Read CHAPTER IV. of The Bristol Royal Mail Post‚ Telegraph‚ and Telephone , free online book, by R. C. Tombs, on

VICTORIAN ERA, 1837-1899.


Although the world’s railway system was inaugurated by the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825, it was not until 1838 that any attempt was made by a great railway to open up the traffic to the West from the Metropolis. It was in that year that the Great Western Company made a line between Paddington and Maidenhead, and mails were sent by it. The section from Bristol to Bath was opened in the same year. Woolmer’s Gazette of January, 1840, speaks of the 9.0 a.m. “Exquisite” coach for Bristol, Cheltenham, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, with part of the service by rail. Intermediate sections of the railway were completed from time to time, and, finally, on the 30th January, 1841, the Western line was opened throughout, and the coaches which had formed so striking a feature both of town and country life generally disappeared. One coach, however, obstinately held its ground in spite of the railway, and continued to carry passengers from and to London and Bristol at the rate of 1d. per mile until October, 1843.

In consequence of the completion of the Great Western Railway to Bristol, extensive mail alterations had to be made, and they were commenced on the 30th July, 1841, affecting the whole district right through Somersetshire and Devonshire into Cornwall. Some towns were made post towns and others were reduced from the rank of post towns to that of sub-post offices. To meet the altered circumstances, revised sacking of bags had to be resorted to. The instructions given by the President to the staff in St. Martin’s--Grand ended thus:

“.... Any bags in addition to the ordinary number must be reported to the road officers by the clerks of the divisions, that they may be entered under the head of ‘extra,’ also any agents or portmanteaus for Falmouth; and they must instruct the men carrying out the sacks and bags first to report them to the check clerk, and then take them through the letter carriers’ office to the Devonport or Gloucester omnibus, as the case may be, as the guards will not for the future come into the office.”

It was at this time that the villages of Hallatrow, High Littleton, Paulton, Harptree (East and West), Farrington Gurney, Temple Cloud, Cameley, and Hinton Blewett were transferred from the postal control of Bath to that of Bristol, under which they still remain.

For several years the only trains carrying third-class passengers from Bristol started at 4.0 o’clock in the morning and 9.0 o’clock at night, offering the travellers, who were wholly unprotected from the weather, an alternative of miseries, and at first travellers were not much better off in point of speed when travelling by railway, as third-class passengers were 9-1/2 hours on the railway between Bristol and London. The coach at the time of its being taken off performed the journey under 12 hours.

The “Bush” coach office was closed in March, 1844.

The Bristol and Gloucester Railway was opened to the public on the 8th July, 1844. Of the seven coaches which had been running between the two cities six were immediately withdrawn, and on the 22nd July the time-honoured “North Mail” left Bristol for the last time, the horses’ heads surmounted with funereal plumes and the coachman and guard in equally lugubrious array.

As late as 1845 Her Majesty’s mails were conveyed between Bristol and Southampton in a closed covered cart, “proper for the purpose,” as set forth in an advertisement inviting tenders for a new contract. The whole journey had to be performed at the rate of eight miles within the hour, stoppages included. The hours of despatch were: From Bristol at about 6.0 p.m., and from Southampton about 9.0 p.m.

In 1849 a great mail robbery took place, which was committed with very much daring. The robbers, who booked from Starcross station on the 1st January, left a compartment of the up night mail train (which left Bridgwater at 10.30 p.m. and reached Bristol at midnight); they crept along the ledge, only 1-1/2 inch wide, to the mail-brake at the rear of the post office sorting carriage, and effected an entrance, having previously possessed themselves of a key of the lock. After having rifled the mail bags they crept back to their compartment, and alighted from the train at the Bristol station, giving up their tickets to the Great Western Railway policeman. Not contented with robbing the up mail, they got into the night mail train from London to the West, which left Bristol at 1.15 a.m., and actually had the daring to pursue the same tactics with regard to the mail bags in the locked brake. This further audacity brought about their capture, for the news of the robbery of the up mail reached the ears of the officers at Bristol who were in the down mail, and so they were on the alert. On arrival, therefore, at Bridgwater the second robbery was at once detected, all exit from the station was stopped, and the train searched. Two men were discovered in a first-class compartment near the travelling post office, and registered letters and money letters were found upon them. In addition to the letters, masks, and false moustache found, a woolstapler’s hook, which it is supposed was used by the thieves to hang on to the tender when leaving the first-class carriage, was also discovered. One of the registered letters stolen, it was stated, contained L4,000, and the loss, as far as it was known, unquestionably amounted to fifty times that sum. The robbers turned out to be Henry Poole, a discharged Great Western guard, and Edward Nightingale, a London horse dealer. The case excited a great deal of interest in the West of England, and when the trial took place at Exeter the court was crowded to excess, and the avenues and approaches thereto were very inconveniently crowded. Mr. Rogers, Q.C., and Mr. Poulden appeared for the prosecution, and Mr. Slade, Mr. Cockburn, Q.C., and Mr. Stone defended.

