed or mis-sent) bags received at Crewe or elsewhere must be
opened, sorted, and reported if the contents can be properly
advanced; while individual mis-sent letters are also "written


up" on a form in detail (with name, address, origin, and so
on), not merely "checked."

The working mail is now all for Scotland (except a bit for
northern Ireland), but a heavy apparatus exchange is made at
Warrington, Lancashire, nearest point to the big cities of
Liverpool to the west and Manchester to the east. After a
third cup of tea a stop is made at Preston, Lancashire, where
the Preston-Whitehaven T.P.O. route (LMS) branches off;
final receipts from the two large cities are taken on here in-
stead of at Warrington, and again the coaches are loaded to
capacity. For two hours the train traverses Lancashire, West-
moreland, and Cumberland, crossing the bleak Pennines and
other mountains, and "catching" Lancaster, Carnforth, and
Penrith. By now the sorters are tying up most of the letters in
their frames and dropping them in the limp bags to the rear.
No labels are used, if dispatched in a direct bag. Preliminary
dispatches for most large Scottish towns are bagged and sealed,
to be put off at Carlisle; like all other bags tied out early, they
are taken into the proper "storage brake" and piled. The
final tie-out of the bags is no^v under way, for Carlisle is the
end of the run for our team (crew); most officers assist, and
then comes wash-up time as the O/C finishes up his reports.
If it is, say, a light week-end trip, there may be a little time
for a friendly game (poker or solo whist), note writing, or a
chat. Protective clothing is doffed, and at 3 A.M. the tired
London sorters climb out at the end of their three hundred-
mile run. North-end clerks from both Carlisle and Aberdeen,
as well as more Glasgow city men, get on liere to take their
places; meanwhile connection is made with the Carlisle-Ayr
S.C. (ScotReg), a short branch line.

Most sorters sleep at private lodginghouses, but small hotels
also are favored. Overnight lodgings are usually dubbed the
digs (although many, witli \vry humor, refer to their quarters
as a doss or flophouse). While our crew slumbers, the "North
Division" (as Ave ^vould say) of the Special thunders across
the Scottish border to Carstairs Junction, where it is reas-
sembled as parts of three R.P.O. trains with separate engines—
the Crewe-Glasgow S.C, the Carlisle-Edinburgh S.C. (which


works Edinburgh City and Midlothian mail), and the Special
proper. The two sorting carriage trains soon veer off to the
left and right, and the much-shortened Special, now manned
by only three or four clerks, sweeps northward via Coatbridge
and Perth (making numerous "catches" all along) into Aber-
deen, at 8:13 A.M., connecting the second carrier delivery
there as well as an air-mail route carrying all mail for the
Orkneys. The Special has sorted at least 200,000 pieces of
mail on its 50-mile journey, and its last dispatch at Aberdeen,
if the King is staying at Balmoral Castle, is a special one to
him from Buckingham Palace.

Meanwhile the London sorters are sleeping, usually about
six or seven men to a house, after recording its address in the
mail-room book (for emergency calls). If a regularly reserved
accommodation is not used on some occasion by a sorter while
on leave, the Department allo^vs "compensatory payments to
landladies." Arising at I or 2 P.M., the clerks have a good
breakfast and then enjoy such pastimes as the cinema, walks
about town, or billiards and snooker at a workingmen's club
there. Some may study at part-time Workers' Education Asso-
ciation classes, while certain dashing Romeos will look up
their "favourite blondes" or brunettes instead. After a three-
course dinner at 8 P.M., the officers then meet the Up Special
for the return journey at 8:43.

