Following the 1981 riots in Handsworth and Brixton, the Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit felt that he needed to respond to a suggestion by the Young Conservative National Chairman, Iain Picton that rioting was a natural reaction to unemployment. Tebbit’s famously said:
“I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.”
Norman Tebbit was often referred to as “onyerbike” after that!
His comment was misconstrued, as he never intended to suggest that the unemployed should literally get on their bikes in search of work. He was merely emphasising the need to search for work but it was the bike reference which stuck in people’s minds and caused a great deal of upset. Perhaps because many people were, in fact, using their bikes every day, both to find work and to do the jobs they already had.
Delivering by bike
In 1981, postmen were still delivering mail by bicycle. Indeed, the use of bicycles didn’t peak until 2006 when there were over 36,000 in the Royal Mail fleet, despite the many advances in motorised transportation. Incredibly, the specification for delivery bicycles remained almost unchanged between 1929 and 1992. After 2006, the use of bikes by postmen began to decline, ironically at precisely the time when their benefits to health, the environment and traffic congestion were being championed.
By 2010, postal delivery bikes were disappearing rapidly from our streets but a new kind of bike was becoming an increasingly common sight. The so-called Boris Bikes were introduced to London in 2010 but were actually the brainchild of Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Ken Livingston. He had proposed a cycle hire scheme as early as 2007, following the success of cycle hire in Paris.
The scheme proved to be so successful that it was expanded dramatically in the succeeding years and similar systems were established in other cities across the country. Mail delivery was moving in the opposite direction to the trend for pedal power but commuters didn’t have to carry all of those eBay parcels!
The changing face of mail
There is no doubt that the demise of the mail delivery bicycle was at least partly the result of changes in the type of mail that postmen were forced to carry. Letters and cards were rapidly becoming redundant in the digital age but online shopping and the popularity of eBay saw a huge increase in the number of small parcels being sent. It was a bit tricky to carry a set of saucepans, several packages of clothing and other assorted parcels on a bike!
Of course, Royal Mail has used many types of bikes since tricycles were trialled in Coventry in 1880, including motorcycles and quad bikes. Motorbikes helped with the delivery of express mail while the challenging terrain and huge distances between properties in remote areas necessitated the introduction of Quad bikes in the Scottish islands.
A small fleet of Honda quad bikes were utilised to deliver mail in Scotland between 2001 and 2010. A quad was still being driven on the remote island of Kerrera until 2014. Travelling between the 19 properties on the island involved a 15-mile round trip across bogs, beaches and dirt tracks. The islanders quickly embraced the trend for online shopping and so the mail quad was often weighed down with parcels, especially at Christmas. It was eventually replaced by a John Deere Gator all terrain utility vehicle!
The Stamp Issue
The Royal Mail 500 celebrations included the Royal Mail Heritage: Transport set. This theme has then been continued by a series of Post and Go issues exploring mail transportation. Mail by Bike is the fifth of these and features six stamps as follows: