Graphical version

British Postal Museum and Archive: The Royal Mail Archive

Post Office: Staff Associations


Reference code(s): GB 0813 POST 65 Series

Held at: British Postal Museum and Archive: The Royal Mail Archive

Title: Post Office: Staff Associations

Date(s): 1866-1995

Level of description: Series

Extent: 105 volumes, 202 files

Name of creator(s):

No further information available


Administrative/Biographical history:

There have been many staff associations, unions and representative bodies acting on behalf of the large numbers of staff employed by the Post Office in the modern era. Staff associations became increasingly prominent in the twentieth century. The Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) has had the largest membership and has been involved in all of the major wage negotiations since its inception in 1919. In 1980 it became the Union of Communication Workers (UCW) and in 1995 it merged with the National Communications Union to form the Communication Workers' Union (CWU). In 2005 it had a membership exceeding 250,000, comprising men and women working for the Post Office, British Telecom and other telephone and communication companies.

Post Office Staff Associations have their origins in the nineteenth century. The first efforts to improve staff conditions occurred in a number of meetings held in secret in and around St Martin's le Grand in the 1840s. A 'confederacy' was formed protesting against low pay and extra duties, with the support of some societies, clergymen and journalists. In the 1850s, similar small groups of Post Office employees joined with Lord's Day Societies and gained temporary successes in abandoning Sunday work. A small 'London Committee' concerned with the interests of letter carriers remained active through the 1860s and even met with Postmaster Generals a number of times, although the leaders of those agitating for increased pay were often sacked. The following decade saw the entry of telegraphists into Post Office employ and these were amongst the first to strike in 1871, and despite increased organisational endeavours, including William Booth's best efforts on behalf of the letter carriers, all efforts at creating a formal union failed. This was finally achieved with the creation of the Postal Telegraph Clerks Association in 1881, following a significant reorganisation of grades and negotiations with Postmaster General Henry Fawcett. In the final 20 years of the nineteenth century, there was a ferment of proto-union organisation across the Post Office workforce. This included the founding of the United Kingdom Postal Clerks Association in 1887 by provincial Post Office clerks; the Postmen's Union in 1889; and the Fawcett Association comprised of London sorters in 1890. Although the major pay claims were unsuccessful, the right to meet in public was secured over this period, the Fawcett Association gained their first full time representative officials in 1892 (albeit against its will) and the first large scale strike occurred in 1890. By the turn of the century, every Post Office grade had gained a representative association.

From this time until the outbreak of the First World War there were a number of large-scale public enquiries into the grievances of Post Office employees. Arguing the case of the lower grade workforce was the National Joint Committee (also known as the Amalgamated Postal Federation), which was the precursor in loosely uniting the disparate associations to the post-war amalgamation into the UPW. There were five main hearings that were respectively overseen by Tweedmouth (1895-7); Bradford (1904); Hobhouse (1907-8); Holt (1912-13); and Gibb (1914). In the first of these inquiries, the improvements gained were widely deemed to be inadequate and precipitated militancy, especially from many telegraphists. By the time of the Hobhouse inquiry, the union associates were recognised for the purposes of negotiation and a more thoroughgoing representation of Post Office employees was secured by the time of the Gibb inquiry. By this time the British labour movement had become heavily unionised and the period 1912-14 was one of acute industrial unrest on a broad scale and many concessions were gained during the Holt inquiry, including a more equitable system of 'differential' wages, where the level of pay varied according to region.

In 1919, the 44 representative associations of various workers employed by the Post Office were amalgamated into the UPW. These associations had represented the workers of four main grades: manipulative (those who handled mail and the like), supervisory, clerical and other. The following is a list of these associations:

There were 17 associations for manipulative grades: Postmen's Federation; Postal Telegraph Clerk's Association; Amalgamated Society of Telephone Employees; UK Postal Clerk's Association; Fawcett Association; Engineering and Stores Association; Irish Post Office Clerks; London Postal Porter's Association; Central London Postmen's Association; Women Sorters Association; Sorter-Tracers Association; Registry Assistants, Second Class Assistants; Tube Staff Association; Postal Bagmen's Association; PO Telegraph Mechanicians Society; Tracers Association; Messengers Association.

There were 14 associations for supervisory grades: Postal Telegraph and Telephone Controlling Association; London Postal Superintending Officers Association; Society of Post Office Engineers; Association of National Telephone Engineers; Central London Male Supervisors Association; London Association of Head Postmen; Society of PO Engineering Inspectors; Assistant Head Postmen's Association; Head Porters Association; Association of PO Superintendents; Second Class Assistant Inspectors and Telegraph Messengers; Telephone Exchange Managers Association; Association of Inspectors of Messengers; Association of Inspectors of Tracing.

There were 9 associations for clerical grades: Women Clerk's Association; General Association of Third Class Clerks; PO Engineering Clerks Association; London Postal Clerks Association; Association of Third Class Clerks (Surveyors); Representative Committee of Metropolitan Third Class Clerks; London Telephone Service Association; Engineer-in-Chief's Office Supplementary Clerk's Association; First and Second Class Clerks (Provinces) Association.

There were 4 associations for other grades: National Federation of Sub-Postmasters; PO Medical Officers Association; Head Postmasters Association; Established Sub-Postmasters Association.

In addition to these associations, which were poorly funded and mostly run by Post Office employees in their spare time, there were numerous clubs and guilds such as the Post Office Socialist League and sports and debating societies, which produced a wide range of literature and would have their successor Post Office social clubs through the twentieth century.

The amalgamated UPW was set up at the time when the government introduced the Whitley Councils, in 1919. The Whitley system dominated inter-war wage bargaining for the civil service as a whole and arguments presented for increased pay tended to be based on demands for a wage sufficient to cover the cost of living, and that was comparable with wages in the private sector and was thus guided by the market value of pay. Here, successive governments were cornered into having to 'set an example' in the formulation of reasonable wage schemes, especially following the economic downturns of the early 1920s and 1930s. During this period, and despite having little involvement in the general strike of 1926, the UPW became subject to the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, which prohibited civil servants from joining unions affiliated to the Trade Union Congress. This state-enforced ban on trade union collusion in pursuing joint industrial interests circumscribed the effectiveness of the UPW until the end of the Second World War when this legislation was overturned.

From the amalgamation into the UPW in 1919 and for much of the remaining century, the organisational history of Post Office Associations and of staff representation in general concerns secessionist groups and the difficulties of keeping the UPW unified in its industrial negotiations. Because the amalgamated UPW acted on behalf of a qualitative and quantitative variety of job types, special interest groups composed along similar lines to the pre-amalgamated associations continued to exist, breaking away from the UPW and competing for their respective and often conflicting interests. This is a theme that Alan Clinton has emphasised in his comprehensive study 'The Post Office Workforce: A Trade Union and Social History' (London: Allen & Unwin, 1984). The secessionist groups with the largest membership in the inter-war period were the Guild of Postal Sorters; The Association of Counter Clerks; The Guild of Sorting Clerks and Telegraphists (SC&Ts); and the National Association of Postmen. Smaller groups included the Government and Overseas Cable and Wireless Operators Association and the Northern Ireland Postal Clerks Association.

Likewise, the secessionist organisations and representative bodies distinct from the UPW that dominated the post-war era were the National Guild of Telephonists; National Association of Postal and Telegraph Officers; Engineering Officers (Telecommunications) Association; Clerical and Administrative Workers Union; Civil Service Clerical Association; and after 1972, the Association of Professional Executive Clerical and Computer Staff.

The political and economic environment of the immediate post-war period was changed in that a Labour Government committed to full employment and an enlarged civil service gave the UPW more bargaining leverage and although gradual, significant improvements in pay and conditions were secured through the 1950s, as the UPW General Secretary Ron Smith argued in 1961. The Conservative dominated 1960s saw a more concerted effort to keep wage levels down and this precipitated a spate of negotiation and arbitration between the UPW and the government. The initial wage increases were too modest for many, leading to strikes in 1964, but a national all-out official strike was avoided when a more substantial pay increase was achieved later that year. In 1965, Tom Jackson became the UPW General Secretary and the following years were turbulent times for the UPW with protracted negotiations over capital and labour, instances of industrial action, particularly in 1968, culminating in the largest strike in the history of the Post Office: a six-and-a-half week national strike of all UPW members in January and February 1971. The UPW failed to gain the wage demands it had made in October the previous year when its members voted 14-1 to end the strike. The whole affair is estimated to have cost the Post Office 25 million in lost revenue. Clinton has argued that the strike had long term consequences for the UPW and Post Office wage bargaining, coming as it did at the beginning of a period in which the Post Office ceased to be a government department and in which it was stripped of its telecommunications functions (this was privatised under BT in 1984), along with the more recent restructuring that has included the more general amalgamation of Post Office Associations with the wider communications workforce in Britain.

Many facets of the above associations, strikes, negotiations and arbitration are covered in this class, including pre-amalgamation records, as well as material relating to the organisational structure and history of the UPW and the major controversies of the twentieth century including the UPW strike of 1971. For a full history see Alan Clinton 'The Post Office Workforce: A Trade Union and Social History' (London: Allen & Unwin, 1984). For Staff Associations and Union Publications see POST 115.


Scope and content/abstract:

This series comprises material relating to the formation, functions and administration of Post Office Staff Associations.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

Please see Scope and Content

Conditions governing access:

Public Record

Conditions governing reproduction:

Please contact the Archive for further information.

Finding aids:

Please contact the Archive for further information.


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Please contact the Archive for further information.


Related material:

For Post Office staff association and union publications see POST 115.

Publication note:

All of the many staff bodies represented in this class has a very complex history, thus it is not possible to give a full picture here. Please refer to; Clinton, A; Post Office Workers, A Trade Union and Social History, (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1984)


Archivist's note: Entry checked by Barbara Ball

Rules or conventions: Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions: Entry checked June 2011

Associations | Organizations
Postal services | Communication industry
staff associations | Trade unions | Labour relations

Personal names

Corporate names
Union of Post Office Workers