THE SECRET LIFE OF POSTMEN

Have you ever worried that a crucial missive - a love letter, a job offer, a cheque - was lost in the post? If so, no doubt you dismissed your fears as paranoid. But there may have been more substance to your fears than you realised. Malcolm Macalister Hall explores the shadowy world of the rogue postman
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The Independent Culture
THE DOOR of number 39 is pale blue, chipped and peeling. A middle- aged woman answers it, in her slippers. Recognising her from a blurry picture in the local paper, I know that her name is Dorothy. Politely she says no, I can't come in and speak to her husband, not interested thank you, and closes it.

For at least 11 years, other callers to this address must have received much the same sort of greeting. Very few - if any - visitors can have been allowed through this blue door, into the small terraced house on a council estate on the outskirts of Daventry, in Northamptonshire. It was - and still is - the home of Ron Tustin, former postman, and Dorothy, his wife.

If any callers had been ushered in, they would have been greeted by an astounding sight; one which confronted police when they raided the house in April last year. Piled in every room - except the bathroom - were thousands upon thousands of letters, cards, parcels and packages, dating back over a decade, to 1987. When it had all been counted up, Tustin was found to have 15,781 items of undelivered mail stacked all over the house.

Much of it had been rifled: cards for the long-ago birthdays of children now grown up, filleted for pounds 5 and pounds 10 notes; Jiffy bags which had contained hundreds of pounds in cash, sent by elderly relatives to help with family crises long since resolved; packages which had once enclosed fondly chosen presents, which Tustin had sold. But many of the thousands of invitations, best wishes, love letters, job offers, business contracts, get wells and condolences had simply been dumped around the house, unopened. It was a vast and poignant scrap-heap upon which hopes, fears, relationships, sentiment and chances of financial salvation had casually been tossed.

Tustin has now been released, after serving a year of a three-year sentence imposed in October 1998 at Northampton Crown Court, where he pleaded guilty to four counts of theft. The court heard that, at the Daventry sorting office in Vicar Lane, Tustin had cherry- picked mail which looked as if it might contain money or valuables, before setting out on his round in the nearby Headlands estate.

In mitigation, it was stated that he had begun stealing mail to pay for medical treatment for Dorothy, who was said to suffer from agoraphobia. Why she should have needed private-sector medical care remains a mystery. But, far from being extravagant, their life was depicted as having all the threadbare trappings of modern poverty. "He lives in a council house and owns a D-reg Ford Escort," the court was told. "The TV set is hired, and he has no stereo or CD. He has been on holiday abroad once in the last 14 years. His bank balance is pounds 3.75..."

But Judge Richard Bray, sentencing Tustin, had little sympathy. He said that it was an exceptional case, which had damaged the integrity of the Post Office. "In your house, some 15,000 items of post were found," he reminded the defendant, "and one can well imagine the distress you have caused to hundreds, if not thousands, of senders and potential recipients."

That week, at the Daventry Express office in the High Street, the editor, Bridget Dakin, composed a front-page headline which read: "CALL THIS JUSTICE?" with the sub-heading: "Three years for bent postie who wrecked lives". The paper's coverage of the case enraged Royal Mail, but Dakin, leafing through back-issues a year later, insists that the charge of wrecking was justified.

"There were grannies sending children birthday cards with money in them, and they didn't arrive, so granny blamed the son-in-law for stealing the card and the money. There were people who didn't get wedding invitations, so they thought they hadn't been invited; and when they didn't attend, the people who'd invited them thought they'd been snubbed ... It broke families up."

She says that one reader insisted to the Daventry Express that his mother's death had been hastened by Tustin's failure to deliver one of the 15,781 letters. "She suffered from depression, she'd written to her family with a cry for help; they never received it, so she didn't get a reply - which he said was followed by a downward spiral, and then... It's incredible the effects it's had on people's lives. There were all sorts of things like that: people who didn't get offers of job interviews, university places - it's horrifying, quite apart from the money he took. A lot of stuff he just piled up in his house because there was nothing [valuable] in it."

