by Laura Storey

Resident historian Geoff Crambie recalls life as a postman during the heyday of the Royal Mail.

Back in the day, Royal Mail reigned supreme, and postage was measured in pennies. Yet, it was a time of change and challenges, from a controversial rebranding attempt to the evolution of the postman’s role in the Internet age.

If you lived in Colne, Lancashire, in the eighties and nineties, your post may have been delivered by our resident historian, Geoff Crambie. “Back then,” he reminisces, “It was nearly all letters. Now, it’s completely reversed. It’s such a demanding job nowadays because it’s all about parcels. It’s a complete turnaround in our lifetime.”

Royal Mail has been an enduring presence in people’s lives since its creation in 1635, though the cost of postage has steadily risen. “When I started nearly 45 years ago, a first-class stamp was 12p, and second class was 10p. You could send a letter for just 10p!” Geoff exclaims. Despite the expense, Royal Mail remained a constant throughout generations, with the expectation that rain or snow, a postie would faithfully deliver letters and parcels to your doorstep each morning. However, there was a time when it appeared that Royal Mail might cease to exist as we knew it.

“They tried to change it to Consignia,” Geoff recalls with disdain. 2001 Royal Mail’s decision to rebrand as Consignia at a significant cost sparked widespread outcry, echoing Geoff’s sentiments. “It had been a part of people’s lives for centuries!” Geoff exclaims. And they tried to change it. Even Prince Charles said, ‘Mama is not amused.’”

The backlash forced a swift return to the Royal Mail branding and a campaign to erase all traces of the ill-fated Consignia rebranding. However, they failed to account for our meticulous collector, Geoff, who proudly declares, “I think I’ve got the only sign in the world. I’m certain because they destroyed all the others. We even had to burn thousands of letterheads with the Consignia branding on.”

“The Only Consignia Sign In The World”

Aside from the rebranding fiasco, Geoff loved his job as a postie, especially when life milestones brought him to your doorstep with a very special letter. “There’s only two occasions when you get a letter from the King or Queen,” Geoff explains. “If you reach your 100th birthday or on your diamond wedding anniversary. In my nearly 30-year career, I delivered only two 100th birthday letters and eight diamond wedding anniversary letters.” These royal missives, requiring a signature, made their journey from Buckingham Palace to Colners’ homes in a distinguished envelope. “You knew what it was,” Geoff explains. “When I delivered one to a lady who had reached 100 years old, tears streamed down her face. It seemed incredible that this letter had come from the Queen to her home.”

“One of the best things was that you got to meet people,” Geoff reflects. “I even encountered some famous individuals during my rounds.”

A postman’s day used to commence before dawn, at 5 am, with each of the 33 Colne posties sorting mail into their designated rounds. “Once you’d sorted, it was 6 am, and you’d arrange your walk into the avenues in the order you’d deliver,” Geoff recalls. By 7 a.m., every postie had organised their mail and was ready to embark on their route. “It became a way of life,” he explains. “It took new postmen about a month to get used to it all.”

“You’d make your first delivery, and by 9.30 am, you’d be finished,” Geoff continues. Afterwards, the routine repeated, and additional mail arrived from Preston for a second delivery. “I never really finished after 12.30 pm. Things changed when the internet made online ordering commonplace. Posties couldn’t carry all the parcels in their bags, so the nature of the business changed,” Geoff explains. “Now, they start at 7.30 am, and machines already sort the mail. They don’t head out on their rounds until 9.30 am, and they’re out much later!”

Today’s post person resembles Santa Claus in their lightning-fast parcel deliveries, occasionally leaving packages in spots that make you wonder if they’ve tried to drop them down the chimney. Yet, in Geoff’s time, the job allowed for conversations and connections. “One of the best things was that you got to meet people,” Geoff reflects. “I even encountered some famous individuals during my rounds.”

“I had breakfast with a renowned comedian,” Geoff beams. “Can you guess who it was? During the war, he starred in numerous films to lift people’s spirits. He was a cockney, and his catchphrase was ‘You lucky people!’”

Geoff proudly shows his sign

“He was on at the Municipal Hall in Colne, now The Muni, and he was staying at a friend of mine’s guest house.” Geoff’s friend was Alan Clark, whose guest house on 53 Albert Road was frequented by well-known entertainers of the day. “As luck would have it, it was on my delivery route, and I had a special delivery for him. When I called at the guest house, Alan told me Tommy was busy having breakfast.” Lucky for Geoff, his friend Alan invited him to breakfast too. While Geoff had toast and jam, Tommy dug into a plate of kippers and bemoaned the lack of jellied eels up north. His special delivery was a £1,800 cheque for the London Palladium, where he’d appeared three months earlier. “Big money in those days!”

One particular route filled him with dread due to a small terrier that harboured a ferocious dislike for him.

Albert Road was a draw for celebrities, as Geoff also met Fred Dibnah, the steeplejack and beloved television eccentric, or at least, he spotted him from afar. “I was doing my rounds, and right at the top of one of the old mill chimneys was Fred Dibnah. I wanted his autograph; he has a beautiful calligraphy autograph, but I didn’t get it, to my dismay. He couldn’t come down!”

“He shouted to me – “Postie, where’s my giro?” from the top of the chimney. I was watching him walking round right at the top.”

Fortunately, Geoff’s route also took him past the Pendle Leisure Centre in Colne for its grand opening in 1984, where Sir Bobby Charlton, a football legend who had played a crucial role in England’s World Cup victory, cut the ribbon. “He was one of my heroes,” Geoff reveals. In 1966, Geoff had purchased the World Cup final programme for just half a crown and asked Bobby if he would sign it. “He said he’d never seen one of them before, and he wanted it!” Geoff laughs, proudly displaying the autograph.

Of course, like any job, being a postie had its downsides, and for Geoff, Britain’s cherished pets often proved to be a recurring challenge. “Dogs!” Geoff groans. “The small ones were the worst.”

One particular route filled him with dread due to a small terrier harbouring a ferocious dislike for him. “Every time I approached the house, they’d release the terrier. I always had to position my bag between my legs and the dog. One day, it latched onto my bag and refused to let go. I pulled my bag up, and all its front teeth flew out – teeth scattered all over the path! I legged it!” Geoff said guiltily. “Next time I went, it didn’t come out; I never saw the dog again!”

Geoff’s grandson, aged 6, posting his letter to Santa.

Apart from the canine encounters, Christmas for a postie entailed lugging around weighty sacks and enduring extended work hours. “There used to be piles and piles of Christmas cards,” Geoff recalls. While Geoff would usually clock out by lunchtime, Christmas meant working until long past nightfall. But the tips did make up for it. “The record for Christmas tips is held by Arthur Hargraves, who covered Foulridge,” Geoff explains, “He got a whopping £172 back in the 80s.” The dedicated postman never returned an item to the post office; he’d deliver the remaining load when he walked with his dog in the evening.

With Christmas approaching and today’s postie hauling hundreds of parcels rather than letters, the job has undoubtedly evolved. Still, the person in the red uniform padding up your driveway is no doubt delivering the same magic posties have for generations. Don’t forget to give a Christmas tip!

NorthernLife Nov/Dec 23