In September 1973, the price of stamps had risen to 3.5 pence for a standard first-class stamp and 3 pence for second class. In October, the House of Lords discussed a question, tabled by Lord Airedale (Liberal):

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have noted that continual increases in postal charges are causing a serious decline in the time-honoured custom of exchanging Christmas greetings by post; and whether they have any proposals to remedy this unhappy state of affairs.

The then Conservative deputy chief whip, Lord Denham, replied for the government:

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government realise that increases in postage may have had some effect on the sending of Christmas greetings, but postage is only one element in the total costs involved. The rate appropriate for Christmas cards, like other postal tariffs, has been kept to the minimum necessary to avoid piling up unmanageable postal losses in the future.

Lord Airedale contested the use of “may have” in Lord Denham’s assertion: “surely there is statistical proof that there has recently been a decline in the Christmas mail?”. He went on to suggest a concessionary rate “which, even if it did not result in a profit for the Post Office, might bring a great deal of happiness at Christmas time to a number of people, some of whom are rather lonely?”.

Lord Denham replied:

My Lords, every time the second-class post rate—that is the one normally used for Christmas cards—has gone up there has been a decline straight away, but this has normally been made up after a while. As to whether there should be a concessionary rate or not, this is a matter for the commercial judgment of the Post Office.

The previous Christmas, in 1972, there had been significant delays to the Christmas post, and the last delivery had been on 23 December. This was earlier than any other year since the turn of the century. The Times reported the chairman of the Post Office, Sir William Ryland, said at least 9mn of the 700mn letters and cards posted that Christmas had not been delivered on time (though some press reports quoted up to 35mn).[1] Sir William assessed that measures to cut costs, including a reduced staff compared with previous festive seasons, had caused these delays. In January, there had been calls in the House of Commons for Sir William to be dismissed.[2]

Lord Balfour of Inchrye (Conservative) asked that the minister “make representations to the Post Office Corporation that if they take the cash they should deliver the goods, unlike last Christmas, when they failed dismally?”. Lord Denham replied that the Post Office was “determined to avoid a repetition of what happened last year”.

Lord Popplewell (Labour) contributed to draw attention to the “labour-intensive” work of the Post Office, and contended that “it is practically impossible for it to make a profit or even to cover its working expenses”. Lord Denham replied that the Post Office is a commercial organisation, due to the previous Labour government’s Post Office Act 1969.

Lord Segal (Labour) raised the potential effects on charity income. A former doctor, Lord Segal was chair of the charity now known as Mencap.

My Lords, is the minister aware that a serious decline in this time-honoured custom will adversely affect the income of many deserving national charities; and if this should prove to be so, would he seriously consider the issue of a special series of charity stamps in an effort to redress the balance?

Lord Denham said that was a matter for the Post Office, but “concessions for particular classes of people have always proved difficult to justify in principle and to operate in practice”.

Lord Orr-Ewing (Conservative) also had a suggestion for the minister:

My Lords, would my noble friend not consider […] the provision of a post box at the entrance to a house so that delivery can be made much more quickly, instead of the postman having to go up a small garden and deliver the mail into the house? This is widely done in the whole of North America, and enormously speeds up delivery and therefore reduces the cost to the public.

Lord Denham declared this suggestion “extremely interesting” but questioned its relevance.

Cover image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.