After sprawling itself all over Scotland, the Special has long
since been again consolidated into one train— the Glasgow
(R.P.O.) and Edinburgh (C.P.) sections (with no independ-
ent titles, southbound) having rejoined it at Law and Carstairs
Junctions. The London staff quickly boards it at Carlisle,
and in general the return trip to Euston follows the same pat-
tern as the Down journey. But the Up Special is even larger
than the Do^vn, for it has seven R.P.O. cars or sorting coaches;
mail for all England and for London City is worked, to the
practical exclusion of Scotch "correspondence." One English
county division alone may occupy half of a sixty-foot coach;
thus the sorting van nearest the engine handles Middlesex
and Surrey letters only. Another coach handles the cross post
or "local," plus Hertfordshire; there is an apparatus coach.


used also for stowing tied-out bags; and two London city cars,
one inchidinCT a foreisjn division.

TJie stroncT team spirit of mutual assistance Tvhicli exists on
the Up Special and other T.P.O.s is proverbial. Contrary to
the unfortunate exceptions often noted on United States
trains, the usual regulations requiring such mutual help are
observed to the letter in England; if one man has finished his
sorting, he immediately volunteers to assist someone else. Tf
one division is running light while another is swamped, the
O/C promptly reassigns the former's sorter to dig out the man
who is going stuck. The comradeship of the tvpical T.P.O.
team is also reflected in the gay ditties or bits of harmonizing
sometimes indulged in, even as with us. But such music may
be abruptly ended if the next stop reveals a huge pile of
buckshee stowage, (or working) mail— i.e., "free" or not due
to the train— to be crammed into the coaches!

On a recent journey of the "Up" it was revealed that English
clerks as well as ours perform some remarkable feats in dis-
patching misaddressed mail. An unaddressed picture postcard
carrying only a brief message beginning "Dear Mr. Ricards"
turned up, but one of the sorters (who are permitted to cor-
rect poor addresses, in England) immediately marked it "try
Bushey" and dispatched it to Bushey, Hertfordshire, at Wat-
ford. He had remembered the same handwriting on a pre-
vious postcard, which on being located revealed that the writer
was "seeing Mr. Ricards" in Bushey after returning there from

Some 65 men work on the Up Special, and they make up a
selection (direct package) for practically every post town in
England, and even direct bags for each separate office in Sur-
rey, Middlesex, Buckinghamshire, and most of Kent. One
London car works letters for "The City" (London's Eastern
Central District only) out to carriers or postman's walks; but
since most carrier routes there consist only of single short
streets or of buildings (or banks and firms) made up direct,
no sorting by street-number breaks is necessary. The Eoreign
Division in the same car sorts letters to countries and divisions
(formerly even to foreign R.P.O. lines in Europe and Asia);


New York, N. Y., is made up. In the second London coach,
zoned mail for all the rest of London's 12(S numbered
subdistricts (zones) is worked out; thus "S.E. 10" in a Lon-
don address (Greenwich) is Zone 10 of the South Eastern
District Office. Almost no London mail is received unzoned,
and sorters are not required to learn street-and-number dis-
patch for such letters, but many voluntarily learn and dispatch
a considerable number of such items each trip.

The staff works busily as we approach London, for it is a
T.P.O. tradition to avoid failing (going stuck) if at all pos-
sible. After the tie-out, all waste twine, seals, and labels are
placed in a special red waste bag (to be searched later for stray
mail, as in the United States); the sorters wash up, pack their
tot bags, and finish their actual journey at 4 A.M. in London;
then they unload the coaches.

Station duties at London also include "dispatching the
vans" (mail trucks) to the various London district offices, the
Inland and Foreign sections, and to railway stations and sub-
urban post offices. The mail has been worked up to such a
fine degree that only a cotiple of residue bags (i.e., London
G.P.O. Dis) are turned over to the Inland Section; the vast
bulk of the mail goes out in direct bags all over southern Eng-
land, although one or two day T.P.O.s are also connected.
A late arrival at London may spell considerable excitement-
taxis can be commandeered to rush valuable mails to impor-
tant railway connections, with penalties for any driver refus-
ing; and sorters eagerly note details on their aggregation sheets
(overtime record) to see if their minimum hourage has been
made up and any agg due to be paid them, as they say. At the
end of each week sorters must also make individual claim for
their trip allowances by mailing a docket to the office after the
last run. Einallv the carriage searcher CX-man) inspects all
the frames and takes up the mats, looking for strav letters,
often using an electric extension bulb to assist. He does it
diligently, for he knows that if railroad men later find any
mail therein he must pay the finder a sixpence (ten cents) for
each letter, or two shillings (forty cents) for a registerl There


is often a weary wait for transportation home, for there are
few vehicles running at that hour.

