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Mailbag Memories

My recollection of some amusing incidents that took place during the time I worked for the Royal Mail at Grantham station during the early 1980s.

by Steve Philpott
Above: Porters and GPO staff are busy loading mail and parcels onto a northbound passenger train at platform 3 on Thursday 18th April 1963.
Photograph by Cedric Clayson.

From June 1980 until March 1985 I had a spell working for the Royal Mail as a postman and subsequently, as a postal officer (counter staff) before I returned to delivery services as a rural van driver. In later years I eventually returned to my roots within the engineering profession, taking a job at RHP bearings in Newark, but my time at Grantham left me with some good memories, so here are a few of them.

As part of my regular Royal Mail duties I had booked turns working at Grantham railway station. This was when mail was still carried on trains, from autumn 1980 until late 1982; with loading and unloading of all Royal Mail items destined for Grantham sorting office and prior to delivery in and around the town. It seems that for many years, as far as I am aware, the pattern of postal work had largely remained unchanged. This meant that during the daytime whoever was on station duty really only had the mainline semi-fast services to and from York and Hull to deal with (generally, a train in each direction every two hours or so). As a result, quite a lot of time was spent in front of the fire in the cosy P.O. staff ‘cubby-hole’ situated beneath the footbridge staircase on the Up main platform - or, in my case, photographing anything of interest that came through the station!

In the centre, underneath the station footbridge, is the entrance to the Royal Mail workers' ‘cubby-hole’ .
Photograph by Mel Smith
This plan shows that the 'cubby hole' once bore the somewhat grander title of "Postal Authorities' Room". The plan dates from before a new, wider station foot bridge was constructed immediately north (i.e. to the left) of the position shown, with its deck above the 'cubby hole' entrance as shown in the 1980s photograph above.
Platform 2 (today's platform 1) is at the bottom of the plan, Station Road at the top.
Photographed from above the 'cubby hole', on the steps ascending to the footbridge, this smartly attired gent is quietly watching the world go by from one of the Post Office trolleys.  Overnight, the intensive loading and unloading of mailbags kept their red paintwork clean so, during their daytime layover safely chained to the platform awning pillars, these trolleys were ideal extra seating for passengers.
Late June or early July 1962.
Photograph by Cedric A. Clayson

In those far off days I often did the morning duty (T20) from 05.20 until 13.00 whereupon the afternoon duty man (T21) having booked on at the main sorting office at around noon, would relieve the morning man. His work pattern was very much the same until he subsequently retired at about 18.00.

I think I remember that the late shift duty (T25) was different, as there was much more work to do during the evening, with it all reaching a climax from about 23.00 until the shift ended at 01.00. There was always an abundance of various van and TPO trains to deal with and this is where I witnessed quite a few hilarious incidents. T25 was one of my regular duties and I would book on at the sorting office around 16.30 then undertake some letter or package sorting duties for an hour or so before migrating up to the station to relieve the afternoon man. As mentioned, during the early part of the evening, duties were much as they were for the main daytime hours. After 22.00 however it tended to get a little more ‘exciting’ as from then on other staff members, including the duty postal inspector would appear.

This photograph of the afternoon duty postal worker taking a break on his barrow at Grantham station was taken on Thurday 25th May 1962, on what was then platform 3 (and is today platform 2).
Photograph by Cedric A. Clayson
Having crossed the main line by the barrow crossing outside the Yard signal box, bags of mail are brought onto the Down platform on Thursday 15th August 1963.  They have probably been delivered by van from the main postal sorting office in the town to await the arrival of a northbound train.  The postal worker wears a badge which reads ‘'GPO 38 GM'’.
Photograph by Cedric A. Clayson.
The background to this scene of Thursday April 30th 1964 is a lock-up Mail Room on the Down side platform where northbound mail which arrived during the daytime, either from the main post office in the town or on local trains, was stored until the night postal services arrived.
In the foreground is Carriage & Wagon Examiner (and star player in the Grantham British Railways Staff Association - BRSA - cricket team) Charlie Wallbanks with his Villiers-engined Norman 'Nippy' moped, made in Ashford, Kent (for more information see here and here).
Photograph by Cedric A. Clayson

