Did you know that Manchester Corporation and its successors used to offer parcel delivery services?
Today’s shoppers have a plethora of parcel companies at their disposal. In addition to Royal Mail plc, the likes of DPD, Amazon, Hermes and TNT compete for each customer. Parcels can also be retrieved from lockers in urban centres or supermarkets instead of Post Offices depending on their provider.
Before the Tories privatised the Royal Mail, parcel post was another income stream for bus, rail and shipping operators. Not only private companies, also municipal concerns. Since the start of the railway age, the fast shipment of bulky and not-so-bulky parcels paid dividends, mainly via Travelling Post Office trains.
Prior to privatisation, British Rail’s Red Star service offered same day delivery with parcels shipped via scheduled rail services. Customers would send their parcel to a staffed station with a Red Star counter. Then the recipient would collect their goods at the parcel’s final destination. In 1984, you could have sent a copy of Hungry Horace from Stalybridge station to a fellow ZX Spectrum owner in Leeds (who would collect their parcel).
From 1905 to 1969, Manchester Corporation Transport Department had a profitable sideline in parcel post and letter post. At first, MCTD operated on similar principles to Red Star. Customers would walk to a Parcels Office and drop their package off for a modest fee. These were seen at main timing points.
Whereas today’s vans and drones have no set route, parcels were carried on tramcars. Therefore, a parcel from Market Street could be sent to Rusholme, so long as it observed the equivalent of today’s 42 bus service. At the other end, parcels will arrive at another Parcels Office. Thereafter, smartly dressed delivery boys would ferry the parcel to their recipient’s address on wooden barrows.
In modern-day terms, ‘the customer journey’ would entail:
- The customer dropping off their parcel at a local Parcels Office;
- Their parcel is carried on the next tram to the nearest Parcels Office to the customer’s desired postal address;
- Supposing our recipient lived in Old Broadway, Withington, his or her parcel would have been dropped off at a Parcels Office in West Didsbury (possibly close to where West Didsbury C of E School is based nowadays);
- A delivery boy would wheel the parcel(s) to the recipient on Old Broadway. Could it be a new dress from Kendal Milne and Co? Or a fine hat from Dunn and Co?
Until Manchester’s first trams ceased operation in 1949, you could also post letters via MCTD’s tramways. A mail box was attached to front of each car.
Manchester Corporation wasn’t the only municipality that offered parcel services in what is now Greater Manchester. Rochdale Corporation’s Transport Department was another. In 1933, the London Midland and Scottish Railway threatened legal action over the County Borough of Oldham’s parcel services.
Spend, spend, spend…
Shortly after Manchester got rid of her trams, Manchester Corporation faced a new challenge: the internal combustion engine. For some households, the private car became an affordable option which began to eat into passenger revenues. Conversely, the rise of consumerism and buying ‘on the drip’ helped Manchester Corporation in another way: by boosting its parcels service.
Instead of trams, red vans would be seen on the streets of Manchester with the Manchester Corporation crest. In 1964, the Manchester Corporation Transport Department Parcels Delivery Service was the largest municipal carrier in the UK. Fuelling the boom was our love of catalogue shopping. Better still for Manchester Corporation’s Bennett Street base, the biggest one was on its doorstep: Great Universal Stores Limited.
As well as mail order goods, school dinners used to be delivered from Bennett Street. From Ringway to Bowker Vale, 2,300 meals a day were delivered during term time from 30 kitchens. Just under half of Bennett Street’s vehicles (30 out of 66 of them) were allocated for school meal deliveries.
Like its tram-based predecessor, its van drivers followed a set route detailed on a card. The driver had a round comprising of several addresses, covering Stockport, Oldham, Trafford, and Bury as well Manchester Corporation boundaries.
When Commercial Motor magazine visited their premises in 1964, Bennett Street had 67 drivers, 83 van boys, 13 sorters, 11 supervisors, eight office staff, and one outside representative. They were supported by a few other members who helped on the sorting bank.
Locally, Manchester Corporation’s service was cheaper than the Royal Mail’s in terms of parcel post. There was two zones, with Area 1 being a four mile radius of Manchester city centre. Area 2 covered outlying areas, such as Chadderton, Whitefield, and Cheadle Hulme. In 1964, its rates were as follows:
- Area 1, up to 3 lb: 1s 5d;
- Area 1, 7 – 10 lb: 2s 1d;
- Area 1, 10 – 15 lb: 2s 3d;
- Area 1, 15 to 20 lb: 2s 6d;
- Area 2, up to 3 lb: 1s 7d;
- Area 2, 7 – 10 lb: 2s 4d;
- Area 2, 10 – 15 lb: 2s 8d;
- Area 2, 15 to 20 lb: 2s 11d;
Instead of having collection points dotted around Manchester Corporation boundaries, there was only one collection point: Bennett Street depot.