Ida Taylor, chairman of the district council, agrees that the saga of Ron Tustin and the missing mail was "absolutely traumatic" for Daventry. "What he did was absolutely appalling - there were horrendous cases, just horrendous," she says. "An old lady without a bank account sending something like pounds 1,000 to help her daughter with mortgage arrears, and that went. In another case an offer of a council house wasn't delivered, so the people didn't get the house... dreadful stories." Tustin's delivery round was mainly to council properties, and many of his thefts were items destined for these addresses. "The people most affected," adds Ida Taylor, "were the very people who could least afford to lose these things."

For many of them, the pain was exacerbated by the fact that, after the Aladdin's Cave of post was found in Tustin's house, it had to be delivered. "Royal Mail were legally obliged to get it out to the addresses [on the envelopes] even if the people didn't live there anymore," says Dakin. "So people were getting letters for people who'd died years ago - their dead mothers, things like that." Others just got the empty envelopes. The children's birthday cards, and pounds 10 notes, and presents, had gone.

SUCH STORIES show the degree to which we entrust our lives to the postal service, and how far-reaching the consequences can be of something as simple as the non-arrival of a letter. But the story of Daventry and its "Bermuda Triangle" of vanished mail also gives spectacular substance to an enduring modern neurosis: that some document vital to our well-being has gone missing in the post.

But although many of us have felt such worries, and most of us have heard at least the occasional story of mail piled in attics, few of us really feel that the problem warrants serious discussion. The long history of the outlaw postman frequently seems a comic one - comic, that is, as long as it wasn't your job application or cheque he dumped in his attic because it was raining. (A postman in East Sussex was jailed for nine months last summer for doing just that, for that reason.) Yellowing press cuttings going back over the past 20 years feature others who have been jailed, fined, or ordered to do community service or pay compensation for, variously: hiding mail because their round was "too hilly"; rifling parcels "to pay for a sex change"; wanting to get off early "to play golf". Another hid thousands of letters in his loft and threw two rubbish bags full of mail into a skip because he was "just too lazy to deliver them"; a postwoman said she hadn't delivered three "saucy seaside postcards" because she said they were pornographic, then admitted opening 19 parcels because she was "nosey"; an alcoholic Edinburgh sub-postmaster embezzled nearly pounds 26,000 over six years "to pay for drink".

Others claimed that they hoarded or threw away mail because they "didn't like climbing stairs", or "had an obsession with opening parcels", or "wanted foreign stamps for their collections", or because the mail was "too heavy", or they were "too tired". To show that the weird excuse is not a monopoly of the British postman, American mailman Robert Fletcher, of Jackson, Alabama, was jailed for three months in 1998 for having a year's worth of undelivered letters stacked in his attic. His reported defence: he "couldn't read".

In other cases, postal workers have stolen after being overwhelmed by debt, or hoarded mail because they were suffering from mental problems, or simply couldn't cope with the job. For some, though, it was just greed. In 1993, a pounds 160-a-week post-office sorter was jailed for five years at the Old Bailey after the court heard he had helped steal more than pounds 600,000 from mailbags at a central London post office, and had "retired" at 37 on his cut of the proceeds, moving from a "modest home" in East London to a lavish West Country farmhouse. In Glasgow, similarly, a postal worker in charge of mailbags at Central Station was jailed for six years in 1997 after admitting stealing money, jewellery and other items worth pounds 65,000, plus another pounds 40,000 in foreign currency. The court heard he had spent it on drink, gambling and "exotic holidays".

At least 10 postal workers have appeared in court in the past two years - from the man charged with stealing a few Spice Girls concert tickets to the former Shropshire postman James Robinson, who, in the most chilling recent case, was given four life sentences last July after admitting murdering a Royal Mail investigator and attempting to murder two of his colleagues after they had called at his home in Ellesmere to question him following reports of missing post in the area.

To catch such offenders, Post Office investigators have used surveillance cameras, or, more often, planted tempting packages in the suspect's delivery trays. It was this latter technique that snared Daventry's magpie postman, Ron Tustin. But sometimes - most notably in the Tustin case - what's really remarkable is the way they contrive not to catch them.

