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A Telegram Boy. 1942 - 1945

by John Vickers

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Contributed by 
John Vickers
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John Vickers
Location of story: 
Leighton Buzzard
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Contributed on: 
27 October 2005

I really had no idea what I wanted to do when I was due to leave school, except that I had had the usual thoughts of boys of my age and generation to be a train driver. My father who had worked on the railway during the First World War however, soon shattered my illusions. He told me that I would have to start as a cleaner which could be a filthy job involving cleaning the engines. Later I may get to be a stoker - an equally dirty job shovelling coal into the engine, and then, one day I might get to be a driver. This could involve starting my driving career by being on a local shunting engine, and the hours would not always be an 8 till 5 job, but would possibly entail night shifts and being away from home for long periods. My cherished hopes of grandeur in being the driver of the 'Royal Scot' (or similar express) soon vanished.
Some time later, a chance incident occurred when I saw a Telegram Boy delivering to the office of a small corn merchant opposite my home and my comment "I wouldn't mind doing that" commenced the chain of events which led me eventually to start on December 17 1942 at Leighton Buzzard Post Office a week before my fourteenth birthday, where I joined and was known by the Post Office title 'Boy Messenger', but more commonly known by the public as a 'Telegram Boy'.
When I started at the G.P.O. I was asked if l would mind using my own bicycle as they hadn't a spare Post Office one at that time for me to use. I agreed to this, and was paid 4d a mile, but I was soon earning more than the more senior boys who were on a set weekly wage, so they quickly found me an official bike! Thereafter I earned the princely sum of fifteen shillings and eight pence, (about 78p) a week. In due course I was supplied with a uniform - navy blue with red piping around the cuffs of the jacket and around the collar and edging, and down the seam of the trousers. This was similar to the postman's uniform, except that we wore a pill-box hat, also with red piping and a red button in the centre of the crown. We were also supplied with shoes for summer, and boots (I hated boots, but my mother said they gave my ankles the necessary support) and a short cycling overcoat for winter together with a cycling cape and leggings for rainy days. When I was supplied with my uniform, I wore my own blue and white striped tie, as a tie was not supplied with the uniform, and was promptly told by the Head Postmaster that although it was rather a nice one, it was customary to wear a black one. I went out and bought one, and the next day my next door neighbour asked me if I had lost someone in the family!
When we arrived on duty each day, we had to present ourselves to the Inspector for his daily inspection, and if our shoes or brass buckle and leather belt failed to attain the shine he desired, we were sent home to effect an improvement. (I must have impressed him - I don't remember ever being sent home) Our bicycles had to be cleaned weekly, and these were also inspected to see that we had shone them well enough to be seen on the streets by the general public. I was not always so lucky at this - and was asked several times to try again. My request (with tongue in cheek) for a motor bike, brought a predictable response from the Inspector, " The next thing we shall be getting you is a coffin'"
Our appearance together with those of the postmen was of prime importance and we always had to appear to be seen to be correctly dressed. When I see the postmen of today and see how they dress whilst on delivery, I think of our old Head Postmaster who would 'turn in his grave' if he saw them. We would never be allowed to be out on the streets looking like they do today.
The messengers worked three different 'shifts' which started at 8.00 am, 8.30 am., and 10.00 am and ending at varying times up to 8.00 pm. We also worked a Sunday morning session, and also delivered to Wing on Thursday afternoons, and Heath and Reach on Saturday afternoons when their respective sub-offices closed for their half day. We were at a slight disadvantage there as the locality and roads were completely foreign to us. When we were on the late shift, we used to go to the fish and chip shop for all the staff back at the office who were also working late, and get various quantities of three 'pennorths' of chips and load them into our jacket in order to be able to ride our bicycles back, and the leather belt around our waist prevented them from falling through. (It was lovely and warm too!) During the day, we also visited the local bakeries for iced buns and lardy cake etc. (Oh, those were the days before such things as cholesterol checks !)
Most of the postmen were elderly, as all able bodied men were in the armed forces, and we had quite a number of women both working in the sorting office and also as postwomen, to make up the required staffing numbers. We had our own detachment of the Home Guard and they used to parade outside the office in Church Square on Sunday mornings, and we used to hang out of our first floor window and 'take the mickey' out of them. They all took it in good part except one 'old timer' who used to get upset and say "You can't do that to an old soldier". I regret now that I never had a photograph taken of myself in my uniform, but films were rarely available at that time, as they were all required for the war effort, but I have a newspaper cutting of 'The Post Office Home Guard' in Leighton Buzzard which brings back many happy memories.
The telegram service has now been withdrawn, but was big business when I joined the G.P.O. in 1942. Few people had telephones compared with the present day, and it was one of the quick means of communication. The telegrams cost 9 words for 6d (2½p) and a penny for each additional word. This included the address as well as the text which resulted in very brief addresses and text as they were often abbreviated considerably to keep them within the minimum fee. Greetings telegrams were in a pale blue envelope with a specially designed form and were 6d extra. Priority telegrams which were processed and delivered before all others also attracted an additional fee of 6d. As our office was relatively small, and our weekly output of telegrams was about 500, we did not posses a printer for the telegrams but they we sent to us via a private line from Luton Post Office and the messages and envelopes were hand written by the staff on duty at our office. Once I delivered a telegram, and the recipient said on taking it from me, "Oh it’s a telegram from our Daisy". "How do you know that" said her husband looking over her shoulder, "You haven't opened it yet"! “Oh, I recognised her hand writing on the envelope" said the lady. I didn't think it would be proper for me to correct her.
The procedure on delivery was to had them to the addressee (not merely push them through the letter box) and wait for the message to be read, and take any replies that they wished to send, and we carried spare forms for this purpose in our leather pouches. We also carried cards which we left if there was no reply, indicating that we had attempted to deliver a telegram without success, and that we would try again later. Once I had a lady call at my home for hers one evening. I suppose that she thought I took all the undelivered ones home with me when I finished duty !
In our pouches we carried our rule book which stated that under penalty of disciplinary action we were not allowed to accept any gifts or gratuity. We were however, often given a tip of 6d (2½p) or a shilling (5p) and sometimes if we were lucky, as much as two shillings (l0p). One day I was offered the princely sum of five shillings (25p). This may not appear to be an unusually large tip, but in those days it was to me a third of my weeks wages ! The only trouble was that the generous benefactor was a postal official who would bound to know the rules. It was the occasion of his daughters wedding, and I was delivering some greetings telegrams - surely he wouldn't try to trap me on such a happy family occasion. I didn't hesitate too long - he might change his mind! I left the reception a lot richer.

