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Working Lunch report
"Some letters offer up intriguing mysteries."
 real 56k

Friday, 1 December, 2000, 20:07 GMT
Return to 50m senders
Letters being sorted at the Belfast office.
Even a telegram from the Queen has gone astray
December heralds the busiest time of the year for the Post Office, as Christmas cards swell the amount of mail in the UK to twice the usual amount.

It is also the peak time for the National Return Letter Service, which handles 50 million wrongly addressed items of mail every year.


Make sure you get the right address, make sure you use the postcode and make sure you put a return address on the outside of your item

Royal Mail advice

The Belfast-based operation employs more than 300 people, sifting through letters with incomplete addresses, or where the addressee has moved, and trying to return them to the senders.

A similar service in Portsmouth, with 40 staff, looks after parcels.

"We go probably one step beyond any other country but that's because we have a culture here of not putting return addresses on the outside of our mail," explained centre head Ray Kennedy.

"A lot of countries do expect it from their customers."

Where there is an address, the staff simply return the letters.
Use the postcode and a return address

"This is a service we have always provided - it is a safety net. We like to go the extra mile to get undelivered mail back to the sender.

"If you sent a letter to a friend or colleague would you not like to get that letter back?"

Where there is an address, the staff simply return the letters, or they can make sure they reach their intended destination.

"Sometimes you get stuff that's beyond help, with only a name and possibly a town and there's nothing I can do with that," said letters administrator Drew Orbinson.

"But then you get other stuff that's nearly complete and I can add a postcode to make the postman's job a little bit easier so he can deliver it."

Telegram from the Queen

Some letters offer up intriguing mysteries. One, with just the name of a Welsh town on the envelope, contained historic bonds and other legal documents, some dating back to the 18th century.

Extra efforts are made in such cases to return material which is clearly valuable or has sentimental worth, such as photographs.

"We once had a framed photo of a little old lady receiving her telegram from the Queen but with no return address," recalled section manager Debbie Brennan.

"However, one of my team noticed that the actual telegram she was holding in the picture had her address on it, got the magnifying glass out and was able to send it back to her."

Other unusual finds have included Cup Final tickets, large amounts of cash, a cat and even a snake.

Children: Don't read on

Any cheques are made unusable so they cannot be cashed and returned to the appropriate bank with a covering note.

But not all mail is opened to search for clues to the identity of the sender - letters from the House of Commons, Ministry of Defence and the Royal household are among those left sealed.

Belfast is also where letters to Santa Claus end up. Each is opened and the writer receives a card with Santa's address and postcode on the back, to encourage children to get into the habit of putting their own address on their mail.

Return letters were previously handled at 64 locations around the UK, but in 1992 Belfast put in a bid to run the unified service.

"We were able to present a good business case for bringing it here," said Ray Kennedy.

"We had high unemployment levels so there was a very skilled workforce that we could draw on. We were able to provide a much more productive and cost-efficient operation."

In 1992 Royal Mail was spending 8m on the service - that has now been reduced to 5m. But Ray Kennedy would be happy if it had less work to do.

His advice for anyone sending a letter - and especially Christmas cards - is simple.

"Make sure you get the right address, make sure you use the postcode and make sure you put a return address on the outside of your item," he said.

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20 Nov 00 | Business
Working Lunch
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