SELNEC Parcels and GMT Parcel Services
After the 1968 Transport Act was granted Royal Assent, the 01 November 1969 saw the arrival of SELNEC Passenger Transport Executive. In addition to taking over most of Greater Manchester’s municipal operators (Wigan’s and Leigh’s corporation transport departments followed in 1974), they also inherited MCTD’s Parcel Delivery Service.
Gradually, the plethora of municipal liveries gave way to the white and sunglow orange of SELNEC PTE’s operations. A version of the bus livery was adapted for SELNEC Parcels’ vans. With Parrs Wood Garage surplus to bus operating requirements, SELNEC Parcels moved to the garage in East Didsbury.
From 1969 to 1971, it made operational surpluses: from a turnover of £322,000 to £472,000. Under the new regime, there had been talk of a possible link up with Merseyside PTE. This, potentially, could have seen Littlewoods using their services as well as GUS and Traffords.
Instead of running a fleet of Verona Green vans, MPTE’s suggestion was more akin to British Rail’s Red Star service. Parcels could have been shipped from Liverpool to Manchester on LUT’s 35 and 38 services. This could have meant the extension of LUT’s services to East Didsbury(!) or SELNEC Parcels vans blocking other LUT buses in Greengate terminus. The plan came to naught.
By 1974, Greater Manchester Transport inherited the business alongside White Star, another parcel carrier based in Wigan. Due to rising fuel prices and inflation, GMPTE had to find new ways of making the business viable. Parrs Wood Depot was also used for heated warehouse space with 30,000 square feet available.
From 1974 to 1979, their fleet was slashed from 146 to 55 delivery vans. The introduction of warehousing facilities saw a £70,000 loss in 1978 being turned into a £14,000 profit the following year. By 1979, the orange and white SELNEC livery gave way to the brown and orange Starsky and Hutch style swoops a la Charterplan. Things were looking up.
Then came recession. Though Parcel Services and White Star had longstanding contracts, 1980 proved to be a difficult one for GMT’s parcel carriers. The near-doubling of VAT from 8% to 15% decimated consumer demand and manufacturing industries. Unemployment rocketed with the North West of England worst hit.
Needless to say, this affected Greater Manchester Transport’s revenues. Having been battered by rising fuel prices (which saw the cancellation of some journeys in 1979), fewer people boarded their buses. Factory closures also meant the loss of works contracts. According to the 14 July 1980 edition of Commercial Motor magazine, it was forecasted that GMT would have a £13 million deficit in March 1981.
To focus on the essentials, Parcel Services was put up for sale to a private sector. Its employees were given the chance to seek further employment with Greater Manchester Transport.
By 1987, the Parrs Wood Depot was sold to TESCO Stores Ltd and demolished. The supermarket opened in autumn 1988 as a replacement for its smaller store on Wilmslow Road, Didsbury. The depot’s clock tower is all what remains of Manchester Corporation’s former garage.
Is there still room for a Greater Manchester wide parcel operation?
The demise of Parcel Services came several years too soon for the age of internet shopping. From 1981 onwards, mail order companies retained their own distribution networks using former cotton mills and trade was steady. Till Amazon came onto the scene, an 800-page catalogue was your only alternative to trawling around the shops.
With the rise of internet shopping came the rise of the gig economy. Today’s couriers are likely to be self employed and poorly paid. They have stringent targets to meets and, if they fall ill, have a lot more to lose than a few days pay. Flexibility is used by the likes of Hermes and Deliveroo as a trade off for losing workers’ rights.
In addition to precarious work, the explosion of online shopping has another knock-on effect: congestion. The proliferation of delivery cars and vans not only add to Greater Manchester’s pollution problems. It makes our buses and trams slower which means fewer people using public transport for leisure. In the long term, the continued decline and eventual demise of our local bus routes would increase our need for online shopping services.
If we wish to regulate our buses, should we consider a similar approach for Greater Manchester’s courier services? Could a municipally owned carrier owned by The Office of the Mayor of Greater Manchester offer an alternative to precarious employment options offered by today’s carriers?
Perhaps the new company could be called MetroPost. Instead of self-employed rates, its couriers should be fully employed with a wage at the Living Wage Foundation’s Living Wage at the very least. Instead of adding more vans to Greater Manchester’s streets, every self-employed courier within Greater Manchester could transfer to MetroPost’s books as an employee. With a living wage. With the right to join a trade union.
Like Manchester Corporation’s service before then, zonal pricing could be considered for local deliveries. This could use the Metrolink’s zonal system with a few modifications to allow for nationwide deliveries. In a bid to cut pollution, all vehicles should be electrically powered.
How could this work? An Amazon Marketplace seller could use MetroPost and add that as a delivery option. With the former, your bedraggled, frazzled self-employed driver could be a happier employed driver collecting your parcel from an Amazon Warehouse in Stretford. MetroPost lockers could be added to TfGM bus stations and important termini as alternative collection points.
If we can take back control of our buses, couldn’t Greater Manchester solve its congestion woes by regulating the amount of delivery vans on its roads? Both as an anti-congestion priority and a pro-worker measure which could end the precarious nature of the courier’s work?
S.V., 10 December 2018.