Delivering telegrams was not without its incidents, - one local road was notorious in my mind for its nosey women. (Broomhills Road) They seemed to have an in-built radar and as soon as the front wheel of my bicycle entered their road, heads would appear, just to Hnd out who was receiving a telegram that day. Sometimes they would stop you and ask if you had one for them, knowing full well that I hadn't, but they hoped that you would reveal which house you was calling at. I soon got wise to this ploy and determined to outwit them. The next time I went to their road I went via the passageway between the houses intending to call at the back door, so that the nosey ones looking out of their front doors would not know which house I was calling at. It was there, I was promptly bitten by a dog for my troubles! A woman's head popped around the corner of the passageway to see what the hullabaloo was, and asked in a silly voice "Oh dear, has he bitten you ?" "Yes he flipping well has" was my reply. I duly reported it when I returned to the office, and my leg went on public display for all and sundry to observe the teeth marks and to comment thereon. The inspector cheered me up no end when he said that if the dogs teeth had pierced the skin, he would have sent me to the doctor for a tetanus injection.
Ugh ... the thought of that put me off from going down any other alley ways.

During these war years it was an unhappy duty to deliver many sad messages. One I can still remember vividly was to a lady who on seeing me at the door when she opened it, took the telegram from me and danced a little jig in front of me, and called to someone at the rear of the house "Oh, its a telegram from Bill, - he is obviously coming home on leave and he has sent a telegram to say what train he will be on" . Alas it was not to be, it was a message from the War Office to tell her that he had been killed in action. On reading the message, the poor girl collapsed in front of me and sobbed her heart out. I was then only 14 or 15 years old and I hadn't witnessed an adult react quite like this before. I felt so helpless, and didn't know what to do.

