In the old days when telegrams were hand-delivered in the UK, Ireland, and the US a messenger was hired to make these deliveries, usually arriving by bicycle. These were boys and sometimes girls who were hired in the UK and Ireland by the Post Office. Western Union or some other privately held telegraph company hired the messengers in the US.
WWI Telegram Girls
During World War I the General Post Office in the UK and Ireland recruited girls to deliver telegrams as so many of the young men were now serving in the military and could not work as Telegram Boys. A young women working as a Telegram Girl was never a possibility before the war. WWI gave young women an opportunity to have a job that had only been offered to boys and men up until then.
Once a telegram was ready to be sent, it was put in an envelope with the address and given to a telegram messenger, who always wore a Post Office uniform. A belt with a leather pouch holding the telegrams was worn over the uniform. The uniform jacket was adorned with a metal badge and number. When the messengers were in train stations they wore an illuminated badge that said, “Telegrams Accepted” so that anyone on the platform could spot them should they want to send a telegram at the last minute before boarding the train.
When the telegram delivery messengers arrived at the address written on the envelope they waited for the recipient to read their telegram to find out if they wanted to send a reply. Their routine was to knock on the front door of the dwelling and announce, “Telegram for Mr. or Mrs. (Surname).” When the door opened they would hand the message over and wait until it was read, then asking, “Will you be replying?” If they answered, “Yes” they would accept payment.
In photographs from the era you can see that the Post Office uniforms worn by the girls were ill fitting. They had apparently not been tailored to fit them. With the belt and GPO pouch holding the telegrams, the look could hardly be called flattering.
In the 1930s messengers of 17 years and older switched their bicycles out for faster motorcycles. They were instructed to maintain an average speed of 15 mph.
In the United States
Telegraph messengers in the US were usually boys between the ages of 10 and 18. They too wore uniforms and delivered their telegrams on foot or by bicycle. Telegraph boys would arrive at work in the morning and await their assignments. They would be paid by the mile.
In 1872 a call-box system was developed whereby a customer could call (or “ring” as it was called in those days) the Telegraph Office requesting a messenger. The telegraph boy would then speed off to the customer’s home to pick up the handwritten message. They would go back to the Telegraph Office so that the message could be transmitted electrically to the intended destination.
Being a telegram messenger was a serious job and sometimes in the evenings or on weekends these messengers were required to participate in a military drill, wearing full uniform in front of the public.
In both military and civilian life telegrams were a fast way to personally deliver messages. A telegram messenger was expected to go wherever they were asked, whether it was a business office, military quarters, a large private estate or a small dwelling on an ordinary street.
In the US the need for telegram messengers dwindled when messages started being read over the phone by the various telegraph companies. The telegram messenger became a thing of the past but will always be remembered for the valuable service they provided.
The Telegram Clerk