How do you trace postal worker ancestors?

By Guest, 26 October 2017 - 3:06pm

In its 500 years, the Post Office has employed thousands of people. Susannah Coster of the Postal Museum reveals the best resources for uncovering their stories

Postmen sort letters by hand at Southampton Post Office, 1957 (Credit: Getty Images)

Do you think you have an ancestor who worked for the postal service?

If that’s the case the new Postal Museum’s Discovery Room is the place to start your research. The Postal Museum opened at its new Central London site in July 2017, exploring the history of the Post Office and development of communications in Britain.

The new museum has several galleries, educational and research facilities and a café. For the first time, a section of Mail Rail (the underground railway used to transport mail under the capital from 1927–2003) has been opened up for the public. You can enjoy a ride on this two-foot gauge railway following part of the route that so many letters took in the past.

The museum is also the home of the Royal Mail Archive and the definitive place to find out about past postal employees in the UK. Many of the records held in the archive are of potential interest to family historians.

Royal Mail Group (separated in 2013 from the still government owned Post Office Ltd) is still one of the largest employers in the country, and with 500 years of history has had an impact on countless lives.

Learn about the most useful resources for tracing your postal worker ancestors with this record roundup...

Appointment books

The key sources of information on individuals who worked for the Post Office are the Appointment Books and the Pensions and Gratuities records.

The Appointment Books provide a register of most employees from 1831 to 1956 (like all records in The Royal Mail Archive they are given a reference starting with the word ‘POST’, in this case POST 58).

Other volumes cover 1737–74 and some of the period up to 1969. Arranged by year of appointment and then by surname, they give date of appointment, role and place of work. These are now searchable online via Ancestry as the British Postal Service Appointment Books, 1737–1969 collection.

A list of abbreviations used in these records is at the end of the Postal Museum’s Family History Research Guide. Before 1831, Treasury Letters (POST 1) sometimes refer to individual appointments. These are usually indexed according to year and place of work.

Ancestry's British Postal Service Appointment Books collection contains over 1.4 million records

Pensions and gratuities records

The Pensions and Gratuities records date from 1719 to 1959. Records before 1860 generally list senior and clerical grades only (before then, not everyone was eligible for a pension). Indexes to pensions and gratuities (POST 35 and POST 38) are arranged by year of award and then surname.

Employees usually retired at 60. These records also include awards made to dependents of staff who died at work and to women who left the GPO to get married. From 1860 to 1940, pension and gratuity applications (POST 1) were sent to the Treasury. These give some details of individuals’ careers, but do not contain personal information such as private addresses or family details. Not all letters have survived.

In November 1940, the Treasury delegated power to grant pensions to the Post Office; after this date only exceptional cases resulted in communication to the Treasury. From 1940 to 1959, indexes contain one-line entries confirming when an award was paid.

Eligibility for a pension or gratuity depended on length of service and individual circumstances. Given this complexity, success in finding these details is by no means guaranteed.

Establishment books

Other records useful for family history research include the Establishment Books and staff magazines.

From 1691, the Establishment Books (POST 59) list people employed by each department at a given time. The details given do vary: some entries include lower grades, later entries are mostly senior officials.

Visiting the archive

Apart from the Appointment Books, it is only possible to comprehensively view the records in the Discovery Room.

Please contact us before you visit, to book a desk and discuss any information it would be useful for you to bring with you for your research. To view original records, you need to sign up for a User Card and show photographic ID with your name and home address on it.

For more advice about tracing your postal worker ancestors, see the November 2017 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, on sale now


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