Fortunately war had its lighter moments. There were many small contingents in town in all sorts of commandeered buildings including a section of the W.A.A.F.'s (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) in a house opposite the Post Office in Church Square. This house had been requisitioned for their use and we had a daily view from our messenger's room of the girls either arriving off duty and getting undressed and going to bed, or getting up and getting dressed to go on duty, due to the lack of curtains on their windows! This lasted for sometime until the girls wrote home and asked mum to send them something to cover the windows, but there were some who never bothered! One day I had a telegram to deliver to this house. The front door always stood open and as I couldn't find anyone about, I ventured in and studied the names on the doors. I found the name of the girl I had a telegram for on the first floor, so I knocked the door. "Come in" says a sweet voice. I ventured in and found the girl in bed. I don't know who was the most surprised, - as I am sure she wasn't expecting a male visitor, neither did I expect to find her as the sole occupant of the room in bed. When she read her telegram she said "Oh, now you are one of the boys who watch us getting undressed each day aren't you It? I then began to wish that I was watching from the safety of our room across the road !

One of the chores we had to do, was to sort out mail bag labels, which in wartime we had to keep reusing them until they were no longer serviceable. We tied them up into bundles and returned them to the originating office for reuse. With these, we had to sort out the lead seals which were used to seal the mailbags and on removing all trace of string, bag them up to be melted down to make new seals. The worst chore was the string - this we had to untie and make bundles of it in suitable lengths for reuse. Oh those knots! It took a great deal of patience to untie the string and the piles of it got ever higher. One day I found a loose floorboard in our room and promptly secreted it all away out of sight! If anyone should lift those floor boards on the first floor in Leighton Buzzard Post Office now, they might be led to believe that they had found some wartime expedient for under floor insulation - if so, I have news for them !

When we reached the age of sixteen years, we had to sit a Civil Service exam which was basically the three R's- reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic. This was to prove that we were really bright after all, and the result of this exam determined our future.

Here is a brief section of the exam I took:-

Handwriting ... (time allowed 20 minutes) Copy out a passage detailing the sinking of the U.S.S. Lafayette, formerly the French steamship "Normandie"
English Paper 1. (Time allowed 1 hour) Select one of the following subjects:-

1. In what way is cycling less troublesome in wartime than in peace time, and in what ways is it more troublesome?
2. Describe some of the methods used to interest people in War Savings.
3. Imagine you were an eye witness to an incident described in a newspaper about a smash and grab raid. Write a letter to a friend describing what happened. (You must not change the details, but can expand on them).

English Paper 2 ...
1. Read a report which contains about 550 words and make a summary of about 175 words. (If you use more you will lose marks).
2. On the map of Gt. Britain supplied, mark the position of Ayr, Bolton, Bristol, Carnarvon, Chelmsford, Dundee, Limerick, Londonderry, Pembroke, Winchester, Wolverhampton.
Name the counties: Antrim, Argyll, Cardigan, Cumberland, Midlothian, Shropshire, Somerset, Suffolk. Shade in the Cotswold Hills, The New Forest, the Wicklow Mountains.
Insert the rivers: Severn, and the Clyde.
Name Arran, Galway Bay, North Foreland, Great Ormes Head, Solent.

3. Describe one of the following characters and outline one incident in which they play a prominent part: Abou ben Adhem, Friday, Goliath, Jim Hawkins, The Lady of Shalott, the Revd John Laputa, Mr Macawber, Jess Oakroyd, Aphelia, St. Paul, Sir Patrick Spens, Touchstone, Tom Sawyer, Sam Weller.

Easy wasn't it ? - and the above was only part of it!

I obtained the following marks - 36 out of 50 for Writing; 137 out of 200 for English; and 55 out of 150 for Calculations (obviously not my best subject !)

The passing of the examination gave me the choice of joining the Royal Navy as a telegraphist, or starting as a Counter Clerk at a Post Office, or joining the Post Office Engineering Department (telephones) .
In due course, when the Head Postmaster informed me of the results he said" I expect you are like all the other boys, you want to be an Engineer". "Yes", I replied.
So it was that I transferred to the Engineering Department in June 1945. What happened then?
Ah, that's another story.

Sadly the telegram service which I knew, now ceases to exist - the telephone has taken over.

And finally ... Some famous last words from the Chief G.P.O. Engineer Sir William Preece speaking in 1876 about the invention of the telephone ... "The Americans may have a need for the telephone, but we do not, - we have plenty of messenger boys!!!!

John Vickers. 1993.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - A Telegram Boy. 1942 - 1945

Posted on: 27 October 2005 by Ron Goldstein

Dear John

A lovely tale of a world lost forever and well worth the telling.

Best wishes


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