Stephen Armstrong, Whitechapel Postman
Occasionally, people write correspondence addressed simply to “The Gentle Author, Spitalfields” and it is to the credit of the East End postal service that these letters arrive on my doormat. So today I return the favour with this interview of Whitechapel Postman, Stephen Armstrong, accompanied by a set of pictures from 2013 by Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien whom we said farewell to this year.
Stephen Armstrong and I met in the early afternoon in Whitechapel, once the day’s round was done, and he ate mince pies with hot chocolate to revive his flagging spirits, after being awake since before dawn.
We were just across the road from sorting office which is only five minutes walk away from where he lives to the south and ten minutes walk from his round, which is to the north.
Steve spends a lot of time pounding the pavements of Whitechapel and it is unlikely that anyone knows the minutiae of these streets better than he. Reserved in manners yet resilient in spirit, Stephen has found his metier in delivering letters and becoming the spiritual guardian of his particular corner of the East End.
“I’ve been up since five this morning, that’s late for me! It gives me a little time to myself, to get ready and pootle around – because six o’ clock is when I start.
I always remember when I joined the Post Office, because it was the the day after the Poll Tax Riot, 1st April 1990. I got myself sacked from an oil refinery for edible oils for not working hard enough, then I did thirteen months training to be be a Dispensing Optician. That was all because I had mucked up my A Levels and was a general under-acheiver all round. Then I failed my Optician exams, so I needed a way out and the Post Office seemed like the ideal place to get my head together. It started as a temporary job but I’ve been here ever since.
I grew up in Dartford and worked in Dartford, until they more or less shut down the sorting office there. By then, I had met my wife Karen and moved to Whitechapel and I’d been trying to get a job in the Whitechapel Sorting Office for years. It was very difficult for me to get from Whitechapel to Dartford to start work at five in the morning, so they offered me the possibility of a transfer to Rochester. Eventually they said, ‘We might be able to transfer you to Whitechapel but you’ve said you don’t like going out doing deliveries.’ I said, ‘I don’t know because I’ve never tried it,’ and when I did it was a baptism of fire, but I absolutely loved it. That was just last year, 2012.
I like being outdoors and walking across the same piece of ground everyday, you see the changes that people in the city are normally cut off from, the flowers opening and leaves falling. You are in touch with time passing.
I walk five minutes from my home in Adelina Grove and kick off at Whitechapel Sorting Office at six each morning. The machine will have sorted everything from yesterday in order, there is a slot for every letterbox in the frame. Then it’s ‘walk sorted’ and you sort whatever mail has come in during the night – that’s about an hour’s work. At nine o’clock, it is breakfast time. You go off and have breakfast, by which time anything from the other East End districts will come in and we sort that.
Once you have got all your work, you make it into bundles with those elastic bands – the notorious ones that we drop all over the place. You pack your bag with the first bundle of work, it cannot be more than sixteen kilos. Some postmen have a trolley but I don’t, instead I have dropboxes where the rest of the mail is dropped off to me at each end of my area. Generally, it takes about two and a half to three hours walking to make my deliveries. There are lots of streets where no-one notices you, you become part of the street furniture. A few old ladies ask you to do this and that and I don’t mind. I’m not a friend, I’m an acquaintance – but I like to think I can be trusted.
I don’t mind the weather, though I can’t really handle the heat because you can’t take off any more than the minimum. I’ve got a collection of silly hats – a sou’wester for rain and a sunhat for summer. I love dogs though there are a couple who jump up to take the letters out of your hands but, if you are careful, you can save your fingers. I desperately try to make friends with all the dogs on my route. I had a dog of my own, Laika, for seven years and I miss her a lot, so I’m borrowing other people’s dogs briefly.
I think there’s going to be more post in future but it’ll be more parcels not letters. A lot more comes through mail order these days, but all business is done by emails so there’s fewer letters. It would be a sad thing if the regular post goes, yet nobody writes anymore they just send texts and emails. Even I don’t receive any mail anymore.”
Steve delivers to Henrietta Keeper, Ballad Singer of Bethnal Green
Back to the drop box to pick up another load of letters
Off on the rounds again …
Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien
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