All British T.P.O. lines are now operated by the T.P.O.
Section, London Postal Region. A chief superintendent (cur-
rently, Mr. C. R. Clegg) manages the setup from offices in the
great King Edward Street Post Office Building and occasional-
ly makes inspection trips over the lines. One sorter, pleasantly
surprised by a visit from former Chief Superintendent Fielder,
wrote afterward that ". . . he speaks English just as we do!";
but relations with officialdom were not always thus. A morose
chief superintendent of decades past once strode into a T.P.O.
coach to scowl at the sorters in stony silence, eliciting the re-
mark of "I beg your pardon, sir?" from one wag.

"I didn't speak!" was the grumpy rejoinder.

"Sorry," the sorter explained innocently, "I thought you
said, 'Good evening, gentlemen'!"

Over seventy T.P.O. trains are operated over about twenty-
five different routes in normal times; a fe-\v prewar lines still
remain to be restored. Like American lines, most of the
T.P.O.s have accumulated nicknames. Thus the Southern
Region's South East and South West T.P.O.s (London to
Dover and Dorchester, respectively) are both called "The
Tram-car"; the Northwest T.P.O. (a short run of the Down/
Up Special route, to Carlisle) is "The Ten" (or "10 o'clock")
or "The Nightmare"; the LMS's suspended London R: f^olv-
head T.P.o! (which once used a "UNITED STATES MAIL"
postmark) was, of course, the famous "Irish Mail"; and the
short Liverpool-Huddersfield T.P.O. (LMS) is humorously
dubbed the "Liver Sc Udders." This is the T.P.O. which never
gets back to Liverpool— its team works back on different-route
T.P.O.s and on a bag tender as guards. "The Cale" (Cale-
donian) refers to several Down/Up Special short runs.

The Great Western T.P.O. (GWR) or "Ghost Train" is
an all-mail, no-passenger train operated nightly from London
to Penzance, Cornwall, where forty sorters work some one
thousand letter bags on a 325-mile journey, plus up to three
thousand registers. Leaving London at 10:10 P.M., the train
sweeps past the Bristol Channel seacoast, the rolling bracken-


covered hills of Somerset, the lonely and misty marshes and
rocky hillocks around Dartmoor. Eight Penzance clerks get
on at Plymouth to sort mail for their town to carriers, as well
as the Cornwall mail; all other mail (except Devon's) must
be "up" by Bristol. The Great Western is famed for its
"travelers' tales" or anecdotes thereof, but we can mention
only a couple here. In one coach the regular bag for Liskeard,
Cornwall (due off by apparatus), is hung beside a bag of
fragile matter for that town, labeled and handled accordingly
—and one new bag hanger innocently inquired "if Liskeard
Fragile ^vere anywhere near Liskeard"! When several Danes
(delegates to a postal convention) ^vere once invited to visit
the G.W., one overseer "missed reading the paper, paid extra
attention to his appearance, and put on his best suit and most
charming manner, thinking someone had said dames!" An-
other alarmed Great Western sorter, followed by a policeman
all the way home, discovered it was merely the one Avho lived
next door. (One crew on this line has asked for a "G ?c 8"—
eight days "ofT" each two weeks; but they'll work 19 hours
daily to get it, if approved!)

The Preston-Whitehaven T.P.O. (LMS), or "The Truck,"
is a typical short line along the northwest coast of Cumber-
land; it has only three clerks (the smallest number ever as-
signed to a T.P.O.) and exchanges with practically every oflRce
on the line. On such branch lines the O/C is often the R. L.
officer, as in the United States. Some side lines, temporarily
short of T.P.O. coaches, have used portable frames installed in
the I) rakes.

