I think I was allowed to work on the Christmas Post from about sixteen, but the jobs were casual and the number of days you worked depended on how busy the Christmas rush was. I do remember that the pay was relatively good, but the drawback was that you were only employed for as long as they needed you. Written applications were submitted a while before the start of the season and it was then just a matter of waiting. I believe that I did three stints with the Christmas post. The first would have been 1972 the winter before I went to college Christmas and the final 1974.
I sent off for the application form when positions were advertised in the Yorkshire Post. And within a couple of weeks it arrived and I quickly filled it in and returned it. I don’t know how they selected people, maybe those with previous service were chosen first and then random selection was done from the remainders. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised when I received notification that I was employed and had to report at, I think, 5.30 am at the centre at Harehills. I believe the centre was between Harehills Lane and Harehills Road and I remember a trip to make sure I knew where I had to go.
Now I was never an early bird at that time, but I dutifully managed to turn up on time and bleary eyed I entered the uninviting office door to meet a group of similar casuals waiting in the small reception area. We were well rugged up as it was the start of December and we didn’t know whether we were delivering or sorting. As it happened most of us were delivering. It was the regular postmen who did most of the sorting there and clearly you can understand why. Every day they trudged the same rounds and the Christmas casuals gave them a chance to rest and miss the terrible weather. I was allocated to a regular postman and he was welcoming and friendly. He told me that he would take me on his round the first day, show me the ropes and then I would be on my own after that. He finished his mug of tea and then he gave me a bag of post, ready collated into small packages that followed the order of his round. He had sorted these and normally they would sort and pack them themselves and then head off on the round, but as the numbers of cards and letters increased dramatically before Christmas that would have been too time consuming and so he would spend the days sorting whilst I delivered.
We set off on our round and it took in the streets of Harehills on the Sandhurst, Dorset, Berkeley, Seaforth, Cowper and Darfield streets and roads. He walked at a brisk pace, showed me how to check the right bundles and how to get the letters through the tiny openings in the doors. He would greet some of the locals we passed and he seemed quite at home and made the job easy. Mind you, I was the one carrying the heavy bag, so it was easier for him. We covered the route and returned to the office where we had a tea break before heading out again. I must admit I was flagging a bit at this point, but we finished the second round, headed back and I think I was finished by about 2.30pm. I made sure that I was well rested for the next day, with an early night. I had a navy blue reefer jacket and scarf and one of my mother’s knitted woolly hats and a pair of knitted gloves. The second day was frosty and my breath came out as mist in the darkness of a December morning. It was a couple of hours before the sun would rise and I would be lucky to finish the day before it was dark.
I knew where I was going and who I was to see when I arrived so that was a lot less stressful than day one. The bag was almost ready for me so goodness only knows what time the postman started. I was to fly solo this time and so I was nervous in some ways, but relieved to be out on my own. The bag seemed heavier than the day before, but that was probably my imagination. My first bundle was ready and I checked the house numbers and made my first solo post. Pathetic I know, but it was a little thrill. There is always something special about doing something the first time. That feeling lasted until the end of the street. By that point it had certainly lost its novelty and a long day trudging around the streets lay ahead of me. I continued on and forgot that I had been warned about one house that had a very aggressive dog. I opened the gate to the small yard and suddenly an aggressive canine emerged from the side. Any lethargy I had been feeling quickly vanished as I entered panic mode and just made the gate in time, slamming it shut on my aggressor’s snarling and drooling face. I never forgot that house again and somehow I always made the mistake of posting their letters next door.
I did find that I had missed a bundle for a street and had to double back, but I managed ok, but when I returned to the depot my postman was about to send out a search party as I had been so slow, or was that his droll Yorkshire sense of humour? Each day I worked there proved to be the same, but I was delighted to get a pay packet at the end of the week and have to check the amount of cash in front of the pay officer. Each day I got a little faster, but the bulk of the Christmas mail started and the bag got heavier and even splitting the route in two it was a hard chore. Occasionally I would find stray letters in the bottom of my bag and rather than take them back I would put them in a letter box to be delivered later. I managed a couple of weeks before the rush subsided and they started letting some of us go. I was there a few more days, but then I was finished.
The following year I applied again and was allocated to Harehills again. It was a slightly different round, but everything else was the same. I think I did one or two days more and it provided me with extra cash for the Christmas holiday period. The third and final year I was allocated to the main sorting office for the Christmas period and that was based at the Queen’s Hall in Leeds city. I believe the hall was originally a tram and then bus depot, but then it became an exhibition centre. I went to the Ideal Homes Exhibition when I was about seven, with my parents and I can’t say it was very interesting, but I collected lots of free samples of underlay and other household items. It later held concerts and I saw the Jack Bruce Band, Fuzzy Duck and others at a concert there, but the acoustics were awful.
I was delighted to be doing the sorting as it kept me out of the weather and the walking. The hall was hectic when I arrived with about a hundred other Christmas casuals to assist in the sorting. It was very well organised into districts and there were pigeon holes for streets or part of streets. Large bags arrived and were placed in frames and we were shown how to take the letters and place them in the correct pigeon hole. The regular sorter would then come and rubber band the letters for each street so that they could be taken to the depots for final ordering into the packages for the rounds.
The place was a hive of activity and there were people moving everywhere. It was before the days of fully automated sorting, postcodes and phosphorus strips, and was labour intensive, but it was only that way for a couple of weeks or so.
Christmas cards were a must at this time. Your social status wasn’t likes on Facebook, or Instagram, but was how many cards you got. My mother spent ages writing and receiving cards. We would string them up in loops around the walls. It was common to get between seventy and a hundred cards. Woe betide anyone who missed someone out. Often long messages would need to be written, telling all the news since the previous year.
At the Queen’s Hall sorting office, I can still hear the radio blaring out Radio One and the big hit I remember was ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ by Bachman Turner Overdrive. We worked in small groups and it was quite sociable. I much preferred it to the delivery with its dogs and heavy bags, but unfortunately it was short-lived and after two weeks they started cutting staff and our group eventually were finished. A group of about four of us decided to go for a drink afterwards. We weren’t too sure about Leeds pubs, but we ended up on Lower Brigate and went into a small, quaint pub called The Viaduct. I had never been there and neither had the others. We bought our pints and were standing chatting. We did notice that there seemed a lot of young clean shaven men in suits, but never gave it much thought. We enjoyed our drinks and then left none the wiser.
It was my last time with the Christmas Postal Service and it is an industry that has seen major changes in our lifetime. We send and receive very few Christmas cards now. There are so many alternative ways to keep in touch that the old ‘’snail mail’ is dying and will soon be gone completely, like telegrams, apart from parcel deliveries which is booming.
For anyone interested all parts of my first novel in The Moondial Series can be listened to as an audiobook on the Soundcloud player below.