Dodging ships and dangerous waters – the long-lost role of London’s River Postmen
The work of these brave men – as well as the scandals – have now been brought to life in an London exhibition (Picture: The Postal Museum)
Amazon makes drone deliveries in the States and many of us in the UK receive items bought online the same day, it’s hard to imagine a postal service that relied on a pair of oars and a river.
However, at at the start of the 19th century, many Londoners did just that.
In 1800, a waterman named William Simpson was employed to deliver mail to the many barges and ships that moored on the River Thames. It was a dangerous job and Simpson’s tiny skiff offered little protection from collision with boats and barges – or the enormous propellers of huge ships travelling from international waters.
The Thames in those days was lively and overcrowded with houseboats, barges, sailing vessels and other river-dwellers. Simpson’s role became a vital one in the life of the river, and it was passed down from father to son across seven generations and two families.
The work of these brave men – as well as the scandals – have now been brought to life at London’s Postal Museum after the grandson of the last River Postman donated his family letters and photos.
‘It was my intention to create a display in the museum on this fascinating subject, and it was clear that Clifford – the youngest Grandson of Herbert Lionel Evans, the last Thames River Postman – had a lot of great content,’ explains Stuart Aiken, Curator at
The Postal Museum.
‘Clifford donated a wealth of family history material to the museum, which has helped us to understand and tell this story in our exhibitions in a personal way.’
The River Postman was responsible for delivering and collecting letters from the various vessels on the river, delivering goods and occasionally ferrying people. Operating on the river with its many dangers was no ordinary postal round however. They had to manage the tide, winds, cold and fog – not to mention the ships and barges – making this a perilous task and one that required high levels of skill (Picture: The Postal Museum)
The first River Postman, William Simpson, initiated the job of River Postman. He sent a letter, backed, and signed by many merchants, captains and owners, to the Post Office claiming that it would ‘greatly facilitate business’ for this role to exist. Here, later River Postman George Henry Evans is pictured in the skiff in which the postmen navigated the choppy waters of the Thames (Picture: The Postal Museum)
The dangerous role saw the postmen risking their safety every time they went to work, as this image of Herbert Evans shows. But one of his predecessor’s life hung in the balance for a very different reason. William Simpson Junior, the second holder of the role, stole £20 notes from an envelope in 1810. He was caught and sentenced to death by hanging – although the sentence was later reduced to transportation to Australia for a lifetime of labour (Picture: The Postal Museum)
A letter written in 1821 by a River Postman Samuel Evans Senior outlines how dangerous the job was. He wrote: ‘I must inform you of the accident that happened to the Post Boat on Monday through the violence of the wind. I was delivering a letter on board the Ship Albion near the Tower, when a barge came down and sunk the boat and with great difficulty, I saved my life.’ Here, his grandson George Henry Evans rows a boat in the shadow of Tower Bridge (Picture: The Postal Museum)
Herbert Lionel Evans, the last holder of the post, served between 1914 and 1952 and received an Imperial Service Medal for his efforts. Towards the middle of the 20th Century the nature of the Pool of London had changed significantly. It was no longer the community of boat dwellers and local merchants and more a haven for industrial shipping and a passage through for huge commercial ships (Picture: The Postal Museum)
After the disgraced William Simpson Jnr lost his job, his assistant, Samuel Evans was appointed, leading to a legacy that spanned six different Evans. The family held the role from 1810 to 1952, when it was made redundant. Here Herbert Lionel Evans delivers the last ever letter on the river (Picture: The Postal Museum)
Here, Herbert Lionel Evans walks away from his final shift on the river. The many dangers for a River Postman in a small vulnerable skiff, plus the decrease in actual mail to be collected and delivered, saw the end of the role. Herbert’s grandson, Clifford Evans, went on to research the legacy, and provided photographs, news articles and research to the Postal Museum (Picture: The Postal Museum)
Simpson, with an assistant, began in the role on 10 February 1800. An extra penny was charged initially for every letter delivered or collected, which he would receive at the end of each quarter, making it a more lucrative role than that of an ordinary postman. Here, Herbert Evans delivers the mail to a houseboat in the 1920s (Picture: The Postal Museum)
The first River Postman William Simpson died in 1806 due to injuries caused by falling down the open hold of a ship while on his round. Simpson’s assistant had drowned while on duty three years earlier. This image shows how vulnerable the small rowing boats were in relation to the enormous ships that travelled the Thames (Picture: The Postal Museum)
The river postman had to row his small skiff across the waters, dodging other boats and climbing a rope ladder onto ships, his sack of mail over his shoulder, passing on letters and collecting new deliveries. It was physical and sometimes unpleasant work, given that so many days on the river were cold, damp and foggy (Picture: The Postal Museum)
For more information about The Postal Museum, click here.
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