Trains work city mail for many towns, like Penzance, but
not for Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester, three of the
largest cities! Two routes from York to Bristol and from Lon-
don to Edinburgh operate— the second route in the latter case
being the LNER's London-York-Edinbingh T.P.O.^ (includ-

■The "LNER" is now the N. E. Region, British Rvs.; these familiar railway
abbreviations are still in nse. The restricted city sortintj is quickly explained:
All TPO trains arrive in the Midlands around midnight, and there is plenty
of time for local sorting at these three big cities. Onlv towns at the extremities
of the longest rims— London, Pen/ance, Glasgow, et cetera— require city sorting
in transit due to morning arrivals.


ing the N.E. T.P.O., its short run). Yet many other parts of
Britain have no direct T.P.O. service at all, including not only
Manchester but also inland sections of North England, most of
Aberdeenshire, and all northwest Scotland, northern Devon,
and so on. Pending restoration of a central route, only coastal
lines serve Wales. The progressive T.P.O. Section, however,
has expansive plans for the future. Already two brand-new
extensions of service have been opened: ( 1 ) from Birmingham
to Derby on the former Birmingham-Bristol (LMS), now the
Derby-Bristol T.P.O.; and (2) from Haughley out to Peter-
boro on the East Anglian T.P.O, (LNER), connecting ^vith
the North East route of T.P.O.s, both in 1949. Two other
runs intersect the Derby-Bristol at Birmingham— the LMS'
Crewe-Birmingham and Midland T.P.O.s.

T.P.O. sorters encounter a few vexing problems which are
a bit different from those of American R.P.O. clerks. True,
they are spared the rigors of a Christmas rush on the road—
because the entire T.P.O. system shuts down each year for
two weeks preceding Christmas, in direct contrast to the
United States practice of expansion. But the clerks, who are
anxious to have all-year road sorting restored, must be
plunged into imfamiliar surroundings to work mails in the
Inland Section or other post offices. Another headache is the
fact that the actual post office or sub-office of address, on a
given letter, may be any of the last three place names thereon—
in contrast to American practice, where it alwavs is the next
to last. The public often disregards official urgings to capital-
ize the post-town name, to alleviate this problem; but it faith-
fully follows the official address forms suggested in the Postal
Guide, which show sub-office name, post town, and county
in the case of small hamlets, post town and countv for most
post towns, and office name only in the case of large cities!

In Britain, despite unarmed sorters, one never hears of
T.P.O. trains being held up and robbed; it just isn't done.
There was, however, a series of mysterious mail thefts on the
old London-Manchester Bag Tender (LMS) which continued
for ten years before they were solved. Finally the guard in
charge, one of of the LMS's most trusted employees, was


caught slitting open a mailbag; it seems he had a grudge
against the railway for failing to transfer him to the seashore
for his Avife's health!

Serious wrecks, too, of T.P.O. trains are rare; no sorter has
been killed in one since 1927, when three or four lost their
lives in a crack-up of the LMS's York-Shrewsbury T.P.O. Few
can recall any other fatalities, except when three sorters
were killed in a wreck of the London-Holyhead Irish Mail
(LMS) in 1916, and on that tragic occasion of long ago when
the Firth of Tay trestle collapsed in 1879; a postal bag-tender
guard was lost in the sinking train, there being no survivors.
(A few clerks are assigned to bag tenders to separate and load
mails.) Recently the two most noteworthy T.P.O. train smash-
ups both involved the Down/Up Special. The Mail crashed
into a halted passenger train at Winsford, Cheshire, on April
16, 1948, killing many passengers; the first sorting coach was
smashed to bits, but only three sorters were injured, thanks to
the strong all-steel construction and the great distance from
the engine. Clerks hastened to assist survivors and save the
mails, and Sorter W. }. Carrick was awarded the Daily Herald's
coveted Order of Industrial Heroism. On the other occasion
the Special was rammed from behind in Scotland, injuring
four sorters, some years before. When the East Anglian T.P.O.
(LNFR, London-Norwich) was wrecked at Gidea Park, Ilford,
Essex, in 1947, the scene was a shambles of wrecked fittings
and coaches, shattered glass, and scattered letters; but again
clerks hastened to rescue injured passengers and forward valu-
able mails, and even insisted on reporting for their return trip
despite severe shake-up and shock. (See end of Note 18.)

