In the 1870s, The Post Office made its first exploration into the possibility of delivering mail by bicycle. The service hired a number of ‘Velocipes’ to test their suitability for this purpose. Unfortunately, the trial ended in failure as it transpired that the majority of postal workers were not fit enough to ride these primitive machines. In Horsham, another unsuccessful trial took place in 1882, when the local Post Office tried delivery by ‘Pentacycle’. These bizarre looking machines became know colloquially as the ‘Hen and Chickens’ owing to the fact that they had one very large wheel and four far smaller wheels. Essentially, the ‘Pentacycle’ was a penny-farthing with stabilisers. However, the Post Office soon realised that while the machines excelled on the flat, they were not at all suitable for areas with a hilly terrain. A more successful trial finally took place ten years later in Coventry; the city widely regarded to be the cycling capital of Britain. The city’s postmen were offered an allowance to buy and maintain their own bicycles to use for delivery. It was a success and the Post Office’s long association with the bicycle had begun.
By 1895, The Post Office had established 67 ‘cycle posts’ across the country, which dispatched post and telegrams for delivery by bicycle. As in the Coventry trial, the delivery workers were required to provide their own bicycle and received a maintenance allowance. However, in 1896 the Post Office decided to purchase its own fleet of bicycles for the first time, initially acquiring 100. This acquisition was designed to help prepare for a forth-coming expansion of the area the service was required to deliver telegrams free of charge. To celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the free delivery area was increased from one mile to three miles from a Post Office branch.
Kingston’s Postmaster and Telegraph boys circa 1900.
Developed in 1837, telegrams were the first widely available means of electronic communication. Electrical signals that corresponded to the letters of the alphabet were sent down a wire and transcribed by the receiver at the other end. Messages were usually sent by going to a branch of the post office and dictating the message to be sent along with details of the addressee. The service was charged by the word, so unimportant words were often omitted. Once transmitted and then received in the addressee’s local branch, these messages were almost always delivered by young boys on bicycles, although many young girls took on the role during The First World War.Older boys were also used to deliver telegrams to further flung addresses on motorcycles. Telegram boys were required to wear the official Post Office uniform whilst on duty, swear an allegiance to the Monarch and complete regular drills. When delivering the telegram, the delivery boys would typically wait in the doorway for the message to be read and then remark ‘Will you be replying?’ If the answer was yes, they would take the new message along with the address and payment there and then. In wartime, this role took on a sombre poignancy, as telegrams were often the means by which news of fatalities on the front were delivered to families of the deceased. By the 1930s, 65 million telegrams were being delivered in Britain annually, mostly by young men on bicycles or motorcycles.
From 1896 – 1904, the Post Office would only acquire bikes made to a particular specifications. However, cycle manufactures argued they struggled to meet these criteria without purchasing unnecessary expensive specialist equipment. Thus, the Post Office changed its approach and manufacturers were asked to produce quotes for bicycles of their own specifications, which were purchased if they were deemed sturdy enough for Post Office work. One commentator remarked that this was a healthy development, as bicycles were still in their relative infancy and ‘when there is an early standardisation in mechanical development, progress is often barred’. However, by 1929 the Post Office was struggling to stock the different spare parts needed to maintain its vast selection of different types of machines.
The decision was taken to standardise the model again. The standard Post Office bikes were steel framed with a fixed basket at the front and weighed approximately 50 pounds. The workmanship had to be to ‘British aircraft standard’ and the department actually sent its own inspectors to the factories where they were produced, to ensure quality workmanship. Postal cycles had free wheels, whilst telegraph bikes had a fixed wheel. The delivery workers bicycles were red, whilst the postmasters’ bikes were black. Repairs were carried out by local tradesmen with parts supplied by the Post Office. From 1977, WR Pashley of Stafford had been the principle supplier of these bicycles. The design proved effective and stayed broadly the same for 63 years until 1992. See the caption of the ‘Mailstar’ bike to learn what happened next.
From 2010 onwards, Royal Mail began removing its 18,000 bikes from service. This process was completed in 2014 and postal delivery now takes place exclusively from vans and trolleys. Royal Mail says that the removal of bikes reflects the changing nature of mail: thanks in part to our growing love of online shopping; with more packages and fewer letters, modern mailbags are bulkier and heavier. However, where the Royal Mail is retracting its cycles, many around the UK are doing just the opposite. TNT Post, Royal Mail's biggest rival, delivers 95% of its mail by bike and has now expanded from London to also cover Greater Manchester. The company uses the very same Pashley bicycle which has been renamed the ‘Pronto’ in the companies orange colour scheme. Many cycling campaigners and postal workers have been critical of Royal Mail’s decision. Cycling UK policy director, Roger Geffen, stated "There are plenty of operators who recognise that the bike is an extremely efficient answer, you have just got to find the right bike.”
Postman with new ‘high capacity’ trolley. Kingston Market Place, 2016