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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

Remarkable Lives of London Messengers in the 1930s

In the days before email, messengers provided a vital communication service.

But they did far more than just deliver messages; they could be relied upon to help sail a toy boat, suck lemons, take dogs across the continent or come to the rescue of a cabinet minister.

James A Jones was an Evening News journalist in the 1930s. In 1934, some of his writing on Londoner's lives was collected into a book "Wonderful London Today".

In a chapter from that book Jones explores the varied and remarkable lives of the army of London messengers. He writes wittily about District Messenger boys, the King's Messenger's with their Silver Greyhound badges, Bank Messengers, telegraph boys and the messengers of Whitehall. Here is that chapter in full, with the original illustrations.

Ten Thousand Messengers

"Next!" Messenger boys ready to go anywhere, and always with a smile.
"Next!" Messenger boys ready to go anywhere, and always with a smile.

“I’ll give it to you in thousand pound notes,” said the bank cashier calmly, taking a bundle of crinkly white paper out of the drawer beneath the counter. He stripped off two notes, jotted down the numbers on the pad beside him, and then pushed them over to the silk-hatted bank messenger. The messenger, with careful deliberation, tore them in halves, stowed the pieces in different pockets - just in case of thieves - and walked out into the turmoil of London.

Strolling along the pavement, whistling jauntily, was a District Messenger boy. His little pill-box hat was stuck on his head at a cheerful angle. He stared around him with the bright alert eye of a London sparrow.

"How are yer, General?" said an impudent urchin. “Garn! “retorted the boy scornfully.

At Victoria station a taciturn man, unobtrusively well-dressed, watched a pile of sealed bags being tucked away in a compartment of the Continental express. There was nothing to distinguish him from other travellers; but if he had been challenged he could have shown the silver greyhound badge which was his passport as a King’s Messenger.

“Constantinople, sir? “asked the porter. “Yes - this time,” said the traveller.

All day long the messengers of London pass through the streets. They are the links which hold together the affairs of the capital. They are the bearers of urgent tidings. They carry, quite impartially, love letters and secret treaties, theatre tickets and telegrams that are the tidings of death.

There is a story that once, on the Channel boat, a man saw a King’s Messenger leave the Embassy bag beside his chair while he marched up and down the deck. The man politely suggested to him that it was rather risky to take his eye off the bag - a thief might seize the chance to steal it. “Well,” said the King’s Messenger,” the thief would only get the Ambassador’s old boots. I’m taking them home to be mended.”

The life of the half-dozen King’s Messengers, who spend their lives journeying between London and the Continental capitals, is not as romantic as you imagine. They are not perpetually dogged by swarthy spies, wrapped in black cloaks. They seldom have to show the silver greyhounds which they wear on ribbon round their necks. Why should they, when every passport official has seen them a hundred times before?

"Back again, sir?" says the passport man. “Once more,” agrees the traveller.

Sometimes, of course, they bear in their Embassy bags documents of real importance -secret instructions, secret reports. The keys of the bags are never out of their possession even in bed.

But it is a monotonous life, the endless coming and going of a King’s Messenger. He is always ready to set off at a moment’s notice. He will tell you, as a humorous glimpse of their uncertain lives, the tale of a man who believed himself to be the last on the list for duty, and went to a foreign watering-place for a few days’ rest. When he got there he found a telegram waiting for him. It was from the Foreign Office. He read it once, and then a second time, with growing bewilderment, It said: You are fast and dirty. Return at once.

He hurried back to London, and asked what it meant. His chief laughed. The telegram had been written, "You are first on duty."

That little band of men are the aristocrats among the world’s messengers, and the secrets of Chancelleries may be locked in their bags. But the real London, with all her astonishing variety, all her human entanglement; and perplexities, is reflected in the tasks of the three hundred District Messenger boys. Sharp-witted, irrepressible young Cockneys, just out of school they wait down in their basement rooms below the District Messenger offices, and when the Sergeant calls out "Next!" the boy who clambers down off the table never knows what unexpected thing London wants now.

"Stevens", says the Sergeant, "take this letter to Liverpool by the twelve o’clock train, and post it there.” “Yes, sir,” says young Stevens. "Here’s, the money." "Thanks, sir.”

Master Stevens adjusts his pill-box hat at the conventional slant, puts the letter in his leather pouch, and catches the bus to the station. What is that letter, and why has it got to be posted in Liverpool? He doesn’t know, and doesn’t care. It may have been written by a man who wants people to think he in the North. But it is all the same to Master Stevens.

“Next!” shouts the Sergeant In the office “Yes, sir? ‘ says Master Thompson. “Can you sail model yachts?” "Yes, sir.” “Good. Then go to South Street—there’s the number - and say you’ve come to help the boy sail his boat. They’re waiting for you now.”

The Sergeant picks up a gorgeous bouquet of orchids from a table.

“You’re next, Richards, aren’t you? Take these flowers to this address, and don’t crush ‘em. If the people there ask who sent ‘em, you don’t know. Understand? Right. Get along, then.”

For something like twelve shillings a week these lads of London’s youngest Flying Squad are ready to go anywhere and do anything. Ever since the famous Jaggers went to America thirty years ago to deliver some letters in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago they have all dreamed that one day the Sergeant will say, “Oh, you - catch the next boat to New York, and be quick about it.”

Most of their jobs are simple ones - carrying letters about the City, keeping places in theatre queues and things like that - but it sometimes happens. It happened two or three years ago to young Daniel Rudge, who is now a salesman with another firm. He sailed on the Aquitania in charge of some master records of Beethoven’s music, and when he landed in New York the envious American messenger boys wanted to know what “political pull” he had to get such a trip.

“I was just the next boy,” said Daniel. “Yeah?” answered the boys, unbelievingly. "But I was,” insisted Daniel. “All right, oyster,” said the boys resentfully.

It was little Charles Hill who took a valuable collie dog to Constantinople and got the Industrial Order of Merit from the Turkish authorities for doing it. Young Alfred Beale carried a Court uniform to Rome. He had no time to get any luggage, so he bought a travelling rug at the station and slept in the corner of the compartment just as lie was. The man who was waiting for the uniform drove Alfred round the city in his big car for a couple of hours and then Alfred set off back.

“‘What’s Rome like?” they asked him at the office. “Give me London any time,” said Alfred, the sturdy Cockney, as he flung his pill-box hat down on the table.

You get the quaintest peeps at London-behind-the-scenes when you talk with the boys down in the basements. You hear, for one thing, how a woman saw a mouse in her drawing-room, flung herself with a scream on to a table, and then rang up on the phone which stood there. A boy went along and caught the mouse.

Then there was the man in evening dress who came into the office, looked round nervously, and said he wanted a boy to see him off to the Continent.

“See you off, sir? “ echoed the Sergeant, puzzled. “Yes,” said the man. “To tell the truth there’s a gang of men who want me to stay, and—well, I’m rather weak-willed, and I’m afraid to trust myself.” “Very good, sir,” said the Sergeant. “Next!”

The man handed all his money and valuables to the boy. Then he put himself in the youngster’s hands. The boy led him to a Turkish bath for the night, called for him at six o’clock in the morning, helped him to pack, took him to the station, bought the tickets, and led him to the train.

Yet another boy, when he got to the house which had summoned him, found a street band playing thunderously outside. The man at the house gave him a bag of lemons and said, “See those damned musicians? Well, go and suck these lemons as close to ‘em as you can. Let’s see if they can stand that.”

The boy got to work at once. The musicians looked at him menacingly. He started on the second lemon. They uttered winged words to him. He took the third lemon out of the bag. They marched off in disgust.

London’s thousand bank messengers have been called the best-mannered men in the world, and they are rather proud of their reputation. Top-hatted, frock-coated, brass-buttoned, they stride through the City crowds, and any one of them may have a million pounds in cheques in the leather bag chained to his wrist; but they are always ready to help a lost stranger in the bewildering maze of the Square Mile.

Perhaps the reason for their polished manners is that so many of them were butlers and valets before they became bank messengers. Many of the younger ones were in the Army or the Navy, but quite a lot of the older men were once important personages in the servants’ halls of Mayfair. Some of them have a bit of money tucked away: they keep their ears open for Stock Exchange gossip as they journey about the City.

You might suspect that these men, whose leather bags so often hold fortunes, were armed to the teeth against bandits. You would be wrong. Very few of them carry weapons. The men who ride on the bullion vans have rubber truncheons in their pockets, but the rest - well, a whistle is the only thing they have, and most of them do not even have that.

After all, their silk hats are a protection. You may smile at that, but it is true. Those hats are not mere emblems of respectability: the police keep an eye on any silk hat in a crowd. They know it is probably a bank messenger. A week or two ago a silk hat vanished abruptly from sight on a City pavement - and within a few seconds two policemen had thrust their way through the throng. The messenger had only fainted, but for all the police knew he might have been attacked.

Have you ever seen the neatly uniformed cable boys, cheerfully whistling their way to City offices with batches of messages? Let me tell you about a cable boy’s pluck. Messenger Smith, a boy of sixteen from Dagenham, came out of a Leadenhall Street office after delivering a cablegram. He was holding his right hand and his face was twisted with pain.

What’s the matter ?“ asked a man outside. “I’ve hurt my hand,” said Messenger Smith. "Good heavens!" said the man when he saw the injury. “You’d better get straight along to a hospital.” “I’ve got another cable to deliver.” said the boy.

He insisted on delivering it, even though he had to be helped along the street. Then he went to hospital, and his hand - which he had caught in the lift gates of the office - was amputated.

The messengers of Whitehall carry secrets of State in their scarlet dispatch boxes. You can always see them, turning out of Downing Street, walking into the ponderous doorways of Government offices, hurrying to the House of Commons. They know more than most men about the hidden dramas and comedies of Whitehall.

Not so very long ago a Cabinet Minister, who was just about to speak in Parliament, phoned to his private secretary in Whitehall and asked him to send some documents across at once. The private secretary threw the papers hurriedly into a case and dashed to the lift. Half-way between two floors the lift stopped - and would not start again.

Here was a pretty dilemma! The Cabinet Minister was due to speak in a minute or two and his papers were imprisoned in the lift. A messenger had an inspiration. He fetched a long piece of string and dangled it down the shaft. The private secretary made up the papers into a compact bundle which would pass through the narrow gap at the side of the lift and tied them on the end of the string. The messenger hauled them up and then ran all the way to the house of Commons. A minute later the Cabinet Minister began to speak.

London’s two thousand telegraph boys are the wings of fate. Not that they look romantic as they sweep exuberantly round corners on their scarlet bicycles, or argue shrilly in their rooms inside the post offices - argue interminably, as only boys can. But the ten million telegrams they take through the streets every year are the laconic cries of an urgent humanity - the pleadings and the warnings, the excuses and the joyous boastings, of the world.

And the couriers who carry joy and sorrow in their leather pouches are just ordinary, human boys, rather mischievous, as all boys are, and occasionally getting into scrapes.

"Garn! Where d'you think yer goin' ?" by Lunt Roberts
"Garn! Where d'you think yer goin' ?" by Lunt Roberts

When a boy steps over the bounds the Postmaster tells him to make a written explanation of his conduct. One boy was called on to explain his conduct towards” an old gentleman in George Street,” and this is what he wrote, after much labour and thought:

To the Postmaster. Sir, As I was passing through George Street an old gentleman stood in the street. I threw a potato at the gentleman. I am very sorry and hope it will not occur again.

There were untoward happenings in the boys’ room at one post office, and the culprit was asked to account for his actions. His formal account ran thus:

Master Smith called me a woodenhead, so I poured hot tar over his dinner and punched him on the nose. Hoping this will meet with your approval.

These youthful wings of fate must not be less than four foot eight in height without their boots; and, at that height, must weigh at least seventy pounds and have a deflated chest measurement of twenty-five inches. The Post Office regulations are very firm about that.

It was the young god Mercury who, in the Golden Age, sped through the empyrean with messages from Olympus. The ancient gods needed but one messenger. London, gigantic in this as in all else, needs ten thousand.

Text and images from Wonderful London Today by James A. Jones with illustrations by Lunt Roberts, published by John Long, London, 1934. Copies can often be picked up from Abe and Amazon for between £10 and £20.


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