Postal worker records collaboration

About the project

This project focuses on ill health in the Victorian and Edwardian Post Office. It is a collaboration between five institutions: King’s College London, University College London, Kingston University, University of Derby and The Postal Museum. It uses archival evidence gathered from individual pension records to identify the extent of ill health in the workforce. These records provide information for all pensioners on the amount of sickness absence, cause of retirement, age, occupation and place of work, together with length of service and salary. This information allows us to identify the influence of location as well as demographic and occupational factors in the incidence of ill health among postal workers. We found that London postal workers retired much earlier than those in the rest of the country. By the time they had reached their mid-40s, the majority of postal employees in London were no longer physically able to carry on working. Mental health and poor eyesight were the main reasons for retiring early in London but in rural areas orthopaedic conditions were more important. The research makes an original contribution to studies of morbidity in Britain during this period.

Challenges and opportunities

The pension records are interspersed in a series held at the Postal Museum (POST 1) that includes letters to the Treasury and are therefore not conveniently collated. The documents are too fragile to be scanned and the handwriting is too poor to consider using OCR techniques. As part of a Master’s project we carried out a pilot study to determine the feasibility of extracting data using Excel spreadsheets. Based on that experience, we obtained funding to extend the project to allow us to employ further research assistance to cover a larger number of records in order to develop a sufficient sample size from which to derive valid results. The funding allowed us to employ a part-time research assistant for three months and we were able to gather information on over 1200 individuals. Even so, we could not fully complete the number of transcribed records that we hoped to achieve because of the time-consuming nature of the data inputting.

The pension records needed to be contextualised in relation to Post Office policies and medical provision in the Post Office. The challenges were that supplementary material existed but was scattered in other original documents held at The Postal Museum and in parliamentary reports. We identified the parliamentary papers by running keywords searches via the online search engine ProQuest. This brought up a large number of documents that we initially summarised in a shared spreadsheet and then selected for more detailed reading. During the data gathering, there was insufficient time to fully comprehend the content of this additional material, which only became apparent towards the end of this phase.

Outcomes

Our initial aim was to publish our results in peer reviewed journals as a contribution to understanding ill health in the nineteenth century. We published two linked papers in the journal, Social History of Medicine, relating to the incidence of ill health and the medical service of the Post Office. In addition, we authored an entry on the first Chief Medical Officer in the Post Office, Dr Waller Lewis, for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. We have since also written further papers which have been submitted to academic journals. As a result of our work, archivists at The Postal Museum have a better understanding of the pensions records, which are a useful source of information for family historians.

A key outcome of this project has been a significant funding bid to the Wellcome, which includes the possibility of a public exhibition focusing on health in the Victorian and Edwardian Post Office. This bid will enable us to examine every pension record from c.1859 to c.1908 (approximately 33,000 individuals). As part of this bid, we will make available to The Postal Museum all the details of individual pensioners, creating a significant and more easily accessible resource for family historians.

Lessons learnt

This project would not have been possible without the support and knowledge of The Postal Museum archivists, and a key outcome has been the strong and mutually beneficial relationship that we have been able to create. This support has been essential in developing further funding bids to extend the work and to put us in contact with other institutions and individuals with related interests and expertise.

We created a data entry manual from the beginning which set out the rules for entering information. This meant that we largely eliminated any inconsistent data entries arising from variations in the records as well as by the research assistant.

Because of the pressure to complete the initial data-gathering phase, we were unable to complete our analysis of the parliamentary papers. Had we been able to do so, we would have come across other highly relevant data that could have considerably sped up some of the data entry.

Advice to others

  • Talk to the archivists. They know a lot!
  • Take time to review the full range of archives you intend to use as soon as you can and don’t be afraid to change tack if necessary
  • Develop a clear understanding of how they compiled the data
  • Provide a clear and easy to use data-entry manual and encourage research assistants to ask questions when something is unclear
  • Carry out regular quality assurance on any data collection – don’t leave it till the end
  • Ensure that all those involved in the research have experience of gathering and entering data Remember that the research assistant will often have their own, highly relevant knowledge picked up from their work. Find ways to include the research assistant in the analysis and writing, and name their contribution to any published paper. This helps to develop a strong and supportive team ethic that is essential for productive collaborations
  • Develop a website from the start – it helps to gain a public presence for the project

Future development

We have developed a significant funding bid to the Wellcome to extend this work for the next three years. If that is successful, we envisage publishing several academic articles and developing a public engagement strategy that will include an exhibition and working with current postal employers to draw attention to the importance of occupational health.

We have used the knowledge derived from this project to extend our work to other sectors of the economy and are currently seeking funding to work with the Metropolitan Police records on similar research.

More information

Contact: Professor David Green – david.r.green@kcl.ac.uk