Amidst all the commercial celebration of Valentine’s day, with every supermarket making special ‘dine in’ offers, shops filling their windows with hearts and chocolates, and florists selling red roses at double the normal price, it is easy to see that for some of these traders this has become one of the key income generating weeks of the year.
Once Christmas and the sales are over there is usually a slump in trade before Easter that [St] Valentine’s Day has now assumed such an importance to the retail industry. But do we have an idea of how busy it was in the past I wonder? We know the Victorians celebrated the occasion and sent love tokens as we do, but what effect did that have on everyday life?
Well we can get an idea of how it affected the people that delivered those messages, the postmen of the Victorian capital, in this case from 1871. An unnamed postman was prosecuted at Westminster Police court for drunkenness whilst on duty. His offence was minor but had the potential for serious consequences, his defense however, was most illuminating.
Mr Woolrych, the sitting magistrate at Westminster that day, was told that a crowd of ‘disorderly persons’ had gathered around a postman, drawing the attention of a passing police officer. As the bobby pushed his way through the throng he found the postman sorting a pile of letters under a lamppost. It was late at night, past 10.30, which was why he needed the gaslight to read the addresses on the mail.
Most of the letters ‘were valentines’ and they should have been delivered much earlier in the day by a colleague but that postie had failed to find the addresses and so they had gone back in the system, and our man was now tasked with uniting them with the correct (and probably by now quite desperate) recipients.
As the postman at last moved off to make his deliveries the policeman noticed that he was rather unsteady on his feet, and stopped him. He quickly realized that the man was under the influence of alcohol and he arrested him. In court the postman apologized but said he had been on duty since four in the morning, had had very little if anything to eat all day, and so when a kindly woman had treated him to a ‘tumbler of sherry’ it had ‘produced an effect over which [he] had no control’.
His supervisor appeared to confirm that the young man had an exemplary record in his four and a half years with the Post Office:
‘He was a steady, honest, and industrious servant, against whom no complaint had ever been made; and should he be convicted…dismissal from the service would certainly follow’.
In this case common sense prevailed. Mr Woolrych accepted that while drinking on duty rendered the man ‘blamable’ for the offence there were mitigating factors. There was no need to ruin a young man with such a previously unblemished record and so he discharged him (which is probably why the papers decided not to reveal his name).
The evidence revealed that (as noted earlier):
the ‘defendant had been on duty since four o’clock in the morning without intermission or opportunity of taking a meal, as the valentine delivery was very heavy, and the reserve men had even been called upon to perform the duties of letter-carriers’.
Valentine’s Day was a big day then in Victorian England with very many people using the postal service to send their tokens of affection to their sweethearts. After Christmas this was probably the busiest period of the year for the men of the Post Office, just as it is today for the florists, chocolatiers and restaurateurs of the capital.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 16, 1871]