Royal Mail – Travelling Post Office

The public face of the Royal Mail is a well known one. The Postman’s morning round, the street corner pillar box and the red mail van with its distinctive Royal cipher are traditional features of everyday life throughout the country. We are all customers of Royal Mail and the collection and delivery services provided by the organisation are familiar to us.

The inner workings of Royal Mail are, by contrast, mostly unseen by its customers. A large and complex distribution network exists behind the scenes to handle the mail. This network  encompasses the length and breadth of the  nation and involves all modes of transport – road, rail, air and sea.

One aspect of this network that has often caught the public imagination, most vividly through the poetry of W H Auden and the music of Benjamin Britten which combined to accompany the classic 1936 documentary film “Night Mail” is that of the Travelling Post Office (TPO). TPO’s are trains containing letter sorting carriages which enable mail to be processed on the move. The TPO’s ran for over l60 years, continuing to provide a first class service until their cessation on January 10th 2004.

The records tell us that it was George Karstadt, one of the resident provincial Post Office Surveyors, who first put forward the idea of  using the railway to sort letters whilst in transit, although Rowland Hill claimed that he had thought of using mail coaches for on-board  sorting back in the l820! We know for certain that it was one of Karstadt’s sons, Frederick, who was appointed to sort letters on the world’s first TPO which ran experimentally between Birmingham and Warrington in January l838.

For the Post Office of 1838 the TPO offered two great advantages. Firstly, there was the obvious saving of time which could be obtained by processing mail on the move and Secondly, there were great economies to be had in the number of mail bags in circulation (instead of sending a direct mail bag to each of a large number of post towns, postmasters could now send mail for a wide area in one bag to the TPO for amalgamation and re-distribution on board). In this respect, the  introduction of the TPO was almost a necessity if the Post Office was to gain maximum advantage of the speed offered by rail.

The experiment on the Grand Junction Railway was followed later in 1838 by a regular TPO on the newly opened London and Birmingham Railway and  by the end of the year, through TPO services had been established between London and Preston.

The TPO service grew rapidly after its inaugural year. The proliferation of new mail routes; the explosion of the quality of mail handled by the Post Office following the introduction of the Penny Postage in 1840; the general underlying growth of economic activity; – all these factors lead to expansion and development. New, purpose built, TPO vehicles were provided by the railway companies as part of mail carrying contracts agreed with the Post Office. Additional sorting clerks were recruited. By 1852, about 40 clerks were employed on TPO’s and the network already stretched to Perth in Scotland, to Newcastle Upon Tyne and to Exeter. (It was not until 1854, however, that the GPO Department which ran the TPOs ceased to be known as the Mail Coach Office).

The 1850’s and 1860’s saw further expansion. By l867 the TPO’s were sufficiently important to have their own Department at the GPO headed by a “Surveyor of Travelling Post Offices”, who had over 200 staff under his control.

TPOs ran both as Night Mails and as Day Mails. London was still the nodal point for much postal traffic and whilst the Night Mails connected mail from London evening collections with morning deliveries in the provinces and vice-versa, the Day Mails afforded service to mail flowing between the more distant parts of the country (which was often re-sorted in London and reached its destination in time for the afternoon deliveries then common in most towns and cities.

The zenith of the TPO service was to be seen during the years leading up to the first world war. Over 130 TPO’s made up a complex web of interconnecting routes. Ranging from the large and prestigious London based services such as the North Western TPO and the Great Western TPO to small local links such as the Grimsby and Lincoln Sorting Tender and the Brighton and Hastings Sorting Carriage, the TPO map of this period reached every corner of the land.

In 1968 the Post Office introduced the two-tier letter service and since then the TPO’s have sorted only First Class mail.

During the 1970’s some marginal TPO’s were withdrawn on economic grounds but the overall size and shape of the network remained largely unchanged until the mid-1980’s. By contrast, during their last 15 years there were a series of revisions and alterations on a scale unseen since the formative years of the TPO’s. These changes aligned the functions of the TPO’s to the many developments in the Royal Mail distribution network and tended to resort in fewer but larger TPO formations. There were eventually 10 TPO’s operated by approximately 370 Royal Mail Staff.

TPO’s main function until January 10th 2004 was to provide a First Class service to those parts of the UK that could not currently achieve next day delivery by other means.

