Motorbike messengers of death and fortune

Sometimes it was good news. Often it was bad. The telegram rarely heralded a win on the pools; usually it brought word that a relative had died.

Captain Arthur Rostron of the Carpathia, who helped save many from the Titanic disaster, used a telegram to break the news of the great ship’s demise.

Two years earlier, in 1910, Captain Henry Kendall, master of the Atlantic liner Montrose, sent a telegram advising police that he suspected one of his passengers was Hawley Crippen, the London poisoner.

Barry Cox, from Strood, was a telegram boy based at Chatham Post Office in the early 1960s. Not for him the drama of sea disaster or murder. He had a great time, although conditions were often tough.

Barry says: “The life of a telegram boy was, in my opinion, a great laugh. I worked with a great bunch of lads — we hardly ever fell out with each other.”

Telegram boys joined the GPO (that’s General Post Office for our younger readers) at 16; at first they rode about their business on a bike; then at 17 they were taught (if they didn’t know already) how to ride a motorbike, with a BSA Bantam 125 the supplied mode of transport.

Barry Cox, fourth from left, with fellow telegram boys John Talbot, John Gummer, Freddie Cannon, Dave Ward and Paul White

“Our driving instructor was Reg Honey. He drove a GPO Morris van and we followed him until he thought we were riding properly. Then we were passed for our licence by the Post Office — they could do that in those days,” Barry recalled. At 17, the telegram boys were being groomed to become postmen. On a 6am to 2pm shift, the first part might be a “junior” post round. “I did one around the Chatham Hill area — real up hill and down dale!” Barry says.

“That’s when the real travellers were camped on Sugar Loaf Hill, Ash Tree Lane. I always remember Mrs Scamp [a common name among the travelling folk] wanted me to read her letters to her. I sure she was pulling my leg sometimes just to cadge a ciggie!” After that round, the lads continued with office-bound duties, such as making lead seals for postbags, before going out on telegram deliveries. They kept their telegrams in a pouch on their belt. They were inspected upon return to ensure all messages had been delivered.

Sometimes the boys were warned that the telegram contained bad news. “If a death telegram came down we were warned — there was usually a black cross on the envelope — and had to use all the tact a 17-year-old could muster when delivering it,” Barry says.

“On the other hand, there were some happy times too. On a Saturday, we would often deliver greetings telegrams to weddings. Sometimes we’d get a half a crown as a tip. Very nice too. Of course, we weren’t officially allowed to receive tips, but everybody did.”

The BSA Bantam made it tough going in bad weather, but the telegrams had to get through. “In the awful winter 1962-63, we still got about, only sometimes we had to go out in a Morris Minor post van — no heaters no passenger seat, no seat belts.” But the company was good!

Barry’s favourite was Nobby Nobel, a big jolly postman whose bulk provided the necessary ballast to get that van through the icy roads. “He was my ideal kind of guy — always laughing, and when it was cold he’d take you home and his wife made hot soup and toast.” Happy days — and away from the telegram deliveries, too.

Barry adds: “The PHGs (postmen, higher grade) in charge at that time were: Paddy Breen, George De Roode, Russell Corcoran and Tim Timothy – all good men that made life as easy as possible on cold wet and foggy times. Great days — I would love to know how they all have got on in life.”

And so would we, wouldn’t we? Please add a comment at the foot of this page.

It seemed such high technology at the time…

Charlie Dowden did well for himself. He started as a counter clerk, aged 17, and ended up head of industrial relations for Royal Mail.

He writes: “When I started at Chatham Post Office in 1972 the telegram boys were based there, next to the arch, and the telegraphists were at the very top of the building. It stayed that way until about 1981 when the Post Office and BT were split and BT decided to stop the service, which always ran at a loss, or so I understood.

“As a counter clerk, sending telegrams was a palaver, as one had to spell out each word using a phonetic alphabet. Of course, we were never taught the ‘correct’ one so we used to make up our own. For example, X for Xylophone and U for Umbrella — well, we used to laugh!”

But how did telegram arrive at the post office for dispatch?

Charlie explains: “In my time, they were transmitted by telex machines. There would be centres, for example Chatham, which telexed the message to the nearest centre for delivery for example Maidstone, where it would be printed on tape and the tape stuck to a telegram form and then delivered by a telegram boy.

“There were variants in the more rural areas where the telegram would be telephoned through and typed directly on to the form. There was another subset of this system, known as a telegraph money order whereby a customer would pay money in at a post office and a telegram authorising the payment at another post office would be sent.

“Some firms used it to pay wages and I well remember one company known used to pay its employees in this way every Thursday afternoon at Chatham Post Office I think the guys were working on Grain Power Station, so that dates it!”

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2 Responses to Motorbike messengers of death and fortune

  1. Rex Harvey says:

    Looking at the photograph and names, is the lad with glasses, second from left John Selwyn Gummer by any chance? Ex-King’s School boy, a staunch Conservative and now Lord Gummer!

    • Barry Cox CKT says:

      No it’s not him. John came from Weedswood and his sister worked in Woolworths. But his father was something in the City and his family had big connections, so it is possibly the same family. Last I heard, John was in the States writing music.

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