George Robinson was a lifelong shoemaker. Or so I thought.
Born in Wollaston, a Northamptonshire shoe-making village in 1802, he’d settled in Leicester by the mid 1820s. Invariably he appears in the records as a shoemaker or, in his later years as a shoe warehouseman. His was a working life spent cutting leather, sewing uppers, nailing on soles ¬– one of thousands working in the boot and shoe industry for which Victorian Leicester was renowned.
It all seemed straightforward, until I spotted him in the 1851 census listed as a ‘Letter Deliverer’. Apparently it was an interlude, halfway through his working life. With my curiosity sparked, I resolved to find out more. Could I get a sense of his day-to-day working life delivering letters through the Leicester streets?
Online, I dipped into Ancestry’s occupational records – which include British Postal Appointment books from 1831-1969 – and within a few minutes I’d uncovered a trace:
“Appoint George Robinson as Letter Carrier at Leicester if qualified on the recommendation of Sir Joshua Walmsley Bart MP”
It was dated 11th October 1847 and authorised by ‘Clanricarde’, the Postmaster General. At first sight, the requirement for a good character reference from the local MP seemed rather heavy. But George’s appointment took place at a time when the Royal Mail was keen to maintain its reputation for integrity, honesty and reliability; with the modern postal system still in its infancy, recruiting dependable letter carriers and clerks was of paramount importance.
To get a clearer idea of how the postal system developed, I head to the Royal Mail Archive in London’s Clerkenwell. Using their handy information sheets, I piece together a timeline.
Prior to the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840, letters were transported by mail coach, handled by private agents, and payment made by the recipient at their front door. In his 1837 treatise, ‘Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicality’, Rowland Hill campaigned to re-design the system:
“the ordinary delivery of letters is an exceedingly tedious, inconvenient and consequently expensive process… [pre-paid postage] would undoubtedly economise the time of the Letter Carriers even more that that of the Clerks. There would not only be no stopping to collect the postage, but probably it would soon be unnecessary even to await the opening of the door, as every house might be provided with a box into which the Letter Carrier would drop the letters and, having knocked, he would pass on as fast as he could walk.”
Registered letters start from 1841 – using the world’s first adhesive stamp, the Penny Black. Christmas cards were introduced by Henry Cole in 1843 and from 1848 book post allows books, newspapers and other printed-paper to be sent at a special lower rate. Better facilities for the sale of postage stamps became essential and during the early 1840s a network of post offices began to develop. In parallel, the expansion of the railways enabled the speedy transfer of post between towns.
I search for further mentions of George Robinson amongst the postal records but alas, there are no pension listings or signs of promotion. What is clear, is that he joined the post office at a time of great innovation and growth. With the introduction of the penny post, letter volumes in Leicester tripled virtually overnight; 2,000 incoming and 1,400 outgoing letters were soon being handled each day. To improve the set up, a new post office was erected in Granby Street. As the Leicester Chronicle reports on 14 August 1847:
“THE NEW POST-OFFICE, Leicester, was opened on Thursday, when great numbers of the inhabitants indulged their curiosity by walking into the building and examining its arrangements. The new office is very convenient, though, we imagine, hardly so commodious as it might have been. It comprises a large apartment for the receipt and sorting of letters, a room for the Postmaster, a room for the deliverers and messengers, a sitting apartment, offices, and a wide passage for the shelter of the public. In the latter are windows where applicants for stamps, letters, and money orders may be waited upon.”
With a burst of civic pride, the Leicester Journal in November 1847 reports on the letter carriers’ eye-catching new uniforms. George Robinson, appointed only a month earlier, would have been amongst the first to wear it:
“THE POSTMAN OF THE MARKET PLACE DISTRICT… We have been favoured with a view of the dress, in which we hear he will make his debut on Sunday next. It consists of a scarlet coat, blue collar trimmed with gold lace, a blue vest edged with gold, black pantaloons, and Hessian boots, a hat with a gold band, the brims being edged with gold lace, and, in addition, a capital waterproof cape.”
The timely delivery of letters depended upon efficient sorting under pressure – “two very violent convulsions, namely, the morning delivery and evening dispatch” – and a complex network of railway services. The 1849 trade directory gives a sense of the daily comings and goings:
By 1857 all was not well; “The Leicester post office is in a very disorganised state, and this is attributable to the ill health and inefficiency of the Postmaster”, wrote the post office surveyor. But by the end of his 39-year tenure in 1860, Postmaster William Parsons had overseen the transition from a small town post office to one with a staff of nine clerks, nine letter carriers plus two auxiliaries, twelve rural messengers and a station porter.
It’s not clear exactly how long George Robinson served as a letter carrier, but by 1861 he’s back working as a shoemaker. Maybe he became tired of heading out in all weathers. Maybe he was a casualty of a post-Parsons reorganisation. Or maybe the prospects in the town’s boot and shoe industry were more attractive. What is clear however, is my impression of him, dressed in a scarlet coat and top hat, setting out from Granby Street to deliver news and good cheer amongst the streets of Victorian Leicester.
This blogpost was brought to you by Graham Barker, author of Auntie Mabel, a website which helps family historians write, publish and share their own family history. Dip into the website to find step-by-step writing activities and case studies. Graham’s Trading Stories, Working Lives series uses resources from Ancestry and elsewhere to kick-start a closer look at the occupations of his ancestors.