IT WAS only after Bridget Dakin had waged a lengthy campaign in the Daventry Express that the secret of the area's missing mail was exposed. She recalls repeated - and at times heated - denials from Royal Mail executives and the postal workers' union that anything was amiss.

"I think they thought we were just stirring things up," says Dakin. "Both Royal Mail and the Communication Workers' Union were very dismissive of our readers' complaints. That was the problem - they wouldn't listen, and they wouldn't believe there was a problem. I now know that some people who worked with Tustin did think he was on the fiddle - but they probably didn't realise the extent of it."

The drama began, almost imperceptibly, in June 1997 with, as Dakin describes it, "one innocuous story of someone having trouble with the post". A local food firm which makes tortilla chips had complained six months earlier about cheques being held up in the mail. The problem had persisted. A Royal Mail spokeswoman was quoted as saying that enquiries had drawn a complete blank. "It is very odd and we have conducted checks, but we are a bit mystified."

Even for a provincial weekly this was a minor news item, but, in a classic newspaper ploy to see if there might be a follow-up, it concluded with the words: "Have you had problems with post going missing or being delayed? If so, call our hotline..."

"That opened the floodgates," says Dakin. "More people came forward, there were other stories, and that went on for quite a while. When people came to us with a complaint we did a story - and we'd go to Royal Mail and be told: `There's no problem in Daventry, it's no worse than anywhere else, there's nothing to worry about.'"

It was almost a year later, out of the blue, that the news came that Tustin had been arrested. Six "test packages" had been placed by Post Office investigators in Tustin's delivery tray at the Vicar Lane sorting office, and one of them - containing a pounds 10 note - was found in a cupboard at his house. A couple of weeks after that, Daventry residents suddenly received their lost and rifled mail, dating back 11 years. Then the storm really broke - outrage, dismay, grief, demands for compensation, for a public inquiry... Suddenly it dawned on people why unexplained family rifts had broken out, why relatives had seemed uncaring, why their children had not received cards or presents from previously doting aunts. One man told the Daventry Express of an eight-year war of silence between him and his daughter's grandmother after she had accused him of stealing the birthday cards and money she had sent for her. And others spoke of that awful, nagging feeling: "What else didn't I receive...?"

Unable for legal reasons to publish further details of Tustin's alleged thefts while the case was pending, Dakin cleverly launched a "post survey" in the paper, asking readers to send in their stories about missing mail, which she could print if Tustin was convicted. It turned up some disturbing evidence, which, as Dakin points out, appears to reveal serious flaws - perhaps even incompetence and inertia - in the Royal Mail's investigation procedures.

"The Royal Mail had said that they couldn't have realised there was a problem [involving] Ron Tustin because although people were complaining, there was no pattern to the complaints; he was clever - he didn't just take mail from his own round. He took it in the sorting office and was very careful to pick mail for addresses all over the area. So it couldn't be traced to his round. That's what the Royal Mail said."

But the Daventry Express had received several hundred replies to its "post survey", and in a spare moment Dakin decided to look at them closely. "I sat down one day and tried to sort them into areas," she says, "and I soon found there was a much larger number of complaints for the area that he delivered in. There was evidence like that all along. So if they'd been analysing complaints, and kept proper records of complaints, they could have seen it..."

Perhaps even more damning was the story of one particular couple who responded to the survey. They said that they had voiced their suspicions about Tustin - and provided evidence, and named him - to the Royal Mail in late 1993, almost five years before his arrest.

They had sent a card enclosing a pounds 20 cheque as a wedding present to their nephew in Daventry in August that year. Since he had left home and they did not know his address, they sent it to his parents (who also lived in Daventry), asking them to give it to him when they saw him. The card and cheque did not arrive. They reported this to the police, who, they said, found that the cheque had somehow been deposited in their nephew's bank account - even though it had never arrived at the address on the envelope. It just happened that the girl their nephew was about to marry was Ron Tustin's daughter.