Evidence was given by clerks in the Lombard Street Post Office, messengers and letter-carriers in the G.P.O., “register” clerks, clerk at Charing Cross Post Office, the clerk of the Devonport Road, guard of the mail from St. Martin’s--Grand to Paddington, and by letter-sorters in the travelling Post Office. Jane Crabbe, barmaid at the “Talbot Inn,” Bath Street, Bristol, recollected the two men entering the bar and calling for two small glasses of brandy-and-water. They were shown to an adjoining room, where they remained until 1 o’clock, and then went to the bar to pay. They appeared impatient, and looked at the clock. It was suspected that all the property which, had been abstracted from the up mail was secreted somewhere in Bristol, and a most rigid search was instituted, but without success. Mr. Cockburn’s speech to the jury for the defence occupied over two hours. Lord Justice Denman, the Judge of the Spring Assize, sentenced the culprits to fifteen years’ transportation.

A Select Committee was appointed in 1854 to inquire into the causes of irregularity in the conveyance of mails by railways, and to consider the best means of securing speed and punctuality; also to consider the best mode of fixing the remuneration of the various Railway Companies for their services. The local witnesses, Mr. James Creswell Wall and Mr. J. B. Badham, Secretary and Superintendent respectively of the late Bristol and Exeter Railway Company, and Bristol residents, gave evidence before the Committee, composed of Mr. Wilson Patten (chairman), Mr. James MacGregor, Mr. H. G. Liddell, Mr. H. Herbert, Mr. C. Fortescue, Mr. Cowan, Mr. Thompson, Mr. Philipps, and Mr. Milner.

Replying to questions, witnesses considered two hours forty minutes, as fixed by the Post Office Department, insufficient time for the down night mail to travel from Bristol to Exeter, including six stoppages. The delivery of mail bags at certain stations by apparatus without stopping the train was suggested, but witnesses considered the plan dangerous and that it could not with safety be adopted.

The Secretary of the South Wales Railway Company, Mr. F. G. Saunders, gave evidence as to the frequent loss of time sustained by the South Wales night mail through the late receipt of the Bristol and West of England mails at Chepstow. At that time the bags for South Wales were still conveyed from Bristol to the Aust Passage, thence by ferry to the opposite bank of the Severn and on to Chepstow. The conveyance of mails for South Wales via Gloucester was subsequently adopted.

All the witnesses complained of the reduction of railway parcel traffic through the then recent establishment of book postage and consequent falling off of receipts, also that the remuneration awarded for the carriage of mails was insufficient, although decided by mutually-appointed umpires.

For many years the night mails were conveyed between Paddington and Bristol by a special train, which did not carry passengers. It was the only train of its kind in the kingdom, but so useful was it held to be in securing a regular delivery of letters that the Government introduced a clause in a Postal Bill in 1857 rendering it compulsory for all railways to provide similar trains. On the 1st June, 1869, the Post Office special Great Western train commenced to be a mail train limited to carry a certain number of passengers, so that opinion had by that time become altered as regards the value in relation to cost of a train exclusively for Post Office purposes.

The travelling Post Office service assists greatly in the speedy distribution of letters, and by its agency remote places are put on an equality with the country generally in respect of deliveries and despatches. Two of the most important travelling Post Office systems in the kingdom are conducted through, or to, Bristol the gate to the Western country viz.: The Great Western Railway, with a travelling Post Office annual mileage of 500,000; and the Midland and North-Eastern lines from Newcastle, with a mileage of 220,000. Travelling Post Offices, with a combined coach length of from 48 feet on the day mails to 158 feet on the night mails, are attached to the Great Western down trains which arrive at Bristol at 12.13 a.m. and 8.48 a.m.; to the up trains, at 12.45 a.m. and 3.0 p.m.; to the trains leaving Bristol for the West at 6.15 a.m. and 12.9 p.m., and for the North at 7.40 p.m. The Midland travelling Post Office carriages are attached to the 5.40 a.m. inward train and to the 7.0 p.m. outward train.

