Telegram Messengers

"Wearing as they do the uniform of the Queen, they are under an obligation to conduct themselves in a manner which shall never bring that uniform into disrepute."

Post Office statement on Boy Messengers' behaviour, 1892

In 1870, the Post Office took over control of Inland Telegraphs from the railways and private telegraph companies. Many of the boys employed to deliver telegrams transferred to the Post Office.

In 1897, the radius for free delivery of telegrams was increased from one to three miles. The Post Office Engineer-in-Chief's Office purchased 100 pedal bicycles for telegram messengers and postmen.

In 1915, morning exercise was added to the drill routine already being carried out by messengers, to keep them fit for their work. The image below shows Boy Messengers performing their exercises in regimented rows. It seems unlikely that exercise would have felt very different from their military-style drill.

By 1921, the Post Office thought that they were recruiting a 'better type of boy'. As a consequence, both drill and compulsory exercise were abolished as unnecessary.

In the 1930s, 65 million telegrams were being delivered per year and the service employed 11,000 staff. Even at this time however, the service was losing money: over £1 million each year. Nevertheless, this was not a bar to innovation...

In 1933 in Leeds, boys of 17 years were allowed to volunteer for training in the use of telegram delivery motorcycles (but only with parental approval!). Sixteen of the boys were selected and they quickly proved capable. There were some health concerns:

"…riders should be further medically examined after they have performed the duties for six months in order that it may be ascertained whether motor cycling has any physical effects on growing youths."

Post Office memorandum accompanying Circular No. 64/33, October 1933

Motorcycles were ideally suited to the telegram service. The fleet was comprised almost exclusively of BSA 125cc motorcycles. Boys were expected to ride at an average of 15mph. Following the Leeds experiment, additional services were quickly set up in other towns and cities.

Below is a 1950s poster designed by Pat Keely, probably for internal Post Office use. It advises motorcycle riders to 'deliver the telegram quickly and safely', and crucially, 'to the right address'!

In 1965, messengers only delivered 10 million telegrams, a huge decline from pre-war levels.

"The public inland telegram service…is a dying service; it cannot be made to pay."

Parliamentary Select Committee investigating the telegram service, 1967

By 1976, delivery by hand had significantly decreased. Only 84% were still delivered by messenger with the remainder delivered by post, telephone or telex.

In 1977, the Post Office decided that the telegram service should be abolished. However, the service lingered on until transferred to British Telecom in 1981. The time of the telegram messenger had passed.

Illustrations
Messengers exercising, c. 1916

Messengers exercising, c. 1916

Messenger on motorcycle, 1935

Messenger on motorcycle, 1935

1950 poster showing messenger

1950 poster showing messenger


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