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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Scandal at the Post Office

How ironic that the very week I’d been researching a branch of my family who’d been postmasters (see Elusive Ellisdons), the next episode of the infamous Post Office scandal was in the headlines. I wonder what my ancestors would have made of it all.

The journalist who brought the shocking story to public attention, Nick Wallis, has made a series of radio programmes, The Great Post Office Trial, and I’ve been listening to them this week on BBC Sounds. Some of the revelations have been jaw-dropping.

In case the story has passed you by… it concerns the Post Office’s prosecution of hundreds of its own sub-postmasters for theft and false accounting, caused, not by the dishonesty of its staff, but by a malfunctioning computer system called Horizon – a defect the Post Office had refused to acknowledge. It has taken over 20 years for those wrongful convictions to be overturned and during that time the behaviour of the Post Office in trying to cover up the scandal has been shameful. Even if you’re already aware of the story, I’d recommend listening to Nick Wallis’s radio programmes.

Historic powers

The postmasters caught up in this miscarriage of justice had been taken to court for their so-called crimes in a private prosecution, without the involvement of the police or the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service). I’d never understood why until this week, when I learned that historically, the Post Office have their own powers of prosecution, given to them long before the police force came into being, for dealing with (amongst other things) those pesky highwaymen who were the scourge of stage coaches carrying the Royal Mail.

Royal Mail coach c. 1820, courtesy Wikimedia commons

Harsh punishment

In 1683, attorney Richard Swift was appointed as Assistant Solicitor to the General Post Office and his duties included, the detection and carrying on of all prosecutions against persons for robbing the mails and other fraudulent practices”.

Sentences for such crimes were harsh – capital punishment and transportation being common. In a fascinating article entitled, Investigations, Prosecutions and Security in the Royal Mail – A Brief History, I read about poor Evan Morgan, a postal sorter, who was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey on 29th April in 1795 (spookily, on the same day as I drafted this blog) for secreting a letter. The article also notes that on the day of his execution, three of the six convicts hanged were postmen.

Post Office Ancestors

An association with Royal Mail and the Post Office crops up in several places in the family history of both myself and my husband. His grandfather and great-grandfather were postmen and on my side of the family, my maternal great-grandfather, Jack Griffiths, ran a Post Office in Heath, Wolverhampton for a number of years in the 1910s.

The aforementioned Ellisdons were a part of the Post Office in Hadleigh for several generations, as mentioned in the following newspaper cutting in the Suffolk & Essex Free Press, in May 1912.

Extract courtesy of FindMyPast's newspaper archives

The article is about a new post office in the town and mentions that the current postmistress, Miss M J Ellisdon (Mary Jane - John Patmore’s granddaughter), is to have a residence in the upper part of the house. It also says: There have been Ellisdons at the Post Office since 1836. On 1st December of that year, John Patmore Ellisdon received the appointment. It then goes on to explain how the role of postmaster was handed down through the family over the years.

But going back to the subject of scandals… as I was browsing through the Ellisdon records, I came across a criminal case held in the Old Bailey in 1864, concerning Henry Patmore Ellisdon. Could this be my 2x great uncle, son of John Patmore Ellisdon? The record states Henry was acquitted but I’m intrigued for find out more. What was the case about? What was he accused of and by whom? Another investigation for my To Do list!


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