Although I never got involved with it myself, another evening duty required one of my colleagues to travel south on 1A31, the 18.10 York to King’s Cross semi-fast, as far as Peterborough.  This was in order to actively sort all of the mail bags in the half brake.  There were quite a few that were destined for Peterborough itself and also other areas in East Anglia and to get them ready for a quick exit upon arrival in platform 2 was physically impossible in the booked station dwell time for 1A31 which was only due to stand for two minutes! Some nights were worse than others and, on occasions, there would be a hefty pile of bags on the platform after they’d all been removed!  One or two did escape, however, only to turn up again some hours later having gone via King’s Cross! Once that task was completed, the postman in question would return to Grantham, as booked ‘on the cushions’ via 1D08, the 19.40 King’s Cross to Hull semi-fast.  I was aware on numerous occasions he’d been asked to produce a valid ticket for his travel by a couple of the ‘less experienced’ members of the on-train team!  With this in mind they always found it useful to keep a printed copy of the actual roster about one’s person for such events!

Time for a chat.  Postal workers and loaded trolley near the south end of Platform 1 in 1981, possibly awaiting the arrival of a semi-fast train for the south.
Photograph by Mel Smith

However, back to the story in hand. Postal colleagues appeared at various times to assist with loading and unloading duties ‘as required’ as the volume of mail was quite considerable in those days. Additionally, we had three lorries arriving from Nottingham, Derby and Lincoln, with their respective drivers and mail. This of course was to be loaded for onward transit onto both the Down and Up ‘Postals’ with an equal amount of ‘postal business’ coming the other way for taking back to their respective offices.

Grantham station at dusk on Wednesday 30th December 1964.  The staff are preparing for the night's mail, parcels and newspaper traffic.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram. 

The first train to deal with was 3A01 which was the 19.40 Bradford Forster Square to King’s Cross F.T. express parcels service, which called at Grantham at just after 23.00. Ordinarily there would be around 10 or 12 barrow loads of mail, almost all Airmail and LOMO (mail order) with a small amount of residual stuff coming off. Obviously we had to be pretty quick to get it all loaded as the train was only booked to stand for 8 minutes!  Those ‘data-post’ bags were (literally) a pain. They were large hessian parcel bags that contained two or more cardboard boxes. If you weren’t careful they would clout you around the back of the legs, just as you were swinging them into the vehicle, and knock you off your feet. That happened to me on more than one occasion, resulting in me very nearly disappearing down the gap between the platform edge and the vehicle I was attempting to load!

The consist was mainly formed of GUVs with the odd BG as well. Some of these vehicles were a bit ropey inside to say the least, with internal body-side planks often missing, where they had been presumably kicked out. Sometimes we found that one or both of the vertical steel droplight bars, which should protect from unwanted external attention, had been removed from various droplight doors in individual vehicles. On one such occasion I fell foul of this, as in my somewhat frenzied efforts to load the numerous unwieldy data-post bags, I actually succeeded in launching one right through the GUV and onto the Down Main. I realised too late that not only were the vertical bars missing, but the droplight was down too, thus creating the perfect storm! I immediately recognised the potential seriousness of the situation… I hoped and prayed that there would not be a down train due within the next 5 minutes as that would certainly have been curtains for the errant data-post bag and probably my job as well!

In no uncertain terms I quickly told my colleagues about the unfortunate situation. Without further hesitation I hotfooted it along the platform and down the ramp out in front of the train engine, which I remember was a Brush class 31. I cautiously checked that the line was still clear for me to cross before enlisting the help of one of the B.R. staff who, much to his amusement, kindly helped me retrieve the absconder! All was well, but not before I’d been challenged by another of my comedic colleagues to attempt the act in reverse, which, of course, I declined with the appropriate amount of sarcasm and soon found myself safely back on the Up platform complete with the escaped item!

