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Postwoman Pat - Historic archives reveal 'femail' workforce that saved the country

Post Office records profile the women who stepped into ‘male’ roles to keep the post and country working

  • Collection lists 1.5 million men and women employed by Post Office over the last 250 years, when service was world’s largest employer
  • Records profile the women who kept the country’s postal service running in wartime


In a world-first, Ancestry.co.uk, the UK’s favourite family history website, in partnership with The British Postal Museum & Archive, today launched online the Post Office Appointment Books, 1737-1969 – a collection of 1.5 million records listing the employees of one of the world’s largest ever employers - including the ‘femails’ who kept the post going during wartime.

The records, dating back to 1737, list the men and women appointed to roles within the service, and tell the fascinating tale of the women who kept the British Post Office, and therefore the country, functioning – particularly during the first and second world wars.

The records, originally created to keep tally of all employees, list information on worker appointments, transfers, dismissals, resignations and deaths. They typically include a name, date of appointment, grade or position and location of work, with some showing salaries, references or recommendations.

One of the most notable observations from the records is that female workers are so prevalent, despite stretching back many hundreds of years. This contrasts with many other industries of the 18th and 19th century, where women were primarily employed for domestic duties or kept to ‘traditional’ roles in seamstressing, textiles or retail. 

From its early days, the Post Office employed women in two main roles, often as sub-postmistresses, running post offices as part of their business, or as postwomen, particularly in rural areas when men were not available. From 1870, when the Post Office was given control of the telegraph system, many more women were employed in running the telegraphs and from here moved into administrative and clerical roles.

In fact, more than 3,000 post office workers named Pat are listed within the collection of nearly 1.5 million records, there are more than 4,500 named Patricia also recorded. 

The role of women within the Post Office was rarely as crucial as during the first and second world wars, when women plugged the gap left by men who were required to fight in the armed forces. Analysis of the digitised records shows a vast increase in female appointments during the major years of conflict, often in roles previously reserved for men.

By the start of the Great War, the Post Office employed almost 250,000 people, processing nearly six billion items of post a year, and was the largest single employer in the world. Yet by 1917, the service had released over 73,000 male staff for war services, and so required thousands of temporary staff. Some 35,000 women were included in this temporary workforce, many of whom are recorded in the records released today.

The same situation applied during WWII, and by the midpoint of the conflict the Post Office employed more than 100,000 women. These temporary roles were officially referred to as ‘non-established’, and included roles such as the delivery of letters in urban areas, where women often carried mail through Britain’s war-torn cities (images available).

Many women put themselves in danger, including one Florence Marie Cass – a telephonist during WWI. After an explosion in a nearby munitions works brought down the power in her telephone exchange, she was able to reactivate the crucial centre by navigating her way to the engine room in complete darkness and starting the emergency generators. For her actions she received an MBE for bravery.

A number of other ‘legendary’ female posties are listed in the collection, including:

  • Elizabeth Dickson – Elizabeth served the Post Office for 30 years as a non-established postwoman. When she retired in 1908, it was reported that she had never once been late for duty and had trekked an estimated 130,000 miles during her career – equivalent to walking five times around the world.
  • Annie Cooper – One of the longest serving sub-postmistresses, who in 1946 not only celebrated her 70th birthday but completed 50 years of service as Sub-Postmistress of the post office at Newbridge Lane, Stockport.
  • Fanny King – Fanny was a traditional rural postwoman who served the Cotswolds area for much of the early to mid 20th Century. At the age of 65 she was still trekking her nine-mile route on foot every morning and was even quoted as saying: “I think I should die if I didn’t have my morning delivery.”


The role of women in the Post Office was also to have a knock on effect on women’s employments rights. Unions formed by female workers campaigned on women’s rights and particularly equal pay during the first half of the 20th Century. As a result, women working in the Post Office had their pay matched from 1955 – a move that would encourage further progressive moves to take place throughout the British workplace.

Ancestry.co.uk International Content Director Dan Jones comments: “The Post Office was a true leviathan of British industry, at one point employing more people worldwide than any other company. As a result, the value of these archives as a family history resource is massive.

“But the records also tell us a lot about the social history of the Post Office, in that it actively recruited women, particularly during the world wars, which led to a growing acceptance that work roles should not be defined by gender.”

Gavin McGuffie, Head of Archives at The British Postal Museum & Archiveadded: “We see the digitisation of these records as a crucial step in making the rich history of the Post Office available to everyone.

“For many years the records have been seen as a vital source for family historians, and now they can be accessed at the click of a mouse from homes across Britain and the world.”

 

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION / INTERVIEWS:

Chris Blackwood   

chris@thirdcity.co.uk

020 3174 1023 / 0779 524 7275

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