Having set up the system there then remained the question as to who would operate them, how this would be done and the conditions under which the staff would work. It has to be remembered that none of this had been tried previously and the men concerned were true pioneers.
The Post Office found that there was little choice in this matter, for no one other than the Sorting Clerks working in stationary offices (a term latterly used by TPO men when talking of fixed sorting offices) at the time. These clerks were very jealous of the position they held in the Post Office hierarchical structure and the mystique they had built up within their little empires. Class in the 1830's riddled the Post Office system and the staffs were regularly reminded of their places. The clerks chosen to work on the first TPO's were not selected by the standards applied many years later but by their status and there is a suggestion, with a touch of nepotism! Relatives of highly placed officials were among the first to become 'Men of the Iron Road'.
From the outset, whoever had been chosen to operate the new service would most certainly have found things very different from what they had been used to previously. Even in the pre Victorian era the offices did have some form of heating and basic facilities, including eating and toilet arrangements. The trials with TPO's, commenced in January 1838, had no form of heating, sanitation and very poor lighting on the carriage. Once the train moved, despite the excellence of the craftsmanship, draughts would have been evident and the cold conditions would have intensified as the journey progressed. Anyone who has ever tried to sort mail, write and tie knots would know of the uncomfortable situation faced by the staff. The windows were most certainly not double-glazed and as is evident from the drawing of the first carriage, they had a net on the side of the vehicle to collect mail on the move. Exciting as this may have been to the newly recruited staff, it would have added further discomfort when in use.
The initial furnishings appear to have been simple transplants of fittings from land based sorting offices and had none of the padded protection added in later years. No doubt this would all have been part of the steep learning curve everyone involved had to climb. As stated, lighting was not good, being provided from paraffin lamps in the roof and although these men would have been used to such forms of illumination, the fact that they were on the move would have made reading more difficult. Anyone who has seen the handwritten letters from that period will know that they are difficult to read and often written in a barely legible hand. These items are sometimes difficult to read under modern lighting system on a stable surface - imagine trying to do the same on an oscillating carriage in very indifferent light!
Once the vehicle had been loaded with mails, and these would have been few compared to the quantities handle per man in later years, the train would have got underway. It is not difficult to imagine the slow, violently lurching start with un-braked vehicles banging together as the train accelerated. It is likely that rates of no more than 40 mph were achieved but to the people of 1838 who had never experienced anything faster than a running horse, such speeds would have been truly impressive. The vehicle wheels were cast and not precision turned, designed to run on equally well-machined bearings. The rails were crude by modern standards and together, these rails and wheels on fairly primitive springs together with the loose coupled un-braked vehicles, would have meant that those early TPO men would, at best, have had a very difficult time.
In 1858 Doctor Lewis was asked to investigate conditions for staff working on TPO's and his findings were a rather interesting insight into conditions at that time. Although twenty years had elapsed since the first TPO rolled along the lines, Dr. Lewis gave his considered opinion that broad gauge lines were a far superior ride to the 'narrow gauge' or what we now know and refer to as the standard gauge. He was particularly scathing of the west coast route and referred to drivers who passed over points at major junctions at excessive speed.
Astonishingly, staff were allowed seven days annual holiday in 1858 but as these holidays were unpaid it will come as no surprise to learn that Dr. Lewis discovered that the men were working without rest for weeks on end. In fact only one man was known to have taken his holiday and he was 'of private means'. The long hours the men worked without a break had a debilitating effect on them and the doctor put this detail in his report. The Post Office disregarded this aspect of the report and only after years of what became known as the great "Post Office Agitation" were conditions to improve. Cynics might conclude that the Post Office waited until conditions changed for the better in other industries.
Conditions steadily improved among the staff as it did with rolling stock. The railways were under continuous pressure to improve efficiency, safety and conditions. The Post Office had considerable influence and powerful rights over the railway companies, and not unnaturally coaching stock had a high priority. For the TPO staff any improvement would have met with approval and facilities like gas lighting, sanitation and the means to brew a cuppa would have been a quantum leap forward. Carriages were equipped with padded edges to hard, sharply angled furniture and fittings. Cocoa matting was laid on the floors and low-pressure steam heating pipes were provided in the vehicles once through braking and screw link couplings were introduced. Eventually corridor connections became de rigueur and on board conditions could then be described as acceptable. Clerestory roofs were built in to some carriages and draught excluders in the form of heavy beige curtains were fitted to all side and end doors.
The original carriages were a short wheel based four-wheeled design. Six- wheeled carriages followed with articulated carriages being introduced on the Great Northern Railway. Eight-wheeled vehicles were used on the London & North Western Railway and allowed the length of the carriages to be increased, an important factor to those who worked in them. Eventually bogie wheels were designed allowing the vehicles to be increased in length to 60ft. plus, in keeping with modern vehicles still in use at the present time. Over the years the carriages rode more smoothly and their sophisticated design allowed sorting to take place at speeds up to 90mph.
The corridor connections were not of a standard design and were offset as opposed to the normal centrally located versions on regular passenger stock. There appear to be two schools of thought as to why these connections were offset - that they were so located to allow for the space occupied by the sorting fittings constructed on one side of the vehicle or that they were so designed to prevent access to and from the passenger vehicles often attached to TPO's. It would not have been difficult to design the internal furnishings of a TPO to allow central positioning of the gangway, even on the first vehicles to be equipped with connectors. However, bearing in mind the Post Office paranoia with keeping its activities close to its chest and certainly not encouraging public access to its inner workings, the idea of keeping passengers out of TPO's would seem logical.
Of course things did change and members of the public were invited to inspect and learn of the activities of the TPO's but this did not happen until the mid 1980s. The only way that accounts of early TPO duty are known are from the writings of officials and the occasional carefully selected visitor. The Post Office always reserved the right to examine any writings that found their way into the public domain and only sanitized versions ever appeared in print.
Collecting information about the early TPO's is very difficult to amass and reference has to be made to various sources. Newspapers provide reports of accidents, new services, memoirs of retiring officers and other snippets. Official reports of railway accidents where mail trains were involved and railway reports relating to service arrangements also furnish considerable detail. Postal historians writing in private journals have contributed much to this little known service that did so much to improve communications in the British Isles.