1901 Postal Pensioners

Welcome to the Research and Shared Learning Project Our 1901 Postal Pensioners. This project is a partnership between the University of the Third Age (U3A) and Addressing Health. It explores the lives of Post Office workers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In 2020 we recruited fifty University of the Third Age (U3A) members from groups in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England to conduct research into the lives of Post Office employees from Scotland, South-West England, and Ireland who retired in 1901. We titled this RSLP Our 1901 Postal Pensioners to reflect the ways in which these pensioners, as Post Office employees, embody different kinds of national and cross-national stories. 

What’s an RSLP?

A RSLP provides University of the Third Age (U3A) members a chance to collaborate on a research topic with external partners. One of the strengths of an RSLP is its inclusivity. “RSLPs allow member-led learning to flourish and be valued both within and outside the movement”, writes Maggy Sims, the current RSLP coordinator for U3A. As well as providing U3A members with the chance to develop new skills and encounter new topics, another key aim of an RSLP is providing U3A members with an opportunity to connect with others. Adrianne Browne of U3A Northern Ireland writes, “[RSLPs] engage members in a way which keeps them mentally alert, focused and happy to be working again in a team on a worthwhile project. There are definite mental health benefits!”

For our own perspective, we benefitted from the enormous range of knowledge and skills that U3A members brought to the project. There are very different routes and resources when it comes to conducting genealogical research across England, Scotland, and Ireland which made the subject expertise of our U3A members in these places– many of whom were veteran family historians – so invaluable. In this sense, it truly did feel like a shared learning project as U3A members taught us the various idiosyncrasies involved in conducting English, Scottish, and Irish family histories.

Why 1901?

The 1901 pensioners and their families had lives that straddled the significant developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many witnessed the birth of the railways, the emergence of compulsory schooling, famine, mass emigration and, later on, the devastating impact of two World Wars. Many of them had worked for the Post Office for decades and witnessed several waves of expansion and modernisation. By the time these pensioners retired, the Post Office employed over 160,000 people across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

1901 is also significant for historians who rely on the census, as it is the first year that full census records are available for England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Whilst there were differences, the Post Office was a shared feature of everyday life across borders, providing people with ways to remotely connect with others and, vitally, employment opportunities. The project uncovered many features that were also particularly representative of place in the lives of our 1901 pensioners: such as maritime employment in the South-West of England, Scotland’s crofting community, and the movement of Irish peoples to the USA and Canada.

How the RSLP was structured

The RSLP was divided into four phases. Phase One focussed on finding and transcribing causes of death for our 1901 cohort, so we could carry on our current project work that traces the long-term health outcomes of postal pensioners. Working backwards, Phase Two looked at what else we could find out about the pensioners through different kinds of genealogical materials. Participants completed a ‘life story form’ for their pensioners, which are now freely downloadable as fact sheets . Phase Three focussed on introducing participants to using digital archives, with a particular focus on conducting research into the history of medicine online, as well as running lectures and online seminar groups on some of the ‘big themes’ in the history of medicine. The syllabus for Phase Three can be downloaded here, and includes links to our online lectures. Finally, Phase Four saw some of our participants write life stories for pensioners, where they expanded on the research they had done during all the different phases of the project. You can read them here alongside the Fact Sheets.

Throughout the project we ran a series of lunchtime talks on topics such as tuberculosis in Scotland and the Post Office; poverty, health, and the Poor Law in Belfast; and the history of death certificates. This provided RSLP participants the opportunity to interact with academics both from the project and beyond.

What RSLP participants thought about working with us

This project was conducted entirely remotely. This provided opportunities and challenges. It allowed us to connect with volunteers we wouldn’t have been able to connect with before. Securing the geographical breadth of this project was really important to us. However, it did incur a fair amount of digital fatigue for everyone involved with the project. It was also difficult to demonstrate different kinds of skills this way, particularly when someone was not used to using a piece of software. Then there were the inevitable internet outages, the missed Zoom invites, and eye strain that comes with staring at a screen for too long.

But the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic played a complicated role in the SLP. For many of our participants, the SLP provided them with something they could do during long periods of lockdown. At the same time, however, many of our participants (as well as the project team!) were frustrated with lack of access to archives, which meant that the information we could provide them on their pensioners was scanty. Whilst some of our participants did manage during the various ‘easing’ phases to make it to some archives, this was rare.

What the RSLP achieved

RSLP participants worked tirelessly to:

  • Transcribe death certificates and records of 125 pensioners from South-West England, Scotland, and Ireland who retired in 1901
  • Research and write up fact sheets about 96 pensioners from South-West England, Scotland, (what is now called) Northern Ireland, and Ireland
  • Write fuller life stories for 53 pensioners from South-West England, Scotland, and Ireland