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Stephen Armstrong, Whitechapel Postman

December 19, 2016
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, accompanied by a set of pictures from 2013 by Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien whom we said farewell to this year.

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 © Estate of Colin O’Brien

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. December 19, 2016

    His ‘walk’ is described brilliantly here. Stephen is good at PR with his customers, he has style and must be an asset to the PO. I think we are some way off for a complete E Mail take over, keep plodding on Stephen you are doing fine. GA has given you a good visual job description which may be useful some day keep it safe. Poet John

  2. pauline taylor permalink
    December 19, 2016

    I am always amazed at how good the postal service is at making sense of appallingly badly written and incorrect addresses, they seem to make a great effort and I wonder if the success is due to an actual person looking at the envelopes!! And don’t get me started on postcodes, ours is invariably wrong, at this time of the year especially; people just do not seem to understand them so numbers appear where there should be letters and vice versa , but it seems to make no difference to them arriving at the correct address. Well done for that PO say I.

    Our postman at our shop always brings the post in and hands it to me with a smile and a comment as quite often books are returned from places like Moscow which he finds amusing even if we don’t. Most books are delivered safely but sometimes they come back from various parts of the world with all sorts of extra labels, stamps and hand written reasons for non- delivery on them, it doesn’t happen with UK parcels, so well done PO again.

    Postman also tells me how hard the pounding the pavements is on his footwear and how useless the trainers provided are.

  3. December 19, 2016

    Solidarity with all postal workers (& good luck with the strike). Great article & Photographs.

  4. Carolyn Badcock permalink
    December 20, 2016

    Delightful story of a wonderful man…… I love his contentment with his lot.

    Happiest of Christmases to him, to you gentle author and all your readers from the Land Down Under!!

  5. April 6, 2017

    Dear Gentle Author,

    of all the various kinds of pieces on Spitalfields Life, those I enjoy the very most are the pieces in the category Human Life. Ordinarily when one reads pieces about a person in books or magazines, this person will be some kind of celebrity, and to be quite honest, those pieces are often much the same, no matter what kind of celebrity is being portrayed.

    Your portraits of people from everyday walks of life are so much more fascinating, touching, entertaining, and instructive. Also, these people are truly unsung heroes; very few are those who acknowledge their skills and abilities the way we are used to acknowledging the skills of rock stars and actors, but professions generally – and wrongly, if you ask me – regarded as “low” or “menial” also make huge demands on those performing them.

    Thank you for giving us these insights into lives and professions that we would otherwise not get to read about.

    All the best,

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