There is living at Midford, about fifteen miles distant from Bristol, a gentleman (Mr. Coulcher) who now pensioned from the Post Office was the clerk in charge of the Midland Travelling Post Office on its first run from Bristol to Derby in 1857. He well recollects the night, and what impressed it upon his memory more than anything else was the fact that on reaching Bristol, after he and his two subordinate clerks and his mail-guard (Samuel Bennett) had made almost superhuman efforts to get the work completed, he had to send 13,000 letters unsorted into the Bristol Post Office, there to await despatch by day mails to towns in the West of England, instead of going at once in direct travelling Post Office bags by the connecting early morning train.

Samuel Bennett, the old mail guard mentioned, and contemporary of Moses Nobbs, was frequently injured on road and rail. In 1847 he was much shaken when a Birmingham-to-Bath train by which he was travelling ran off the line. A few years later he nearly came to an untimely end, having been regarded as dead after being much knocked about when two trains between Bristol and Birmingham collided. On that occasion, after he recovered consciousness, he got together some of his mail bags and carried them on to Bristol.

The Gloucester Journal said of the occurrence: “Samuel Bennett, the guard of the mail bags, appeared dead when found, and was dreadfully cut; but on recovering, he manifested great anxiety for the bags. When the special train arrived in which the wounded passengers were conveyed onward, Bennett, with great courage, determined to take the bags by this train, which was done.”

And the Bristol Mercury wrote of him as follows: “The mail guard, Samuel Bennett, was very much cut over the face and head, and bled profusely. Happily, he was not rendered long unconscious or disabled, and with a conscientious and self-denying attention to duty not often met with, he refused any attention to his hurts until he had gathered up the mutilated letter bags and their contents, and made provision for bringing them on to this city.”

In the Bristol district there is a railway Post Office apparatus station at Fishponds, on the Midland Railway, bags being deposited thereat by the train due at Bristol at 5.40 a.m., and taken up by the train ex Bristol at 7.0 p.m. On the Great Western Railway, the apparatus arrangement is in operation at Flax Bourton, Nailsea, Yatton, and Hewish, chiefly in connection with the 6.15 a.m. train ex Bristol. It rarely happens that any failures occur at Fishponds or Hewish, but vagaries of the apparatus are more frequent at Yatton. About once a year something or other goes wrong, the pouch usually being dropped and carried along by the train, with mutilation of the mail bags and a general scattering of the letters. On the last occasion, after the line had been searched up and down, the embankment closely looked over, and the ground on the other side of the hedge on the down side closely scrutinized, all unavailingly, some two or three days after the accident a bundle of letters was picked up which, such was the force of the impact, had been “skied” into a field over two hedges of an intervening lane.

On another similar mishap, a Post Office remittance letter containing L20 in gold was burst open and the coins scattered over the line. After diligent search in every direction, L18 10s. was recovered. One half sovereign, bent in an extraordinary manner, was found between the metals three-quarters of a mile from the apparatus standard. The apparatus has to be adjusted with mathematical nicety, and if not so arranged failures are liable to occur. It is well that the public should bear in mind that packets sent by mails which are exchanged by apparatus are in more or less danger, and any article of a fragile or costly nature should, if possible, be forwarded by mails carried by stopping-trains. The places so affected in this neighbourhood are: Alveston, Bitton, Blagdon, Burrington, Clevedon, Congresbury, Downend, Fishponds, Flax Bourton, Frampton Cotterell, Frenchay, Glastonbury, Hambrook, Hewish, Iron Acton, Langford, Mangotsfield, Nailsea, Oldlands Common, Portishead, Pucklechurch, Rudgeway, Sandford, Staple Hill, Thornbury, Tockington, Warmley, West Town, Willsbridge, Winterbourne, Wrington, and Yatton.

Until lately mails for Bristol were forwarded by the midnight train from Euston (L. & N. W. R.) and reached this city by way of Birmingham in time for the North mail delivery. It was on that railway that in 1890 a sad occurrence happened at Watford, when a young man whilst in the discharge of his duties as fireman lost his life. The deceased was leaning over the side of his engine, which was stationary, watching for the signals to be turned, when the day mail train from London dashed by. The travelling Post Office apparatus net which had picked up a pouch at a point a few score yards away was still extended and it struck the unfortunate young man on the head, completely severing it from the body. The poor fellow’s cap was torn from his head by the apparatus net and fell into the travelling Post Office carriages with the mail pouches much to the consternation of the travelling sorters, who found evidence of the mutilation on the apparatus framework. The net was only down for the short space of ten seconds. The travelling officials first heard full details of the accident on their arrival at Tring, where the train next stopped.