On Friday 26th April 1985 class 31 No. 31431 calls at Grantham with a parcels train, the 21.10 from Lincoln St Marks to Peterborough, 3H01, consisting of a single van, .  This working had, in earlier years, started from Grimsby at 20.21 as a passenger train via Lincoln to Peterborough (2B92) a service I used frequently in the 1970s.
Photograph by Steve Philpott
A southbound parcels train passing Highdyke and about to enter Stoke Tunnel at 14.38 on Tuesday 30th May 1978. The photograph illustrates the variety of vehicles of assorted age, type and condition which were used for parcels traffic.
The locomotive is class 40 No. 40003, originally EE Type 4 No. D203 which, on the date of the photograph, was 20 years plus two weeks in service.
Note the two track workers standing clear at bottom right.
Photograph by Tom Boustead

Some weeks later I was once again on T25 duty. The usual gang were getting themselves ready when the Duty Station Inspector (Jack Wright) popped his head round the door of the ‘Cubby-Hole’ and uttered ‘3A01’s just passed Barkston lads’, so we knew it was time to drag ourselves away from the warm fireside and brave the chilly night air in readiness for 10 minutes or so of frenzied action once again. We all stood there waiting on the Up platform in anticipation of 3A01’s imminent arrival. I soon noticed that the train indicator lights at the ramp ends had gone from white to orange, thus indicating a train in section. Almost immediately I heard the faint singing of the continuously welded rails as the train approached. I thought to myself that it sounded like a run-through. Sure enough, the next thing I saw was a pair of roof high head-code lights swinging round the bend over Harlaxton Road Bridge. The locomotive entered the platform at speed and I very quickly deduced that ‘if this is 3A01 it definitely ain’t stopping!’ As it came hurtling along the platform towards us Jack Wright very quickly had his Bardic lamp at red and waved it furiously at the Driver, shouting out in his own inimitable way, ‘You silly buggaarrr!!’ just as No. 31190 went thundering past with the mail vans in its wake! This obviously did the trick as almost instantaneously the brakes went on. What followed was akin to witnessing a massive firework display. Sparks cascaded everywhere as 3A01 with brakes squealing came to a very rapid and shuddering halt somewhere up by Spitalgate bridge, followed by a loud thud when it did actually come to a dead stand.

We were all, not surprisingly, a bit taken aback by this and really didn’t know what to expect next. We exchanged glances and waited to see. After a pause of about 5 minutes the whole lot set back into the platform and we got on with loading the mail. As evidence of how heavy a brake application it was, the majority of the brake blocks were still glowing red! I don’t know if it was the same Driver on the following night, but 3A01 came to stand in the proper place and at a much more sedate pace!

Viewed from the station footbridge in the late 1970s, a northbound class 31 diesel runs into the Down main line platform with a mail train. Our story relates to an Up parcels train (3A01) that ran through on the left, before finally coming to a dramatic halt in the far distance.
Photograph by Mel Smith

Another incident happened on the night of January 8th 1981 when I and the usual crew were servicing the Down postal, 1S72, which in those days was the 22.30 King’s Cross to Edinburgh passenger - T.P.O. service. The consist of the train was about 8 seats coaches formed mainly of second class compartments, with the odd TSO intermingled with them, including a half brake. The last four vehicles were Travelling Post Office vans which were of course populated by our colleagues from London, being the mobile sorters.  As you’d expect at this time of year it was a bitterly cold night and the train loco, Deltic No. 55021 Argyll & Sutherland Highlander was producing plenty of steam from her Spanner MkII boiler. In fact there was so much steam that in many places it was difficult to see what was occurring on the platform with it wafting and drifting about all over the place. Anyway, as usual our colleagues, who had come over in their lorries from Nottingham, Derby and Lincoln boarded the forward most T.P.O. vehicle in the consist to assist with the loading of all the many barrow loads of Data-post and letter mail that they’d brought over from their respective offices.

