Valentine’s Day was as significant in the Victorian calendar as it is today. The Globe newspaper of 1855 estimated that, if all the cards delivered in London were stacked on top of each other, they would be taller than the Monument, at 62 metres. If laid in a line, they would run from London to Dover, a distance of 68 miles as the crow flies. In the 1870s, for two London postmen—“letter carriers”—this outpouring of love proved a little too much.
Valentine’s Day is named after a Roman priest martyred in 270 AD for helping Christians. He is an odd patron saint for a feast of love, given that he was famous for his chastity. The day probably owes more to the Roman festival of the Lupercalia, when young people chose sweethearts by lottery. The early Church was keen to give pagan festivals a Christian gloss—hence the Lupercalia became Valentine’s Day.
The Victorian period was the heyday of the Valentine. In 1870 up to a million cards were delivered in England, and postmen were given an added meal allowance to help them cope with the extra work. This explosion in card sending was the result of several factors: a postal service that was affordable and speedy, increased literacy, and developments in large-scale ephemeral printing.
Cards could be decorated with paper lace, printed scraps and perfumed sachets. Popular images included children, churches, animals and especially flowers. From ancient times plants and flowers have been endowed with meaning, and part of the fun of receiving a card was interpreting your lover’s “secret message.” For example, clover means “be mine”, snowdrops represent hope, and ferns fascination. A degree of caution should be exercised: while dahlia generally means elegance, a red dahlia means betrayal and dishonesty. Richard Watts, the first of our postmen, would have understood the meaning of the marigold. Pain and grief.
Richard Watts, a 28-year-old letter carrier, was going about his duties on Saturday 15th February in 1879. It was a rather gloomy and overcast day and he had been at work since dawn. Richard, a General Post Office employee of three years’ standing, wore a uniform comprising a blue coat with red piping and with GPO (General Post Office) and his number embroidered on the collar in white, a blue waistcoat, and blue winter trousers adorned with a red stripe running down the outside of each leg. His peaked hat, a shako, came low at the back of the head to give some protection from the rain. Richard was particularly busy with three times the usual post to deliver, as the previous day had been Valentine’s Day, and not everyone had obeyed the General Post Office pleas to post in good time.
While delivering post in Lower Kennington Lane—the northern half of today’s Kennington Lane near the Elephant and Castle—he had the misfortune to come to the attention of Police Constables 179 L and 17 LR. They had seen him constantly dropping his bag and letters. To cap it all, when an unsuspecting householder answered the door to his knock, an unsteady Richard fell into the passage. The constables judged he was very drunk, and promptly arrested him. Richard insisted that he wasn’t drunk, and that he could manage to make his remaining deliveries, and he demanded that a doctor be called to back him up. Unfortunately for him the doctor confirmed that he was inebriated, and within a few days Richard came up before Mr Chance at the local police court.
A gentleman attending on behalf of the General Post Office attested that Richard had worked for the GPO for three years, and was of previous good character, but noted that on this occasion, as well as being drunk, he was behind with his delivery. He would probably be discharged, whatever the outcome of the case. Richard was found guilty and given the option of a £5 fine—perhaps four or five times his weekly wage—or one month in prison.
Richard was fired. But his fate did not go unnoticed, and the Croydon Chronicle and Surrey Advertiser admonished those who given him the fateful drink on his rounds, for it was that had led to his dismissal.
The stresses and strains of the Valentine’s Day increase in post were not limited to one man. In 1871 an unnamed letter carrier belonging to the Buckingham Gate district was arrested for being drunk while delivering the Valentine’s Day mail. In his defence he said he had been on duty since four in the morning without the opportunity to take a break or eat a meal. A lady on his rounds, taking pity on him, had given him half a tumbler of sherry, which had proved to be half a tumbler too much. In this case the nameless postman was not discharged.
A NOTE ON SOURCES
My main sources were newspapers. The description of the uniform comes from P Cunningham & C Lucas (1967) Occupational Costume in England: From the Eleventh Century to 1914. A&C Black: London.
© london-overlooked 2019
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