In this series, we turn to the words of Mr. Charles Dickens which appeared in the March 30, 1850 edition of the publication he edited, Household Words. The following article is chock full of details about how the Post Office operated in Victorian London and also about the mail and other items it processed on a daily basis.
The piece follows the progress of two gentlemen who make a visit to the Post Office and Part Two continues –
” Is it possible?” exclaimed one of the visitors, regarding the piles of epistles on the numerous tables “that this mass of letters can be arranged and sent away to their respective addresses in time to receive the next collection, which will arrive in less than an hour?”
“Quite,” replied an obliging informant; ” I’ll tell you how we do it. We have divided London into seventeen sections. There they are, you perceive.” He then pointed to the tables with pigeon-holes numbered from one to seventeen; one marked “blind,” with a nineteenth labelled “general.” It was explained that the proper arrangement of the letters in these compartments constitutes the first sorting. They are then sorted into subdivisions; then into districts, and finally handed over to the letter-carriers, who, in another room, arrange them for their own convenience into ” walks.” As the visitors looked round they perceived their coloured envelopes—which were all addressed to Scotland, suddenly emerge from a chaotic heap, and lodged in the division marked ” general,” as magically as a conjuror causes any card you may choose to fly out of the whole pack. “These letters,” remarked the expositor, “being for the country, will be presently passed into the Inland-office through a tunnel under the hall. ” The ‘ blind’ letters have superscriptions which the sorters cannot decipher, and are sent to the ‘ blind’ table, where a gentleman presides, to whom, from the extreme sharpness of his vision, we give the lucus a non lucendo name of the ‘ blind clerk.’ You will have a specimen of his powers presently.”
While this dialogue was going on there was a general abatement of the noise of stamping and shuffling letters; and, when the visitors looked round, the place had relapsed into its former tranquillity. It was scarcely credible that from 30,000 to 40,000 letters had been received, stamped, counted, sorted, and sent away in so short a time. “A judicious division of labour,” remarked one of our friends, “must work these miracles.”
“Yes, sir,” was the reply of an official. “There are from 1200 to 1700 of us to do the work of the district post alone. When it was removed from Gerrard-street to this building there was not a quarter of that number. For instance—then, three carriers sufficed for the Paddington district; but, by the despatch you have just seen completed, we have sent off 2000 letters to that single locality by the hands of twenty-five carriers.”
” The increase is attributable to the penny system?” interrogated one of our inquiring friends.
The questioner then referred to a Parliamentary paper of which he had obtained possession. It showed him the history of general postal increase since the era of dear distance rates. In 1839—under the old system—the number of letters which passed through the post was 76 millions. In 1840 came the uniform penny, and for that year the number was 162 millions, or an increase of 93 millions, equal to 123 per cent. That was the grand start; afterwards the rate of increase subsided from 36 per cent. in 1841, to 16 per cent. in 1842 and 1843. In 1845, and the three following years, the increase was respectively, 39, 37, and 30 per cent. Then succeeded a sudden drop; perhaps the culminating point in the rate of increase had been attained. The Post-office is, however, a thermometer of commerce: during the depressing year 1848, the number of letters increased no more than 9 per cent. But last year 337,500,000 epistles passed through the office, being an augmentation of 8,500,000 upon the preceding year, or 11 per cent, of progressive increase. Another Parliamentary document shows, that, although the business is now four and a half times more than it was in 1839, the expense of doing it has only doubled. In the former year the cost of the establishment was not quite 690,000/.; in 1849 it was about 1,400,000/.
While one visitor was poring over these documents, the other deliberately watched the coloured envelopes. They were, with about 2000 other General Post letters, put into boxes and taken to the tunnel to be conveyed into the Inlandoffice upon a horizontal band worked by a wheel. The two friends now took leave of the District Department to follow the objects of their pursuit.
It was a quarter before six o’clock when they crossed the Hall—six being the latest hour at which newspapers can be posted without fee.
It was then just drizzling newspapers. The great window of that department being thrown open, the first black fringe of a thunder-cloud of newspapers impending over the Post office was discharging itself fitfully—now in large drops, now in little; now in sudden plumps, now stopping altogether. By degrees it began to rain hard; by fast degrees the storm came on harder and harder, until it blew, rained, hailed, snowed, newspapers. A fountain of newspapers played in at the window. Water-spouts of newspapers broke from enormous sacks, and engulphed the men inside. A prodigious main of newspapers, at the Newspaper River Head, seemed to be turned on, threatening destruction to the miserable Post-office. The Post-office was so full already, that the window foamed at the mouth with newspapers. Newspapers flew out like froth, and were tumbled in again by the bystanders. All the boys in London seemed to have gone mad, and to be besieging the Post-office with newspapers. Now and then there was a girl; now and then a woman; now and then a weak old man: but as the minute hand of the clock crept near to six, such a torrent of boys, and such a torrent of newspapers came tumbling in together pell-mell, head over heels, one above another, that the giddy head looking on chiefly wondered why the boys springing over one another’s heads, and flying the garter into the Post-office with the enthusiasm of the corps of acrobats at M. Franconi’s, didn’t post themselves nightly, along with the newspapers, and get delivered all over the world.
Suddenly it struck six. Shut, Sesame! Perfectly still weather. Nobody there. No token of the late storm—Not a soul, too late!
But what a chaos within! Men up to their knees in newspapers on great platforms; men gardening among newspapers with rakes; men digging and delving among newspapers as if a new description of rock had been blasted into those fragments ; men going up and down a gigantic trap—an ascending and descending-room worked by a steam-engine—still taking with them nothing but newspapers. All the history of the time, all the chronicled births, deaths, and marriages, all the crimes, all the accidents, all the vanities, all the changes, all the realities, of all the civilised earth, heaped up, parcelled out, carried about, knocked down, cut, shuffled, dealt, played, gathered up again, and passed from hand to hand, in an apparently interminable and hopeless confusion, but really in a system of admirable order, certainty, and simplicity, pursued six nights every week, all through the rolling year. Which of us, after this, shall find fault with the rather more extensive system of good and evil, when we don’t quite understand it at a glance; or set the stars right in their spheres?