English Electric Deltic No. 55009 ALYCIDON on the Down postal, 1S72 (22.30 from King's Cross to Edinburgh) calling at Grantham on Monday 6th August 1979.  It would normally be carrying passengers in carriages immediately behing the locomotive, but on this occasion there are no passenger coaches.  This was during a dispute ( I’m not sure what it was about) where overnight trains did not convey any passenger accommodation, hence the short formation of the train in the shot.  Just TPOs and a half brake.
At far left, in front of the bookstall, is one of the British Rail Engineering Swindon-built BRUTE (British Rail Universal Trolley Equipment) trolleys which replaced the miscellany of old trolleys and barrows on virtually all stations in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. They were low-floored, caged and faced with cold, hard steel; of absolutely no use as seats for passengers, railway staff or spotters.
Photograph by Steve Philpott

As was always the case there was plenty of banter during the operation and we all had to be on our mettle as 1S72 was only booked to stand for 4 minutes from 00.22 to 00.26 which didn’t give us much time at all.  Now on this particular night our duty inspector was a chap called Mick Shannon.  1S72 had arrived a bit behind time and everyone was keen to get it away without too much additional delay. As mentioned before there was plenty of shouting about and associated arm waving, with still lots and lots of steam floating about but the job was well in hand. By now the lorry guys had migrated to one of the other T.P.O.s further back and were helping to lob all of the mail for the East Midlands out onto the platform for the rest of us to load onto the big heavy red wooden barrows that we used. Mr Shannon, however, was surveying the situation from the platform, and getting in the way as usual whilst trying to gee everyone up, but during the confusion and excess steam he mistakenly thought in his attempt to save some time, that one of the flailing arms in the clouds of steam at the back of the train was one of the T.P.O. staff signalling that the job was now complete. He shouted to the guard that we’d finished but did not realise that our chaps were still on board! Almost instantly the guard, quite correctly, was out on the platform with his Bardic at green to give the right away. With that I heard the Deltic give a single blast on her air-horn and 1S72 was moving off. Straight away there was total pandemonium as the T.P.O. doors were still open, the three lorry guys were still in the train and mail was still being unloaded! As the train was gathering momentum the steam was clearing and the staff, both on the train and the platform, were bellowing for all they were worth as they were not where they wanted to be at that juncture! The guard, very fortunately and in the customary manner, was viewing proceedings from the droplight in the half brake and quickly realised that things were not as they should be. He saw a trail of mail bags all the way along the platform and they were still emerging as he put the brake on. 1S72 came to an abrupt stand with the rear vehicle coming to rest about two thirds along the platform. Three very relieved and somewhat annoyed, members of staff alighted from the train having escaped being carted off to Doncaster! Needless to say we soon had a visit from a rather disgruntled Driver who wanted to know what the cause of the sudden arrest of his departure was….! Collectively all fingers pointed towards you-know-who! Needless to say he didn’t fall into that hole again. It was all rather amusing though!

Grantham station on the night of Friday 12th April 1985 with the 19.01 King's Cross to Aberdeen premium parcels service ,1S37, calling in the charge of Brush class 47 No. 47606.
Photograph by Steve Philpott

Another incident was a rather rotten trick pulled by my colleagues on another fellow youngster by the name of Paul Garner on his final night of working for the Royal Mail before going off to university. It was sometime in mid-June 1981, I forget the actual date but we were on the T24 - T25 station duties again and I do remember it was a Friday. I knew something was going to happen, but I wasn’t party to it because I think the others thought I may have let Paul know what they were planning, as he was a good friend and we got on really well. Anyway, the evening’s work went without incident and eventually, after dealing with our old friends 3A01 and 1S72, it was the turn of the Up Postal, 1A40, which was the 20.30 Newcastle to King’s Cross and was booked at Grantham from 00.43 to 00.52. On this service the T.P.O. vehicles were at the front of the consist and, as with all other services of this nature, had a resident on-train sorting staff. As usual we assisted with the loading and unloading of mail from and to the East Midlands.

