The Old Postman.
Here he sits who day by day
Tramped his quiet life away;
Knew a world but ten miles wide,
Cared not what befel outside.
Now, his tramping at an end,
Has he need of book or friend.
Peace and comfort he can find
In the laneways of his mind.
L. A. G. Strong – 1923.
When driving around the highways and byways of Dartmoor the chances are that at some point you will come across the ‘Postie’ zooming around in his or hers little red van. These stalwart folk know very bend, pothole and shortcuts on their busy rounds and no matter what the weather throws at them they will always strive to deliver the mail. But what about the ‘Posties’ of yesteryear who did not have the luxury of a little red van and had to do their rounds either on foot, horseback or bicycle? In most cases the role of postman or postlady took them across the wilds of Dartmoor in all weathers. Today many of these characters along with their various exploits and adventures have quietly slipped back into the mists of time, so let’s resurrect some of them for posterity.
“No one would call the Ordinary Dartmoor postman and angel – his appearance is too much against him – but he does angel’s work. Perhaps there is nothing which quickens the heart of any lonely dweller on the moor so perceptibly as the heavy tread of that red-faced and beer tainted god of the dawn. He leaves curses as well as blessings. He pushes love-letters and bills into the box together. Sometimes he is an hour late, and the miserable watcher frets about the house. Sometimes the wind holds him back. He can be seen struggling against it, and the watcher longs to yoke him to wild horses. There are six precious post-times each week, and the lonely inhabitant of the wilds would not yield one of them to save his soul.” J. Trevena, Furze the Cruel, 1907.
Probably one of the worst hardships that the Dartmoor ‘Postie’ had to endure was the harsh moorland weather second only the the long distances trekked on their daily rounds. There are numerous newspaper reports of these stalwarts struggling through massive snow drifts in order to deliver their charges. In the January of 1907 the western times reported that; “The postmen on Dartmoor have had a most trying experience during the past week. The Christmas season largely increased their labours and now the wintry weather has made their plight most pitiable. Leaving Princetown soon after seven a.m. they have to undertake long journeys across unfrequented moors and dreary wastes, returning in the evenings completely exhausted. Such journeys across Dartmoor are more easily thought of than accomplished. Fortunately, no accident has yet occurred, but amidst prevailing conditions the risk is very great.” In the January of 1947 much of Dartmoor was swept by a long spell severe blizzards and become ice-bound. During this time Sidney Bray the Widecombe postman missed delivering his mail on the 16 mile route only once or twice. Much of the time he was struggling through waist deep snow and walking along frozen snow drifts level with the hedge tops. For a lot of folk he was the only living soul seen by those living in the remoter farms and cottages for many weeks.
Not only were the vagaries of Dartmoor’s weather a challenge but also the distances the ‘Posties’ would cover and the weights they would have to carry but also the long hours worked. In 1950 Mrs. Gertrude Pearse of Holne left her bed at 5.30 a.m. in order to do her 13 mile round on Christmas Day (which incidentally was also her birthday) riding her grey mare Greybird. In that same year Sidney Bray of Widecombe completed his 16 mile round on Christmas Day riding his bicycle. Mr. Harry Gloyn was also a Christmas Day ‘Postie’ when he embarked on his 14 mile round at Hennock on foot. Somehow I can’t ever see the Royal Mail re-introducing a Christmas Day delivery so what a luxury it must have been in those days. In 1915 John Farleigh Eales a postman from Ashburton retired after 42 years of walking the same 100 mile weekly round. It was estimated that over those years he had walked nearly 250,000 miles and as his average load weighed 35 pounds he had carried around 400 tons of mail. During the holiday season the weight of the mail bags greatly increased as visitors sent home parcels of Devon cream and other local produce along with numerous postcards. Similarly at Christmas time there would be a vast increase in the numbers of parcels etc that had to safely reach their destination. ‘Honest’ John Setters was another ‘Postie’ whose round from Ashburton covered Buckfastleigh, Dean and out to Rattery, a daily distance of some 16 miles, all done on foot. He was still tramping the same route at the age of 70. In 1902 Mr. Philip Blight was said to have been South Brent’s oldest postman covering the Dartmoor side of the district. It was estimated that over his 54 years of service he had walked a total of some 127,800 miles. In 1932 Mr. Mark Hext a Chagford postman retired after 49 years of service during which time he was said to have covered around 228,824 miles. Another man of many miles was James Beard a postman from Widecombe-in-the-Moor who clocked up 58 years of delivering the mail, he too was credited of traipsing over thousands of miles along the moorland road in all weathers – see photo below. His claim to fame was that he became an auxiliary postman at the age of 11 years. As the Post Office normally employed boys aged 14 and over James had to appear before a local magistrate to swear an oath that he would handle the mail with complete honesty. After all his 59 years of service to the Post Office he retired without a pension.
As one can imagine it would only be polite to offer the Christmas ‘Posties’ the odd sherry or two at the festive season, after all Santa had his share. But an official statement issued by the Postmaster General in 1890 attempted to put a dampener on this. He stated that; “The least desirable manner in which appreciation can be shown of the labours of the postmen during the Christmas and New Year season is to offer them drink whilst in discharge of their official duties. This is an act of mistaken kindness which is calculated to bring them into trouble and disgrace. I, therefore, earnestly hope that the public will refrain from putting such temptation in their way.” Clearly he did not want a brigade of drunken ‘Posties’ rolling around the countryside causing mayhem.
