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Post Office records: How to find Post Office employee records

Susannah Coster from The Postal Museum reveals how to use Post Office records in family history

Post Office records

In the 19th and 20th centuries, mail was the main means of communication and the Post Office was one of the largest employers in the UK and, until 1920, Ireland. There is therefore a good chance that someone in your family tree can be found in the Post Office records.

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Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine May 2022, on sale now

Your first step in tracing them is to search the ‘UK, Postal Service Appointment Books, 1737–1969’ collection on Ancestry. These Post Office records will tell you the date your ancestor was appointed, which job they were appointed to, and where they worked at the time of the appointment.

Once you have the appointment information, you can move on to the pension and gratuity records.

Post Office records: Pension and gratuity records

The Post Office was a government department until 1969 and its staff were civil servants. This meant that staff had to retire at the age of 60, although there are exceptions to this with people retiring early, often due to ill health, or working beyond the usual retirement age. Being a civil servant also meant, until 1946, that women were forced to leave the service when they got married, although again you can find exceptions.

If a staff member died while working for the Post Office, a so-called ‘death gratuity’ was paid to their dependents. These are also recorded in the pension and gratuity records.

The Post Office pension records are currently only available on microfilm or as the original documents in The Royal Mail Archive at the Postal Museum. However, the new ‘Addressing Health Data Mapper’ website gives access to some details for the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The site is free to use and you can search a map of the UK and Ireland for Post Office pensioners. The website is part of the ‘Addressing Health’ project looking at the health of past postal workers, which was one of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine’s four Transcription Tuesday projects in February 2021.

If you have managed to find a pension record for your ancestor then it will generally tell you when your forebear retired, what their final salary was, how much their pension was, and how many days’ sick leave they had taken in the years leading up to their retirement.

Sometimes there are additional comments. These will provide an insight into the person’s life such as if they were reprimanded for fighting in the sorting office, or were known to drink heavily and that it did not, or did, affect their work. If a staff member had received a serious reprimand then it might affect the level of pension they received. However, the most typical comment is a commendation for good service in the Post Office: “[John Smith] has discharged his duties with diligence and fidelity to the satisfaction of his superior officers. He is recommended for the award of the Imperial Service Medal.”

Additional comments will provide an insight into the person’s life such as if they were reprimanded for fighting in the sorting office

This medal was awarded in the 20th century to staff if they had worked for 25 years or more and had given “meritorious service”.

Post Office pension records: Staff magazines and establishment books

Once you know when your ancestor worked for the Post Office, you can try browsing through the staff magazines for the period. These are available to view in the archive, some in digital format and some as the original paper issues.

If your ancestor had a hobby or played sport, then they might possibly be mentioned in these magazines. You never know, you may find out that they were on the Post Office swimming team, had a flair for art, or grew prize vegetables! Even if you don’t find any mentions of your ancestor, the magazines give you a valuable sense of the time when they worked at the Post Office.

If your research in The Royal Mail Archive reveals that your ancestor held a senior or clerical post, or, for example, worked in the telephone, Savings Bank or engineering departments, the establishment books are your next port of call. The originals are available in the archive and library at The Postal Museum. They give a brief potted history of the person’s career, including dates of promotions and their salary, so they can also be a source of valuable information for your research into your family history.

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If you’ve been able to find your ancestor in the records then all of these various sources will add nuggets of detail, to hopefully create a picture of their working life in the Post Office. The records may even give you glimpses of their interests outside work too – think of those prize vegetables!