On this particular night, and once the work had been completed, I watched and wondered what, if anything, was going to happen regarding Paul. I’d been made aware that something was going to transpire, but I’d no idea what. I didn’t have to wait long, for just as we were walking back to the 'cubby-hole' Paul was invited by a couple of our colleagues for a ‘farewell celebration’ and was immediately grabbed by several others and unceremoniously bundled into a large parcel bag, which was tied off and then loaded onto 1A40 and sent to Peterborough! Unfortunately, I never saw Paul again after that, but I was reliably informed that he was released from the parcel bag as soon as 1A40 was on the move and plied with cups of strong tea all the way to Peterborough where he alighted. His next train back was 1N12, which was the 00.02 King’s Cross to Newcastle, which he made on a plus 4 minutes and got him back to Grantham at 02.00! Fortunately for me, when I left the job I had no such treatment!

Approaching Barkston South Junction on Tuesday 9th July 1985 in the late evening sunlight is the 19.01 King's Cross to Aberdeen premium parcels service ,1S37, hauled by Brush class 47 No. 47551.
Photograph by Steve Philpott

There is an article about Parcels. Mail and Newspaper trains at Grantham in summer 1961 here.

Copyright note:  the article above is published with the appropriate permissions.  For information about copyright of the content of Tracks through Grantham  please read our Copyright page.

2 thoughts on “Mailbag Memories

  1. Dick Bradshaw

    Hi Steve,
    I enjoyed reading this, as it brought back many happy memories. I spent a lot of time up at the station myself, handling mail on both shifts, but a different rotation obviously. I remember well the P.O. lorries all coming in from the outlying districts later in the evening, Ron from Lincoln and Woody and another Ron from Notts (who used to give me a lift home to Bottesford when he took the mail back).
    My favourite shift was the early one, sat in the cubby drinking tea with that old fellow who used to run the newspaper stand. I remember there was a trick involved with keeping the fire in, and if the last man at night (about banked it up well and "shut it down" it was still "in" for the chap who arrived in the morning on the T20 shift.
    I used to buddy up with Ken Williamson. Most times we had to unload the mail waggons and he had a tried and tested system. I would get the trolley ready by the doors and Ken would get in the mail-car and fire the bags out like a madman! Being a Londoner he had the distinctive accent of course, and he had a code name for the destinations of the mailbags that were all mixed up and had to be separated on the trolley. He would shout "String of beads" for Leeds, “Bag o’pork” for York and just "Smoke" for London. This was more to amuse ourselves as it was a fairly tedious operation, but we both laughed one summer evening when we looked up to see a load of bemused foreign tourists taking our photographs and enjoying our banter!
    Another favourite memory, was one time I had been teasing one of the London lads on the TPO who was very obviously gay and sounded just like Larry Grayson. He kept asking me if there were any nice, eligible men at our office and I told him he had a treat in store for him soon as my mate Sid would be back from his holiday and Sid was going to be working with me the following week. Well, as the days dragged by he got more and more excited till the day that Sid Coe was on shift with me (forewarned of course). The door slid open and I said, "Larry, meet our Sid." Well, Sid, just back from holiday in Spain, was six-foot ‘Mr super-bronzed, hairy chested, complete with chunky gold chain, shirt open nearly to his navel’. Our gay friend grabbed the carriage door side with one hand to steady himself, his fist in his mouth, with his knees giving way and just slid into a gibbering heap at our dear old Sid, and we nearly peed ourselves laughing.
    I also remember Mick Shannon. He didn’t like me much so I much preferred Pete Armstrong who was a real gent but, yes, happy days!
    I think because of you, Steve, and your obvious love of trains - especially Deltics -some of the passion must have rubbed off as I remember them rolling in with great fondness, especially your favourite Tulyar. Your interest got you your nickname "Casey Jones".

    1. Steve Philpott

      Hello Dick. Thanks so much for your comments. Yes, they were interesting days, to say the least. I made a lot of good friends while I was there and we had some laughs and made some good (and not so good!) memories, too. Keep in touch.


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