Finding Stories

Front view of Selby Post Office, 2012

Selby Post Office, 2012 © Jonathan Thacker and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. 

We discussed in a previous blog how trade union members and Royal Mail employees are responding to the dangers of Covid-19, where criticisms about the lack of PPE, social distancing, and staggered work hours have formed the basis of concerns. For the future historian of medicine, union responses to Covid-19 will form an important part of their narratives about the impact of the disease in its relationship to the long, tangled history of occupational health in the twenty-first century. However, union responses are far from being the only resource they will have access to.

A vexed question for any historian – whether of medicine or no – is the ability to ‘get at’ or ‘recover’ individual perspectives. Right now, a number of different institutions are hard at work collecting Covid-19 related material in the hope of capturing these perspectives. One such effort is the Workers’ Stories Project in Scotland:

Our working lives have been fundamentally changed by Covid-19. Key workers have faced huge dangers on the frontline of essential service delivery, unemployment has sky-rocketed and large numbers of people have begun remote working. Traditional barriers between the market and national obligation and work and home have broken down. Trade union meetings and protests have been disrupted but worker grievances have been aired in new and creative ways. We want to document worker experiences during the lockdown and after it […] As the political narrative of Covid-19 is continually rewritten and it passes into history, workers’ experiences must be included. 

The first entry in the Workers’ Stories project comes from Marion Johnstone, a postie from Ayrshire. Marion decided to record her experiences working during Covid-19 with a picture of herself surrounded with multiple thought bubbles. These thought bubbles provide a unique insight into the burdens of pandemic postal work. It shows how workers have had to adapt behaviours in the light of new fears about contagious contact, but that such changes come at a cost: Marion worries that people are “offended” she doesn’t pass their parcels directly to them. Wedged in between thoughts about Covid-19 – will I get it? Has that person recovered yet? Time to sanitise my hands again! – Marion’s thoughts also reflect upon other challenges she faces. While the physical effects of her work are obvious in her tiredness and her need for the toilet, we also feel an overwhelming sense of the multitude of responsibilities Marion is struggling to balance and prioritise.

Marion’s art gives us a moment as historians to pause and reflect on how we think about the historical subjects we are studying. How do we recognise and reconstruct that complex lives that Victorian postal employees led? What were their roles as parents, children, friends, spouses, and how did this interact with the stresses of work? We cannot answer these questions easily. In many cases it is important for us to cultivate empathy for our subjects using our imagination. As part of his work on histories of witchcraft, Will Pooley suggests that this kind of creative history-making allows a historian to embrace and accept a “sustained ignorance” of the past. By engaging imaginatively with our sources, we can add much-needed texture to our histories.

In this vein I often find myself thinking back to George Wright Appleyard, the rural messenger I wrote about in a previous blog. I think about the conversations he would have had to have with his family as his pension was reduced, or the strategies he had in place for managing his physical pain, even how he occupied his time after he retired. Men like George would have had to cope with regular outbreaks of endemic diseases like scarlet fever in their own communities. While smaller in scale and much more regular in occurrence than Covid-19, did George have similar thoughts to Marion about his own health and that of his community during these outbreaks? Or was he simply used to them?

This blog has been mostly about questions rather than answers. But the voices of Royal Mail employees now – as well as the limitations I am under while working from home – are helping me reconsider what histories of health and wellness in the Victorian Post Office can, and should, look like.

Laura Newman