“Once upon a time,” writes Mr. A. W. Blake in the St. Martin’s-lé-Grand Magazine, “the London afternoon mail was made up at a provincial office down West (Chippenham), and despatched to be taken off by apparatus. All proceeded as usual up to the actual point of transfer, when a strange thing happened. Instead of falling soberly into the net, the man in charge was astonished to see the pouch leap high into the air and descend he knew not whither. Search was carefully made along the track of the departed train, but not a vestige of the missing pouch could be seen, and a local inspector who was travelling up the line promised to keep a look-out for it. Just at this time an ‘S.G.’ was received from the officer in charge of the sorting tender notifying the non-receipt of the pouch. As the mystery seemed to deepen, word was received that a signalman at a level crossing two miles away had noticed the missing article on the top of the train. Quoth the worthy apparatus man: ’If it’ll ride two miles, it’ll ride two hundred’; and accordingly a wire was sent to the sorting-tender people asking them to search the top of the train, and soon came the reply that the pouch had been found on the roof of the guard’s van at Didcot. The train had stopped the regulation time at that hub of the Great Way Round, Swindon, and proceeded on its way without the extraordinary position of Her Majesty’s mails being discovered.”

The occurrence was attributed to the swaying of the carriage, and to the apparatus-net not working quite steadily in consequence.

At a later period than the mishap narrated by Mr. Blake, the bags for Oxford and Abingdon, due to be picked up at Wantage by the up night mail travelling Post Office apparatus, and to have been delivered by the same process at Steventon, were not found when the net was drawn in, and it was thought they had been missed; but at Didcot it was discovered they had been thrown over the end of the net and were hanging outside it.

Since the opening of the Severn Tunnel in 1883 it has not often been found an absolute necessity to make use of it for the conveyance of mails diverted from the route from South Wales through Gloucester to London; but such was the case in February of the present year (1899), when a tidal wave of forty feet was experienced in the Bristol Channel, which caused serious damage by displacing the railway line between Lydney and Wollaston. The effects of the high tide were disastrous. A wave dashed on to the Great Western Railway with huge force, and so disintegrated the ballasting of the permanent way that the lines were twisted into all manner of shapes. The mails to and from Paddington to South Wales were circulated via Bristol and the Tunnel for some time.

Bristol is at a disadvantage as compared with London in respect of its Continental correspondence, but is far better situated than many other provincial towns. The letters from the Continent by night mails reach Bristol by the train leaving London at 9.0 a.m. and, arriving at Temple Meads at 11.57 a.m., are on delivery in the private box renters’ office at about 12.30 p.m. The postmen start out with the letters at 1.10 p.m. As the hour of posting for the outward Continental night mails is 2.10 p.m., it is only the private box renters who have time, brief though it be, to reply to their correspondence on the day of receiving it.

An appeal to the Hon. Member for Bristol East was made by the writer at a Chamber of Commerce dinner to exercise his influence as a director of the Great Western Railway in the direction of obtaining the use of a goods train for the conveyance to Bristol of a midnight mail from London. In the end the Railway Company afforded the Post Office the means of bringing down a midnight mail, not by goods train as was originally contemplated, but by new and fast passenger train, with the result that half a million letters a year now fall into the first delivery throughout the town, instead of into the second delivery as heretofore. The letters posted in London up to 9.0 p.m. reach the head office in Small Street in time to be delivered throughout the city and suburbs by the postmen on their first round. Under the old system, when “routed” via Birmingham, the arrival was often so late and irregular that the letters missed even the second delivery. The letters for the rural districts having no day mail deliveries had to lie at Bristol for twenty-four hours, while now they are delivered on the morning of receipt from London. The advantages oL the new system apply to parcels as well as letters, and the acceleration in delivery is particularly serviceable as regards parcels containing perishable articles.

The Railway Company recently gave the Department another opportunity of improving the mail services by establishing a merchandise train from Cornwall and the West to London, reaching the Metropolis in time for the letters sent by it to be delivered some three or four hours earlier than when conveyed by the first passenger train in the morning. Strangely enough, the establishment of this new mail service was the means of enabling the hon. baronet (Sir W. H. Wills), the Member for Bristol East, to take his seat in the House of Commons on the day of his last election, for the writ and return were sent by that mail to London in time to reach the Crown Office for all formalities to be gone through in connection with the seat being taken at once.