Glimpses into Local Postal Services in Victorian Times.The tale of Charles Thomas.By Barry Floyd.Introduction.
In the mid-nineteenth century Rye’s post office was located on the High Street. It was open from 9am to 7pm daily (Monday to Saturday) and from 8.30am to 10am on Sunday.It relocated to Market Street in 1882 but by 1899 had returned to the High Street; it remained there, in two separate locations, until 1960 when it moved to its present position in Cinque Ports’ Street.
Letter boxes and pillar boxes — for receiving outgoing mail — were to be found at various locations around Rye, as is true today. They were originally painted green and only turned red in 1884. While collection times may have varied over the years, C19th. letter boxes at the post office and around the town were cleared at regular intervals. For example, those in South Undercliff and Church Square were emptied at 8.35am, 12 and 6.25pm (in Church Square today there is just one collection at 5.45pm). The box at Point Hill was cleared at 8am, 11am and 7.45pm. The box on Cinque Ports Street was emptied at 8.40am, 12.05pm and 6.30pm.
Unlike today there were also Sunday clearances: in Church Square at 7.25am, Ferry Road at 7.40am and Point Hill at 8am. Careers for spinster Victorian ladies were limited but the position of postmistress was one such opportunity (cf. Larke Rise to Candleford). In 1874 a Miss Mary Ann Lindridge was the Rye postmistress; she was succeeded in 1882 by another Lindridge: Miss Elizabeth. However roles reverted in 1887 when the postmaster was a Mr. Thomas Busby who remained in control of Rye’s postal services until the 1920’s.
Mr. Thomas Busby
A fascinating character in mid-nineteenth Rye was a delivery postman by the name of Charles Thomas, described by William Holloway as “our worthy letter carrier” and by another as “a very kind old bachelor”. He was known at all Rye residents as “Uncle Charlie”.
He was born in Rye 1811, the son of a tailor by the same name and a freeman of Rye Corporaion… It is not known when Charlie began working for the post office but he is recorded as a “letter carrier” in the 1851 census, by which year he was 40 years old. We do not know when he retired from his postal duties although it appears he was still active into the 1860s. By the 1970s he was suffering greatly from rheumatism and was largely bedridden. Charlie Thomas lived on West Street and the house still bears the family name today; “Thomas House”.
Throughout his career Uncle Charlie was apparently a most conscientious and kindly postman. He had a cheery word for everyone and was frequently invited into homes when delivering letters to recipients who were unable to read the contents. Charlie would not only read their letters but often agreed to write replies for them. It is said that he gladly wrote letters for sweethearts, both young men and women, and to read the answers for them! During his rounds, which may have lasted all day, Charlie was often invited — by both rich and poor families — to stay for a snack or an entire meal. His contributions of anecdotes, jokes and riddles would have parents and children in fits of laughter. His conversation was said to be cheery not gossipy and, to his credit, he did not engage in scandalous talk. He remained discreetly silent and conveniently deaf when embarrassing topics were raised. Having said that, Charlie apparently knew pretty well how most Rye men would vote in elections, whether Municipal or Parliamentary.
At times Charlie had difficulty in correctly delivering letters since Rye’s streets were unnamed. William Holloway, a leader in Rye’s reform movement and later historian of the town, responded to a conversation which he had with “our very active and useful public officer, Mr. Charles Thomas” by proposing a plan for the naming of streets and other locations, and for the numbering of houses. Holloway’s proposals were adopted and came into effect in 1860.
In the 1850’s and 1860’s many young Ryers emigrated to the United States, Canada and Australia; their letters back home to their parents were eagerly read. Charlie would identify the foreign stamps and their postmarks (the stamps were often given to him for “Services rendered”) and, with the aid of maps, he would show parents exactly where their offspring were now residing. I would dearly like to know what happened to Uncle Charles’ stamp collection!
Not only did Charlie Thomas serve as an endearing postman, he was also Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths in Rye. After a wedding ceremony he liked to slip a few coins into the bride’s hands, or give the couple some caraway seed cake and elderberry wine.
Another of Charlie’s activities was to serve as secretary to a charitable Bread and Soup Committee, formed to help relieve Rye’s poor during winter months. He faithfully attended the handouts, noting with Holloway that on March 19th 1858, 7033 loaves of bread and 3730 quarts of soup were distributed to 370 families, making a total of 1220 persons – including children – who received the benefit.
Uncle Charlie took great interest in the rising generation, youngsters apprenticed to shop keepers around town. During winter evenings, although he himself would have been weary after his delivery rounds, he would invite young apprentices to his house. He was most knowledgeable concerning the history of Rye, particularly the political history of the early part of the C19th. He was a staunch Tory greatly interested in affairs of the Church and State, which led him to discuss these matters with these matters with younger generation.
On a lighter not, night after night, he would read aloud to apprentices. The works of Charles Dickens were his favourites and, as soon as a new book appeared, he would but a copy to read to his young pupils. He would also share with them a few songs and a glass of hot elderberry wine.
Uncle Charlie attended Church regularly at St. Mary’s. His pew was a large square one, with high sides and a door, known locally as a “horse box”. It was located under the west gallery known as the Grand Stand. Several lads would accompany Charlie to church and apparently he would keep the boys quiet during the sermons by telling them funny tales.
Charlie was able to take holidays from time to time and he was particularly fond of crossing the Channel (La Manche) to visit the ports of Boulogne and Calais, in which towns he was nearly as well known as in Rye. He always took two or three Rye lads with him. He also went to Paris on occasion. It is said that he invariably left France by the first train from Rye on Sunday morning, attired in a new suit of clothes and wearing a smart hat. This would be a big change from his well-worn postman’s uniform of the day.
Here in England, apart from local hikes, Uncle Charlie and two lads actually walked as far as London on one occasion, taking several days in the venture. He also attended the 1851 and 1852 Exhibitions in the capital, again with a few young Rye apprentices.
In sum, Charlie Thomas was a remarkable Rye figure in the mid-nineteenth century, selflessly serving the community at different levels with great distinction. Worthy letter carrier indeed, but also a devoted tutor to successive generations of Rye’s young men and a sympathetic supporter of the town’s paupers. His place in the history of our town deserves full recognition.
Information for this article was derived from three sources: John Neve Masters, Amusing Reminiscences of Victorian Times and of To-day (Clifton House, Rye, 1921. “Charlie Thomas the Postman”, pp. 149-154.
M.V. Saville (ed.) The Casual Diary of William Holloway (Mss. Rye Museum Association, 2004)
Jo Kirkham (ed.) Rye Memories. The Postal History of Rye (Thomas Peacocke School, Local History Group (Rye 1988 ?)
“Rye’s Own” February 2013
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