The Post and Telegraph Department

Published: Thursday | June 18, 2009


Martin Henry, Contributor

The Chapelton Post Office, according to a May 22, Gleaner story, 'Where has the mail gone?', has reduced its staff from seven to five as the volume of mail handled has declined significantly. Modern communications technology has not only pushed a reduction in the use of letters for communication but has altogether eliminated the telegraph service which the Post and Telegraph Department used to provide.

Jamaica was the first British colony to establish a postal service as a branch of the British Postal Service when the first post office was established on October 31, 1671 in the capital, Spanish Town.

For the next 189 years, the postal service remained an extension of the British Postal Service. It was not until 1860 that an independent Jamaica Postal Service was created, starting on August 1, issuing its own Jamaican stamps and managing its own affairs. At the time, there were 49 district post offices.

The first attempt to organise a formal mail service between the British West Indies and Britain was by Edmund Dummer, surveyor general of the British Navy, and was inaugurated in October 1702. This was perhaps the first such service between Britain and any colony.

Profitability

Dummer secured the monarch's permission to operate four vessels "which are designed to succeed each other monthly" and whose "motions are determined to be very quick, because thereon depends the chief fruit that is to be reaped."

Dummer's fast transatlantic mail service had a best time of 881/2 days round trip, or just under three months!

His mail service lasted until December 1711. Unrealised expectations of profitability, partly due to the loss of ships from enemy action during the War of the Spanish Succession, and losses from storms, left Dummer bankrupt.

Unlike the start of the telegraphic service in Britain and the United States, which was by private enterprise, the colonial Government of Jamaica took charge of the domestic telegraph service from the very start. The operation of the telegraph service "and the control and management of Telegraph business" was vested in the postmaster for Jamaica. The Post and Telegraph Department was born.

Cable and Wireless Jamaica Limited terminated telegraphic services on January 31, 2004 bringing to an end 135 years of international telegraphic service and 125 years of domestic service. The service had been transferred from the Post and Telegraph Department to Telecommunications of Jamaica (TOJ) in 1986 and TOJ was absorbed into Cable and Wireless. The network of post offices was, however, still used for the service up to the time of termination. For well over a century, the telegraph had been part of the warp and woof of Jamaican life, culture, society and economy. But other technologies for speedy communication over long distances had overtaken the telegraph.

In its final years in Jamaica, the biggest users of the declining telegraph service were the Ministry of Labour for the notification of workers in the Overseas Employment Pro-gramme and hire-purchase businesses sending collection notices to customers. But as C&W noted at the time of closure, "Today, Jamaicans have about 1.5 million cellular phones and nearly half a million telephone lines. It is quicker, easier and more direct to call someone than to send a telegram ... . The fax message and email also provide more direct communications."

For 'The Story of the Telegraph in Jamaica', we interviewed a number of retired Post and Telegraph Department workers, among them Dorothy Nash. As soon as the domestic inland telegraph service was launched in 1879, a training school was established.

Working conditions were onerous in the early days and the telegraph service, a major industry and one employing mostly women, became a crucial battleground in the struggle for labour rights here and in other countries.

Just one year after the introduction of the domestic inland service in 1879, 'Fair Play' wrote a long letter to the editor of The Gleaner, which was published on November 17, 1880, complaining about the salaries and working conditions of the telegraph clerks.

Working conditions

Jamaica once had a dedicated Post and Telegraph Workers' Union. This union was at the forefront of the charge for the improvement of working conditions, as this excerpt from The Daily Gleaner of February 1, 1941 indicates:

"Following representations made by the Post and Telegraph Workers' Union, that the working day of postal and telegraph clerks is too long, the official opening hours of all post offices in the island, including the Kingston Telegraph Office, are now 7 a.m. to 5 p.m."

Dorothy Nash joined the Post and Telegraph Department at 17, straight out of Titchfield High School in 1949. She retired as supervisor of telegraphs at Cable and Wireless 47 years later in 1996. At one time, she supervised as many as 40 people; at her retirement, there were only five people in the Telegraph Department of Cable and Wireless at the head office.

Of the 300 applicants for training as telegraph operators when Dorothy Nash applied in 1949, fifty were called for selection and only 17 were finally selected for training. Of those 17 trainees, only Nash served to retirement.

Training at the school for telegraph operators operated by the Post and Telegraph Department lasted six months, during which trainees learned the Morse code and all aspects of operating the telegraph system as clerks at the post offices.

Only two years before she had joined the Post and Telegraph Department, the law had been changed, in 1947, allowing female public servants, including telegraph clerks, to marry and retain their jobs. The Post and Telegraph Workers' Union had been agitating for this change for years and had been canvassing support from other organisations and groups.

Confidential code of ethics

Telegraph operators, who were required to live on the premises of the post office, worked long hours and were essentially on call during the time when offices were officially closed.

"We had to sign a confidential code of ethics during our training period, before we were accepted on the job," Nash says. "If it were ever found out that we discussed people's business in the form of a telegram we would be instantly dismissed."

Speaking of the impact of changing technology, Dorothy Nash says, as the technology improved, the demand for human operators was reduced. The introduction of the computer, coupled with the decline in the demand for telegraphic ser-vice, drastically reduced staff. "When we went over to TOJ, there were 40 officers and when I retired 10 years later they were manning the circuit with only five employees."

Dorothy Nash documented and reported on the deteriorating quality of the telegraph service as a dedicated but frustrated supervisor in the Message Services Department of Cable and Wireless: Antique equipment, for which spare parts could not be found, were malfunctioning; circuits were poor, especially after Hurricane Gilbert did damage to the system in 1988; transmission of messages was slow and messages were often received garbled; delivery during restricted hours was slow; and staff were demotivated.

At the same time, Nash says, volume of use was falling off as people turned to alternative, faster means of telecommunication. The "high hopes" of the public and employees alike "for vast improvement under private administration" by a company like Cable and Wireless were never realised. In fact, the telegraph service was on its last legs as a technology and service whose day had passed.

The surviving postal arm of the old Post and Telegraph Department is facing its own decline of demand challenges.

Martin Henry is a communications specialist and columnist with 'The Sunday Gleaner'.