Floods and freeze-ups have worked real havoc on the
T.P.O.s, however. The great English blizzard of 1940 termi-
nated an unbroken record of fifty-five years of consecutive
nightly trips of the Down/Up Special (except Christmas
niglit); the two Specials were both stranded in huge drifts on
Beattock Summit and were annulled for four days. (Soon
after, all T.P.O.s were suspended for the duration of World
W^ar II.) The great ice storm of March 1947 forced complete
suspension of many T.P.O,s and delayed others up to fourteen


hours; apparatus working was abandoned. Chief Superin-
tendent Fielder immediately ordered special meals and hot
drinks served to sorters affected, at stations en route; they
were particularly welcomed by one crew which worked thirty-
three hours continuously, then reported for work again that
same day. Many were the trains which had to give second
circulation (rerouting) to their delayed mails; and on the
South East T.P.O. (SouR), the Down and Up trains passed
each other five times in one night before getting on the right
lines for their destinations.

On the Great Western (GWR), of course, a humorous
angle was sure to develop from such frightfully beastly weather
and the severe floods which followed it. One of its badly de-
layed trains had just pulled into Exeter, Devon, whereupon a
local news reporter hastened up to interview the O/C— whom
he caught snatching a nap beside the steampipes. Aroused,
he sleepily yawned to the inquiring stranger that "the bad
weather and our late arrival can in no way be attributed to
the Labour Government" (which is, of course, strongly backed
by postal union men). The statement duly appeared in the
Devonshire press that evening.

There have been tales of unorthodox objects caught by the
apparatus, of course, since the very earliest days— ranging from
viaducts and signals to a wheelbarrow filled with baled rags
(which nearly wrecked the LNER's old York-Newcastle S.C.
at Chester-le-street, Durham, in the 1890s). A different sort
of tale comes from the North West T.P.O. (LMS), which was
once honored by an unexpected visit from the King and
Queen (then Duke and Duchess of York); showing great in-
terest in everything, they left after giving the O/C a warm
handshake. The thrilled gaffer "for weeks afterwards wore
a glove on his hand, but refused to take the advice of an
irreverant young member of the team who enquired, 'Why
don't you pickle it in vinegar, guv'nor?' " On the North East
(LNER) another sorter consistently imposed upon the team
by napping on duty; he was cured, one night, by having his
face liberally daubed from the ink pad as he snored. On
waking, he breezed into the station buffet for lunch as usual I


On the North West (LMS) one "guvnor" discovered with
iiorror that his tick sheet had been used to wrap up a greasy
buncli of fish and chips, by the very sorter helping him hunt
for it.

Tiie American influence is occasionally felt. During the
serious economic "dollar shortage" following World War II,
men receiving a family allowance on the birth of a new ciiild
were said to be "pursuing the official dollar." And when 1947
brought forth the popular ditty "Open the Door, Richard"
from New York's Tin Pan Alley, railway mail men on both
sides of tlie Atlantic were soon hounded by the phrase when-
ever porters brought up huge loads of mail to the car.

Working conditions and salaries of T.P.O. men are the
particular concern of the T.P.O. Branch, Union of Post Work-
ers—the union which corresponds to our N.P.T.A. The
U.P.W. and its predecessors have secured innumerable bene-
fits for the sorters; travel allowances, annual and sick leave,
and retirement annuities were obtained for them long before
they were secured by American clerks. The branch holds

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