"We complained officially," the couple wrote to Bridget Dakin, "and actually named Mr Tustin, as we knew he worked for the Post Office and felt he must have been involved, as someone had personally given my nephew the cheque to place in his account. We pushed for one whole year for an investigation but were not given any satisfactory answers. And had this matter been properly investigated five years ago many people would have been spared a lot of heartache. The reference number for our complaint was: Exeter office 100 25062/Northampton Office 100 15369." (The bridegroom's parents - to whom the card and cheque had been addressed - stated that they had also complained, and quoted the same reference numbers.)

"They pointed the finger at Ron Tustin all that time ago," says Dakin. "The big question is: why didn't [Royal Mail] investigate him then? People were being affected time and time again, and complaining - they said so on our survey forms - but because there [seems to be] no proper system for analysing the complaints, Royal Mail didn't realise. And they said they only keep records of complaints for two years, which was obviously totally inadequate when [Tustin] was doing this for at least 11."

Demands for a public inquiry got nowhere - although in June this year 15,000 households in the district did receive a gnomic letter from Royal Mail whose declared purpose was "to refute allegations made in the Daventry Express that Royal Mail Daventry is `running scared' of attending a public meeting to defend the postal service... You will appreciate," the letter continued, "that these are not the kind of issues we can discuss in public for security reasons." As for repeated requests for special compensation, Royal Mail insisted that it was prevented by statute from paying any.

Eventually, last month, Royal Mail announced a conciliatory move - a donation of pounds 5,000 to the town. The ever-resourceful Bridget Dakin ran another survey in her paper, asking readers what they felt it should be spent on. Last week, the District Council chairman, Ida Taylor, was considering their replies, and about to make a decision about which local charities should get the money. "Daventry people suffered, so Daventry charities should get it," she says, adding that, while it was a gesture, it did not right the wrong.

"You cannot make amends in any shape or form for the emotional upset people have endured," she adds. "My personal view is that everyone should have been compensated on an individual basis, even if it was only pounds 200 or something - and if a pensioner had sent pounds 1,000 to her family, for example, she should have got that back. Fair enough, I understand that letters get lost - any business has some sort of loss - but this was a very, very special case, in that it was systematic stealing."

NONE OF this should obscure the fact that the postal service in Britain is stunningly fast and reliable compared to the chaotic kleptomaniacs' clubs that masquerade as national postal services in many other countries. In parts of the developing world (much of Latin America, for example), theft is the norm rather than the exception, and only the truly reckless - or compulsive gamblers - would entrust anything even remotely important or valuable to the mail.

In Britain, the sheer size of the operation is astounding: 77 million letters, cards and packages handled every working day (and almost double that in the week ahead); 26 million addresses in the UK alone; 170,000 employees and 29,000 vehicles, one of the country's biggest fleets. There are 19,000 post offices, used by 28 million people each week. The counter staff handle two billion transactions a year, and pounds 140 billion in notes and coins. With an enterprise of this scale, it's hardly surprising that things sometimes go wrong.

Perhaps most surprising is how infrequently they go wrong. And alongside the stories of thieving postmen with mail piled in their attics are the much more common ones of communities holding retirement parties for their much-loved Postman Pat, or celebrating the recognition of his or her faithful service in the New Year's Honours. Most citizens' relationship with their postman or woman is a cheery, grateful one.

But in any barrel containing 170,000 apples, there will be bad ones. And finding out how many there really are is almost as difficult as working out how much - if any - of your mail is missing. Very politely but very resolutely maintaining what is said to be a long tradition of Kremlin- style news management (Soviet era), the Royal Mail refuses to give any figures or information relating to complaints, lost mail, counter-measures, investigations, prosecutions, or frequency of aforementioned incidents, or details of same.

"We have very strict security in force, but we do not discuss it," says an amiable Royal Mail spokesman, clearly under orders from above. (In an earlier call I had listed my questions and offered a full "right of reply" to points made in this article. This had obviously been referred upwards.) "The Daventry case was one where we did catch up with a man," he adds, "and we always prosecute in such cases. We don't discuss security matters, however, and the amount of mail involved is infinitesimal - but one letter which goes astray is one too many, and so we do everything we can to stop that."

Could he confirm the existence of a management working group reportedly set up earlier this year to look into the problem of missing or stolen mail? "Our security procedures are under constant review but what we're doing at any time is not something I am permitted to discuss."

