BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Thursday, 8 October 2009 11:54 UK

Are we falling out of love with the postie?

Postman in Hampshire

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

After unpopular changes to deliveries, a summer of disruptions and with a national strike looming, is the British love affair with the postman faltering?

Like the milkman and the paperboy, the postman has for years been part of every community's early morning ritual.

His red bicycle, with a bag of letters attached either side of the back wheel, has become an image of community life, and can be seen propped up against a gatepost or being wheeled alongside him as he walks door-to-door.

When John Jenkins began delivering mail in rural Worcestershire, he had the luxury of a helper to split the round. He said it was very much a public service that included picking up shopping and prescriptions for people. Fifty years later, and 12 months after retirement, he says: "It was a public service. I think postmen still have that attitude but they just don't have the time to do it."

It's a job that has been held in great national affection. Regional newspapers relish tales of posties' life-saving heroics - resuscitating a choking nine-month-old boy, carrying a blind pensioner out of a burning house or spotting the jaundiced face of someone with liver disease, to name a few real-life events.

Putting mail through 26 million front doors every day gives the postman unique access to every household, and it's a privilege that extends the responsibility of the job beyond one of delivery man, or woman, to - in some cases - neighbourhood watch, community guardian and social worker, rolled into one.

But the job appears to be under greater scrutiny than ever. For the last couple of months, agency staff have had to take over deliveries in parts of the country affected by the strikes. Managers have even stepped in to deliver letters and a national strike has been announced.

The disruption has caused a backlog of mail estimated to be between four (says Royal Mail) and 20 million (says union) pieces, and it's the latest fracture in the bond between postie and public. As the most visible face of the mail service, the postie has become a target for much of the public's resentment over late birthday cards, missing wedding invites and overdue credit card statements.

Postman in north London, 1938
Popular with the public, if not the time and motion people

A drive to modernise the service has already reduced the number of daily deliveries from two to one. The first letters used to drop through letterboxes before 7am, but now it's more likely to be 10am when most people are at work, says one postman.

That means many people don't even see their postman. Customers have also been infuriated by some postal workers dropping a collection card through the door rather than knocking to deliver a parcel. The postal workers' union admits this happens, but says its members do not have the time to ring the doorbell and wait. The procedure typically takes four minutes.

Dragging the postal service into the 21st Century has meant cutting more than 50,000 jobs since 2002, with more frontline postal workers expected to be culled. The Royal Mail says there have been no forced redundancies and it very much values the community role that posties play, rewarding those who go the extra mile.

But vans are slowly replacing bicycles - particularly unpopular in Cambridge - which means personal interaction is diminished. And competing postal firms like TNT, whose staff dress in orange, have taken over some "final mile" business deliveries.

More work, less time

The post generally has less significance to us. E-mails, mobile phone calls, text messages and online banking have meant the days when one waited anxiously for the postman to arrive with something important are fewer, although the upsurge in online shopping has offset part of the the drop in overall volume.

"I used to get Christmas cards and birthday cards and I knew all the people," says a postman who prefers to remain anonymous. "They would ask me in for tea or chocolate. If there was a wrong address or no number on a letter I knew where it would go. If I was on holiday they got the wrong mail. A lot of people live on their own and I liked to stop and talk. When I told one of them I was being moved the word spread and they started a campaign to stop it. But I was moved and I don't like my new round."

It was all so different when Alexander Alexander, 81, began delivering in the late 1960s in Edinburgh. The job often involved picking up prescriptions for people, reading gas meters and helping people with the odd domestic task. The police would consult postmen as a matter of course about crimes on their delivery routes, he recalls.

"For 10 years, I did the same walk which included Heart of Midlothian, my football team. I had 490 calls and a lot of stairs in the old tenements, carrying the bag.

"The postie was a mine of information. He knew when people were getting married, he even knew when their library book was overdue. Now people don't even know their postman's name. They are strangers to people, there doesn't seem to be the same continuity."

Fast-forward 50 years and it's a very different story. There's more work to do and less time to do it because of job cuts, says Mike, a postman with more than 20 years' experience of delivering in the south-east of England.

£600 tips

"When I started, the postman was part of the community, he knew everybody. That sort of thing has gone because all they are interested in now is getting the mail out. There just isn't enough time.

Bill Thomas, 78, retired in 1996 after 15 years. He was a reserve postman, which meant he didn't have his own round but covered colleagues' rounds in south-east London. "I knew all of them. When I used to deliver, they would come to the door and we'd have a chat. I was a servant to the people. I knew some of them by name and they knew me as Bill. I had a sack which I tied up with a piece of string and then put it on my shoulder and off I went at 7.30am, then back out with the second delivery at 10.30am."

"I used to deliver in a village and I knew everyone. I could get £600 tips at Christmas. When I delivered to farms, instead of dropping the mail in a letterbox at the end of the long drive, I would take the letters, the newspaper and the milk all the way up the drive, walk into the house and put it on the kitchen table. I was that close to people."

The Communication Workers Union, which represents most of the 150,000 postal workers, says it would be alarmist to say postmen and women are suddenly strangers but many are under too much strain to stop and chat.

"Postmen and women are still delivering to every address, six days a week, so still getting the coverage but what we're noticing is that there's less time to do that work because there is more pressure," says a union spokeswoman.

"People have said that when they see their postman he's rushing from place to place and can't chat anymore. Royal Mail would say stopping to chat is not efficient. But postmen are working harder than ever before, handling 10% less mail with 30% less staff."

