May 23, 2014 Leave a comment
Historically the Post Office had always operated on a Sunday, there were a few anomalies the most significant being London, but the rest of the country were able to send and receive mail on a Sunday.This was a well defended Post Office principle during the nineteenth century, a government department that championed its convenient and efficient service for the people of Britain. The Sunday service only ended in the First World War due to attempts to cut costs and pressure on the diminished postal labour force.
My PhD looks at the nineteenth century Post Office and my recent work has focused on this Sunday service and an active and occasional powerful campaign to stop the regular postal deliveries on a Sunday. This campaign was led by people labelled as sabbatarians, who felt that God had decreed that no work should be done on a Sunday. Work included the work of the Post Office’s sorters and letter-carriers as well as the reading and writing of letters by businesses and individuals. For the campaigners they saw this as much as a humanitarian and protective issue as religious.
The sabbatarians campaigned hard, and their biggest success was in 1850, when they managed to secure the legislation they desired ending all Sunday deliveries and collections. The success was short lived as a political backlash called for an inquiry and the Act was amended to allow local postal districts to chose if they wanted the service on a Sunday or not. Individuals were also allowed to opt-out of a house delivery on a Sunday if they could not gain a majority support.
Religion was obviously important in the arguments to end Sunday work, and went hand-in-hand with campaigns to close museums, shops and public houses on a Sunday. But the arguments to keep the service are similar to the ones put forward to restarting the service today, those of convenience and providing an efficient service.
Some of these arguments can be found in the petitions that survive from the nineteenth century stored in the British Postal Museum and Archive. They are from local areas to the Post Office requesting their Sunday deliveries are re-instated. In 1897 the district of Gorton (without the City of Manchester) stated that
‘grave inconvenience has frequently been caused by the non-delivery on Sunday of important private letters (especially in cases of sickness)’ [POST 14/22].
For the people of Maindee near Newport, Monmouthshire in 1856, it was more a matter of business for a growing area.
‘Many of the undersigned are so connected in business as to require immediate attention to their Correspondence and consequently are obliged to send special messengers on Sundays for their letters, thus proving the necessity of a Sunday delivery’ [POST 14/80]
As previously mentioned London was an anomaly and had never received a general postal delivery and collection on a Sunday. It was consequently used as an example in the sabbatarian campaigns and any perceived threat to the sanctity of London’s Sunday was fervently defended. A newspaper article of 1839 stated:
‘if in that great emporium of trade and wealth, which within its circumference embraces more than the population of some nations – if in this huge overgrown capital, the seat of Government and legislation – if there the Post Office may be shut on the Sabbath, without public loss or inconvenience, it would seem to follow that it may be shut anywhere and everywhere else.’
[Caledonian Mercury, 21 January 1839]
However, even this was countered with arguments that Londoners simply used the post offices on the edge of the metropolis to send important messages. Furthermore, with changes made to the service to ensure provincial post offices could reduce their hours on a Sunday work had to be done in London, such as sorting and transmitting mail.
The move to reopen post offices across the country for the convenience of the public could be seen as a return to the Post Office’s Victorian values, but I feel that what the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) have stated is also significant. They welcome these changes but make clear that the Sunday work would be voluntary and on a higher scale of pay. I think this is the real legacy of the nineteenth century. Religious principal may have been the bedrock of the Sunday Labour campaigns of the nineteenth century but they were also part of a movement that promoted the welfare of the employee within the corporate aims of profit and efficiency.