Under Postcode-defined circulation each of the remaining TPO’s designated range of Postcode areas for which they sorted mail. Postcode areas were grouped to form Divisions within each TPO. The mail sent to each TPO Division was sorted en route and is despatched from the train at the appropriate places. TPO’s provided intermediate processing – all mail received was already given a preliminary sortation into Postcode areas before it was received on the train (the only exception   being a small amount of mail posted directly into the TPO carriages by customers at stations).

Many Postcodes areas within the UK were provided with service by at least one TPO Division, some areas were served by several TPO’s.  About 1.75 million letters were sorted nightly on the TPO network, although further large amounts of mail were carried as stowage by the trains to which TPO’s are attached.

In Quality of Service terms the TPO’s were invaluable and it was previously thought that it would be very difficult for Royal Mail to achieve over 92.5% next day delivery for First Class mail without the on-board sorting of letters provided by the TPO network.

In the sorting carriages one side of the vehicle was equipped with long banks of pigeon-holes, known as sorting frames. Smaller pigeon-holes were    provided for the sorting of letters, whilst packages and large letters are sorted on the larger frames or Desks. Each row of pigeon-holes was labelled by means of long flexible strips called “fillets”. On the opposite side of the coach, multiple hooks were provided for the hanging of open mail bags into which bundles of sorted letters and individual packets were dropped. When mail bags were full, they were sealed and labelled and taken to separate stowage vans where they were neatly stacked to await despatch at Rail Hubs and      stations en route.

The Manager of the TPO had to carryout his duties without the benefit of an Office. Each coach had a lavatory and limited facilities – Hot Water Boiler and a Small Oven / Food Warmer. Some Stools were provided for the sorters, but most preferred to work standing up. All projecting fixtures and fittings were padded, so as to avoid injury to staff from the motion of the train.

Of the 380 or so Royal Mail staff who were employed on TPO duties, most had to lodge away from home for at least two periods a week.

Working in teams ranging in size between four to forty, the normal pattern of duties was   Monday – passenger train to distant point,  returning on the TPO Monday night; TPO to distant point on Tuesday and Thursday nights; TPO from distant point on Wednesday and Friday nights; lodge at distant point during Wednesday and Friday. Most lodging was done at places over 200 miles from home (e.g.  London staff at Carlisle  or  Newcastle – staff in Bristol – staff in Newcastle).

The only TPO staff who did an “out and back” working on a nightly basis were the  Penzance-Bristol-Penzance TPO staff.

The working conditions and lifestyle made a career on the TPO’s a special calling, one to which only relatively few found that they could adapt to. Once settled, the average TPO crew member tends to stay – often for very long periods . (Recent retirements from TPO’s  in some cases brought to an end careers of more than 40 years of riding the rails). All TPO crews were recruited from existing staff at Royal Mail sorting centres. TPO duties were open to both sexes, although the number of women working on board was relatively small.

TPO staff rightly considered themselves as the ‘Cream de la Creme’ of Royal Mail sorting staff and took great pride in their ability, in most cases, to sort faster and more accurately than their colleagues in stationary sorting offices.

The nightly challenge of completing the sorting of all traffic on board by the due  despatch point engendered a particular pride of craft and a strong sense of loyalty and comradeship amongst TPO staff.

TPOs Were Ceased on 09/01/2004                                                                                                                         Alan Yeo


The Night Mail

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

The shop at the corner and the girl next door.

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:

The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder

Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,

Snorting noisily as she passes

Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,

Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.

Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;

They slumber on with paws across.

In the farm she passes no one wakes,

But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, the climb is done.

Down towards Glasgow she descends

Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,

Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces

Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.

All Scotland waits for her:

In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs

Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,

Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,

Receipted bills and invitations

To inspect new stock or visit relations,

And applications for situations

And timid lovers’ declarations

And gossip, gossip from all the nations,

News circumstantial, news financial,

Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,

Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,

Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,

Letters to Scotland from the South of France,

Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands

Notes from overseas to Hebrides

Written on paper of every hue,

The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,

The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,

The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,

Clever, stupid, short and long,

The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep

Dreaming of terrifying monsters,

Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston’s or       Crawford’s:

Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,

Asleep in granite Aberdeen,

They continue their dreams,

And shall wake soon and long for letters,

And none will hear the postman’s knock

Without a quickening of the heart,

For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

W H Auden