Posties have a bigger Christmas sack than Santa Claus

In charge: Harry Murphy, delivery sector manager. PHOTOS: SARAH WASHBOURN
In charge: Harry Murphy, delivery sector manager. PHOTOS: SARAH WASHBOURN
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While the county looks forward to tinsel, mince pies and carols, for the Royal Mail Christmas is its biggest logistical challenge of the year. Star reporter Rachael Clegg takes a peep behind the scenes at the Sheffield sorting depot on Pond Street.

FEW of us give much thought to the Christmas card waiting to be opened on the doormat.

But behind each envelope is the labour and graft of about 130,000 men and women.

And at Royal Mail’s central depot in Sheffield, the hundreds of delivery officers know only too well what it takes to get a Christmas card from postbox to person.

Millions of items of post – from letters to packages – are processed here every day.

At the peak of the festive season – yesterday, December 12 – a whopping 62,000,000 letters, cards and parcels passed through the Pond Street headquarters to reach Sheffielders in time for Christmas.

Delivery sector manager Harry Murphy, aged 50, said: “This is an incredibly busy time of year for us and in terms of our domestic customers a very important time of year too.

“Our staff don’t really take holidays at this time of year – in fact, we take on around 400 extra people over the Christmas period to deal with the enormous amount of mail we have.”

These 400 extra staff work across four extra shifts, put in place to deal with Christmas.

“We wouldn’t normally have this many people sorting mail mid-morning, but we have so much extra mail to sort out,” says Harry. “It really is a huge operation and you have to keep a constant eye on it so that things don’t go wrong.”

It’s not surprising then, that with all this mail, Harry is keen to stress how important it is that people use the correct addresses and postcodes.

“We have machines that read the addresses and sort them – they are very clever – but it’s very difficult when an address is hard to read or there isn’t a postcode.

“But when people don’t use the correct postcode it really slows things up as the envelopes then require manual processing.”

The machines not only read the postcodes and clump the mail into postcode clusters, they then order the mail to run in the correct sequence for the delivery officer’s route.

Pointing to a wall of narrow slots, each ‘slot’ corresponding to a business address or house, Harry explains: “The machine puts them in order so that they are ready to be delivered without needing to be put into order.

“When I started working at Royal Mail you had to sit and go through all the mail manually!”

Even the vaguest address details can help post reach its recipient.

“It was quite some years ago now but somebody had met a lady while on holiday and wanted to contact her. He didn’t know her address or full name but he knew the village she lived in and the type of car she had. He wrote all this down, including a description of what she looked like – and the letter eventually found her.”

It’s this knowledge of community, Harry says, that has enabled postmen to act as vital members of the community in times of need.

“Our delivery officers are the only people who go out to every door of the country on a regular basis. If they see anything strange they notify us, a neighbour or the police.” But last year, during the snowy festive period, Royal Mail was criticised for leaving some areas of the UK without mail for up to a week.

This year bosses say they have put special measures in place to avoid the chaos that was caused by last year’s heavy snow.

“We are working a lot harder so the pressure is off this year,” says Harry. “This year delivery officers have vans – one between two delivery officers – which will help them move big parcels.”

Postmen have also been issued with clamp-on snow grips to combat slippery conditions.

Postman Mohammed Ahmad, 32, says: “This Christmas is going to be a challenge but we are ready for it.”

Health and safety measures are stringent at Royal Mail.

Harry says: “Everything’s about safety – you can’t go near the sorting machines if you’re not trained.” Equally strict health and safety rules apply to the mail delivery.

“Bags of post can’t be taken out if they are above 16 kilograms in weight. Many of our delivery officers want to take more but they can’t.

“It’s all very well while you’re fit but we have to be careful not to cause any damage. Our motto is that delivery officers go home in the same condition as when they arrived at work!”

And Harry knows a thing or two about delivering mail.

He started working for Royal Mail at the age of 16 in 1977, as a telegram boy. “I’ve been working for Royal Mail for 34 years and much has changed since I started. The sorting machines really are marvellous and have changed the way we work.” But there are other factors outside of Royal Mail – the biggest one being the internet – that have impacted on the way the company operates.

When the worldwide web took off in the mid to late 1990s it looked like the start of a slow death for Royal Mail.

But in fact, while email has largely replaced letter writing, the rapid increase in internet shopping has seen a sharp rise in demand for parcels.

“We deliver a lot of parcels and packages now,” says Harry, “especially in the domestic market – the number of personal packages we deliver has grown rapidly.”

But there are some things the internet hasn’t changed as far as our postal habits are concerned – we still love to send Christmas cards.

“Even though people could send a digital card the real Christmas card is as popular as ever,” says Harry.