Eyes and ears

Critics would say workers in most other jobs have had to become more efficient - so why not posties?

The stories of Good Samaritan postmen show that many still have that community role, the CWU spokeswoman adds, but when they have enough trouble completing their own job, that sense of duty is under greater threat.

Royal Mail says a 10% drop in letters and parcels each year is losing it £170m per annum, so more job cuts likely and more machines to be introduced
Union accepts need for job cuts but resists them being imposed

Journalist Claire Bates, a mother of three in Hampshire, says for four years, until one month ago, postman Paul was the eyes and ears of the community.

"He was delivering solely for Army quarters and he had a really good understanding of the unique circumstances in which we live. One day when my husband was in Iraq, he became really concerned when I didn't answer the doorbell because he knew I was in.

"He started walking off but he turned round, came back and started banging on the door. Then he walked round the side of the house to the garage, where he found me.

"I was really touched that despite more and more pressure on postmen to be fast, he bothered to take the time to check."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

They'd save millions if they picked up some of those red rubber bands they drop everywhere.
Richie Hunter, Ealing

My postman takes stamped letters and posts them for me because I am a stop-at-home-disabled. He always has a cheerful 'Good Morning' for me and I think he is wonderful. He is the second terrific postman our village has had in the 23 years I have lived here. Blessed indeed. I hope the post will continue to be delivered by these helpful people. Their contribution to society is more than delivery of post, and would be sorely missed. Pay them decently and don't overwork them.
Arlene, Devon

Having received a diabolical service over the last few years and being fobbed off by management right up to Adam Crozier I wish I had an alternative I could choose. It's not all the fault of the companies, too many workers are stuck in 1970's ways.
Paul, Nuneaton

Having spent 10 years working as a frontline postman (on foot/bike/van) the problems i found were mainly with snotty nosed managers straight out of university trying to tell experienced postmen and women how to do their jobs. The target-driven society is putting more and more pressure on individual postmen to do twice as much work for the same wage. Every person has the right to withhold their labour if they fell they are being treated unfairly. Do not fall for Royal Mail's propaganda. I no longer work for Royal Mail, but the good old postie has my full support if they withdraw their labour in protest.
Colin Millington, Salford

I wonder how many of the 2.47 million unemployed people would jump at the chance of a job at the Royal Mail?
Anna , Tunbridge Wells, UK

All the public want is post delivered through their letter box within a couple of days of it being posted. If that means no longer stopping to chat to the postie, then that's not a problem. I no longer trust the Royal Mail to do this, so my family and friends get their presents when I see them rather than on their actual birthdays. The CWU also needs to realise that public support is rarely behind people who strike during a recession, especially when it is done at tax-payer's expense. This strike may help just now, but it will cost more jobs in the future as individuals and businesses switch to alternative sources to ensure their mail actually gets delivered.
Antonia Crawford, Watford

I've been a postman for twelve years and this strike is the last resort for postal staff to be heard. For years now Royal mail has cut jobs and increased the work load for postmen/women. Top bosses earning millions each year plus their own private pension scheme, while telling postmen/women that money is at a all time low. Billions of pounds missing from my pension fund is that fair? Please tell the public that this is not about pay but the whole service in general.
Michael, London

Long gone are the days of laid back services within communities. Every thing these days is driven by profit and greed. By MDs whose only remit is to maximise profit and gain great personal wealth at the same time. By shareholders demanding ever bigger dividends from their investment. Give me the old ways any day, where people had time for one another, where post offices, postmen, milkmen, policemen, bonded a strong, unbreakable community spirit, where everyone belonged.
Andrew Price, Llandrindod Wells Wales

We've haven't had a regular post man for years, sometimes a different one everyday. In fact we're lucky to even get a postman at all, with agency workers being used for many years. Even with an actually Royal Mail postman we sometimes only get our post way into the afternoon. As you said it's rare these days for a postman to knock to deliver a parcel or a signed for item, but sometimes we're lucky to even get a card and it's only after speaking with the sender have we realised we have post to collect from the Post Office. It's of course easy to blame the customer facing postman, but the real problem lies with the management. They clearly don't know what they're doing and are only interested in money and nothing else. They're ruined the postal service in this country.
Stuart, Cheshunt

Times they are a changing, not always for the better, but we all have to adapt including the postman.
Chris, Windermere UK

I really hope the people understand what is going on here. I have been a postman for a couple of years. Before that I worked in training. I have never worked so hard as the last two years and have never worked with such a dedicated group of individuals. I feel that the union haven't put the case very well and I can only apologise and sympathise with both business and the general public that may be affected by any industrial action. It is true, as the union points out, that the service is being trimmed, essentially for the business to be sold (pension deficit and all) to a third party in the future. All of the postmen where I work are in favour of modernisation, but the workload is unreal. The service relies upon the fact that you have an unbelievable degree of experience on the shop floor and when this goes, as no doubt it will, the public will look back at this point in history and wish that they could have the old service back. I urge you to please be patient with your postie. The last thing we want to do is let the great British public down
Sam, London

Everyone is having to take cuts (my salary has been frozen for 2 years) and tighten their belts so it feels like the union is out of touch with the economic reality and the public's attitude. Ironically a strike will just mean even less post and even less jobs as people are turned off by post. The public's had enough and the timing for this couldn't be worse.
Simon Williams, Elyh

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