But the Post Office Users' National Council - the "watchdog" organisation for the mail service - says that a working group does indeed exist. "Both the Royal Mail and ourselves have agreed that we have a problem, and a team is looking at how they can minimise the complaints about lost mail," says the council's secretary, James Dodds. "Clearly, postmen hiding mail or throwing it away contributes to the problem, and these incidents hit the headlines. But the Royal Mail handles 77 million items a day, so in purely mathematical terms [these cases] are a drop in the ocean. I don't want to trivialise this, however. It's very serious for the people affected."

The council received 5,149 complaints in the year to March 31. Of these, 890 were complaints about lost or missing mail (the second highest category, after complaints about punctuality). From March 31 to the end of October there have been a further 214 complaints about missing mail. But these in no way reflect the true picture, since the council deals mainly with cases where people have been dissatisfied with the Post Office's handling of their complaint. And, of course, for everyone who complains, there must be dozens who suspect that something might be wrong, and dozens more who blame the non-delivery of an item on the sender, not on the post.

James Dodds is currently pressing for a more open attitude from the Royal Mail. "They collect and do have information, but the figures are confidential, and that's one of the discussions we are having with them, about putting some of this information into the public domain. If you're moving 77 million items a day, the number of complaints as a ratio of that is actually very small. But in volume terms they do get an awful lot."

Out on the streets, in the rain, and easy prey for ill-tempered dogs (and their owners), the nation's postmen and women have to cope with savagely early starts - anything from 4.30am to 6am - and bulging satchels hugely swollen by mass mail-shots, discount vouchers, promotional sachets of shampoo and other junk mail. Everything is against the clock - in the office, sorting the bundles for their "walk" (which might include anything up to 400 addresses), ready to be out on delivery at 6.45 or 7am. Though automation has hugely increased the amount of mail available for first delivery, the Royal Mail's "9.30 specification" still insists that the first post should all have been delivered by 9.30am. And that includes the shampoo.

While the rest of us can usually cut corners or leave something until tomorrow if we're under pressure at work, postmen have one of the few jobs where cutting corners can put them in jail. "Wilfully delaying" the post is a criminal offence.

"There's a lot of pressure. It's not the easy job that a lot of people think it is," says Communication Workers' Union rep and postman Terry Pullinger. "The mail is getting heavier and heavier, and everything is based around time, which clearly is pressure in itself. It's not quite the nice little stroll that people might imagine - and they're not exactly getting a Queen's ransom for it." National basic pay is just pounds 201.63 a week.

While emphasising that the union would "never, ever condone" hoarding of mail, Pullinger says there are often mitigating circumstances. These might include lack of training, stress, family problems, depression, fear of delivering to a certain address or area for reasons of personal safety, or simply being unable to cope with the amount of mail they are expected to deliver. Though both management and the union have procedures where struggling postmen can get help with problems, Pullinger says some might be hesitant about revealing these out of embarrassment, or out of fear of losing their job. And as soon as hoarding begins, the possibility of a gaol sentence makes it even harder to reveal.

"When it's a loft full of mail, there's usually some strange story behind it," Pullinger says. "There are ways to flag up problems, but sometimes people who are in a certain state of mind don't take the obvious route. There can be circumstances where stress has driven people to do things which are totally out of character. For a customer waiting for a certain item to come through the post, that's inexcusable, I know. But it would be nice if people could recognise that while stress in their own job may lead them to make mistakes, for postal workers it can put them on a collision course with the law."

That's fair enough, but it doesn't make life any easier for the postal neurotic worrying that a hoped-for Christmas card or gift may be stashed in someone else's attic. And in Daventry, at least, it's clear that, once lost, confidence in the postal service is hard to re-establish. More than 18 months after Ron Tustin's arrest, the affair still rumbles on. "People are still complaining that they're losing mail," says Bridget Dakin. "We had a man phone this morning saying he's had problems with it again.

"It's funny, but I still try not to post letters in Daventry," she adds. "I always wait till I get home [near Oxford], or get out of the area. And a lot of other people do the same."

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