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Stephen Armstrong, Postman

December 20, 2013
by the gentle author

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 – and Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien accompanied him on his round yesterday to take these pictures.

Stephen Armstrong

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 © Colin O’Brien

You may also like to read about

Charlie Amarnath, Post Master

On the Rounds With The Spitalfields Milkman

13 Responses leave one →
  1. December 20, 2013

    I’ve always fancied being on the post too. For much the same reasons as Stephen: that contact with the sesons and daily life. Back when I was a student, we all used to work at the GPO at Christmas – a wonderful time of camaraderie and a pay too. It was hard work but fun. I was indoors on ‘Machines Number 1’, facing post upwards and sorting it into 1st and 2nd class. I’ll never forget the ‘builder’s tea’ though. Undrinkable.

  2. SBW permalink
    December 20, 2013

    Very interesting; just wondering about your uniform, do the PO supply the entire uniform? Do they supply you with shoes? sbw

  3. isa permalink
    December 20, 2013

    Stephen looks a lovely postman, and I love getting letters and I wish all the best to all our postmen and women they do a brilliant job.

  4. Steve permalink
    December 20, 2013

    Thank you, TGA and Colin, for shining a spotlight. It was fun

  5. William Sovie permalink
    December 20, 2013

    I know things are not all that great for many in the UK right now. However you all still have home delivery of mail, it seems.
    Here in Canada the Canadian Postal Corp. has decided to stop door to door delivery of the mail sometime next year. Yup, that’s right. It’s a race to the bottom here in the colonies.
    Wonderful piece and great photos usual.
    Keep up the good work, Stephen

  6. December 20, 2013

    Love this! :o)

  7. December 20, 2013

    I think Steve must deliver my mail. Good to know the story behind all his hard work. Lovely photos from Colin.

  8. John Campbell permalink
    December 20, 2013

    Well done Colin for piture number 2. That has to be the most unsafe ladder i have ever seen!!
    Thanks GA, another great blog.

  9. December 20, 2013

    classic gentle author post , simple ,honest, totally real and magical for it ,half expected to see Ms.Boudiccaea in her negligee receiving her post.just heartwarming.

  10. December 20, 2013

    That’s real life at it’s best!

  11. Cherub permalink
    December 21, 2013

    Posties are great, I love letters more than emails.

  12. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    December 22, 2013

    This delightful story reminds me how I need to mail a little letter more often to my youngest grandchildren to keep this service alive. My teenage grandchildren would think me rather weird! Only relatives doing genealogy actually write to me nowadays. And the postie zipping by on his scooter can’t take (nor has) any spare moments to say hello to me in Brisbane.
    Beautiful story about Stephen.

  13. Lesley keeper permalink
    April 22, 2017

    Best postman ever. So friendly. Lesley & henrietta

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