No matter how hard one tries there is no pleasing everybody. Such an example came from a holiday maker staying at Postbridge in 1919, obviously coming from an urban area and used to a regular mail service. he wrote in the Western Times the following letter of complaint; “Letters and parcels by post arrive at Postbridge at about noon every daily. They are carried by one man from Princetown in winter an summer, snow, wet, or shine. The present postman has only one arm; he gave his other to the country. Yet he carries parcels as well as letters. There is a little colony of residents at Postbridge, and in the spring and summer there are many visitors, who find it inconvenient to receive letters at mid-day, and to have either answer them at once or lose a day, for the letters are dispatched at 2 p.m. In the case of visitors whose postal communication are of importance this is most inconvenient. I should like the Postmaster general to spend a few days in this delightful spot, where I am sure he would soon alter matters.” – perhaps the author should have stayed at home then! Another little anecdote comes from Widecombe when the noted Dartmoor authoress Beatrice Chase insisted that her mail had to be delivered in a sealed bag as she was convinced people at the Post Office were reading her mail.
As with any walks of life there are always memorable characters and the ranks of the Dartmoor ‘Posties’ are no exception. Take Mr. Ronald McNeil for instance, in the early to mid 1940’s he had the accolade of being England’s shortest postman standing at a diminutive height of 4 feet 4 inches. For 40 years he tramped his 8 mile round based at Roborough where he also had a shoe maker’s shop. Some of the dwellings on Roborough Down were a good half mile apart which mean lugging his 28 lb. (because of his size he had special dispensation to reduce his load from a maximum of 35 lb.) sack between them. On one occasion he met up with a rather irate bull and was forced to scramble up a tree for safety where he remained until a local cowman came to his rescue. Another character of the 1960s was Jack Bellamy who at the age of 62 was delivering mail and newspapers on his 10 mile route around the Postbridge area. It was said at the time that he was one of the last ‘Posties’ to complete his round on his horse Tinker (he also had two other ponies – Smokey and Tosca). There is a nostalgic clip of Jack on his rounds amongst which was a visit to Laughter Hole farm on Pathe News which can be seen – HERE. Another mounted ‘Postie’ was Henry Moore who for 20 odd years in the 1940s rode his cob around his 18 mile route encompassing the Princetown area. Again there is another Pathe news clip which shows with some nice footage of Peat Cott, it can be seen – HERE. Another ‘Postie’, Mr. Woodley of Manaton, did his duties astride a donkey which carried him and the mail around the Neadon and Foxworthy areas.
Whilst a Dartmoor ‘Posties’ job of old sounds idyllic there was always times when the unexpected could happen, often in remote areas where assistance was a long way off. In 1864 Mr. Paltridge a postman was on his rounds between Okehampton and Throwleigh when he tripped and fell over the result of which was a broken leg. Help eventually arrived and he was carted to his house where a doctor attended to his injury. In 1914 Edward McCabe was cycling on his round near Mary Tavy when suddenly a man ran out infront of him thus resulting in him being pitched into the road. When he regained his senses he saw the man lying flat out in the road. Thinking the poor soul was seriously injured he went to render first aid only to discover that the man was a drunk as a mattress. After some considerable effort McCabe managed to get the drunk to his feet when he immediately staggered off down the road. The police were notified and William Jones was later charged with being drunk on the highway and in court was found guilty along with a fine of 10 shillings. In 1911 Mr. Coniam a postman from Bovey Tracey was returning from Lustleigh when a local carrier offered him a lift in his cart. All of a sudden a livid flash of lightening fork down through a hedge with a huge explosion which resulted in the horse being struck down and Coniam being temporarily blinded. Thankfully men and beast recovered. In 1949 Miss Marian Alford, a postwoman from Lydford was cycling to work at 6.45 a.m. when she spotted a strange man walking along the railway line. Shortly afterwards another man joined him and they carried on their journey. When she arrived at the Post Office she asked if any prisoners had escaped from Princetown Prison to which she was told that two convicts were on the run. As the men she saw were shabbily dressed and acting suspiciously she phoned the police. An hour and a quarter later the men were recaptured when they scrambled down a bank near the Gorge and ran straight into the arms of two policemen.
There are a couple of postman’s regular routes that have wound their way into the annals of Dartmoor place-names. Firstly there is the ‘Postman’s Road’ which runs from Postbridge down to Dunnabridge. Incidentally this track makes for a good line to take when exploring the Laughter Tor/Bellever parts of Dartmoor. This would have been used to deliver mail to the farms and cottages around the West Dart area. Secondly there is the ‘Postman’s Road’ which would have been used by the ‘Posties’ coming from Widecombe and going to the Bonehill area.
So there you have a very brief insight into the ‘Posties’ of yesteryear, a hard life struggling against all Dartmoor had to offer on foot, bicycle and horseback. Travelling huge daily distances whilst carrying at times heavy loads all in an effort to get the mail delivered. It is amazing how long these men and women devoted their lives to the Post Office, often with very little reward and certainly very little recognition on their retirement. Granted many received Imperial Service Medals in gratitude for their labours and many would have be given small retirement gifts from their local towns folk. But it must be said that when the Dartmoor weather smiled upon them who could have wished for a more fulfilling job.