The postal order’s fame was assured when it was included in the poem Night Mail by WH Auden. The poem was used in the 24-minute film made in 1936 that documented the nightly postal train that ran from London to Scotland. It was a Travelling Post Office: a train not open to passengers. Instead, it contained postal workers who sorted the mail as the train headed north.
This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
All in a suitable “train goes over the tracks” rhythm.
Hold on, though. We know the cheque is hurtling towards the sunset, but what about the postal order. What is a postal order?
A magic way to send money through the post without any actual money going in the post. They were born in Britain on 1 January 1881.
The idea was to enable poorer people to buy things by post, as the less well-off were unlikely to have bank accounts.
In their heyday, postal orders were very popular birthday gifts sent by various aunts, uncles and sundry other relations. A child was unlikely to have a bank account, but you could send them five shillings without needing to stuff the actual coins in an envelope.
The use of postal orders steadily declined, to the point where if you ask young people if they have heard of one, they say: “A postal what?” Yet, amazingly, they didn’t vanish. You can still buy postal orders at the Post Office.
They’re especially suitable if you haven’t got a bank account or want to send money to someone who doesn’t have a bank account. You hand over your money for a postal order, send it through the post; the recipient takes it to another post office and gets the cash handed over.
A benefit is that you could use a postal order to buy from a site such as eBay and pay for your purchase through the post. No need to be handing out your bank account details to strangers. The benefit for the recipient is that a postal order is more reliable than a cheque. A cheque can bounce. Postal orders can’t.
The downside is that the Post Office do not offer this service as a charity. If you wanted to send £100 for your lovingly acquired collectible Beanie Baby (say), you’d have to fork out an extra £12.50 for the postal order at current prices. (Don’t get me started on the price of a stamp.)
If you can send a cheque, you’re probably going to do just that. You only have to pay for the stamp.
Much of the rest of the cargo of that Night Mail train is endangered now, too:
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin.
No-one sends their holiday snaps away in the mail any more, though they might share them on Insta. Those faces in the margins? Now emojis, crying with laughter or simple heart hugs tacked on to your latest message.
Perhaps in the strongest sign of our changing times, the Night Mail itself has vanished, too.
The last Travelling Post Office trains ran on the night of 9 January 2004. So, what we need now is for a poet to write a stirring ode to emails and bank transfers and get it included in a short documentary.
Bound to last 173 years: the length of time the mail on the railways did.