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    Lerwick Post Office Staff Imprisoned, November 1914 .. ..



    Lerwick Harbour with the old Tolbooth on the left and the Post Office on the right © Iain McEwan 2014


    Bonjour Marie-Agnès, Bonjour Jean-Claude, Bonjour Janice,

    The other day I came across a letter I received some years ago from Maurice Fleming, then Editor of the Scots Magazine, telling me about an old newspaper report he had been reading.  It referred to the imprisonment of the staff of Lerwick Post Office in November 1914.  Mr Fleming asked if I would be interested in doing more research for a feature on what he called ‘this quite extraordinary incident.”

    The Scots Magazine montage four covers 1979-198


    I was certainly interested  – and flattered.  Maurice Fleming was a joy to work for  – encouraging to contributors and with a deep commitment to original research and accuracy.  (He was to complete 27 years working for the Scots Magazine before retirement gave him, happily, an outlet for his own creativity.)


    The Scots Magazine montage four covers 1984-1985-1986

    Glasgow The Mitchell Library © 2007 Scotiana

    Glasgow The Mitchell Library © 2007 Scotiana

    My first stop was the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, where I established that Shetland had been an important naval base in the First World War where all shipping bound for northern Europe was intercepted and searched.  Battleships of the 10th Cruiser Squadron lay off-shore in Swarbacks Minn, the deepest anchorage in Shetland.

    Old postcard featuring the açade of Glasgow Central

    I also discovered that Scotland at that time was in the grip of a sort of spy fever.  Only two years previously, one of the Kaiser’s spies, Dr Armgaar Karl Graves, a bogus medical researcher, had been unmasked living in the douce Edinburgh suburb of Morningside.  He fled to Glasgow and was apprehended in the Central Hotel with extensive coded information about Rosyth and the Clyde shipyards in his copy of Wellcome’s 1912 Medical Diary.

    Then, in a newspaper cuttings library, I came across these words from a leading article in the Shetland News, November 1914:

    “……not  even the outbreak of the First World War created such a profound sensation in Lerwick as did the arrest of the staff of the Lerwick Post Ofice who have been thrown into prison like a band of common felons……”


    Illustrated map of Shetland with Swarbacks Minn © 2016 Scotiana

    Illustrated map of Shetland with Swarbacks Minn © 2016 Scotiana

    Maurice Fleming knew that I had Shetland connections and, keen to find some oral testimony for him, I lost no time in contacting John Sked who had been one of eight teenagers detained in the sorry affair that became known as The Lerwick Postal Imprisonment.  Mr. Sked remembered my family (we had been neighbours  in Peebles when I was about six) and in particular my older sister who, he recalled, was “very fond of climbing trees”.  I had forgotten that.


    High Street Peebles Scotland old postcard

    John was 16 and living with his parents in Peebles when he applied for a post as sorting clerk and telegraphist at Lerwick Post Office.

    “I was  young and daft and on the look-out for adventure and new experiences.  My parents were not at all keen, but I talked them round.  I got the job, at a weekly wage of 16 shillings.  Even in those halcyon days of five Woodbine cigarettes for a penny, 16 shillings didn’t go all that far, but I managed, thanks to the opportunities for overtime and Sunday work at 6d an hour.


    Bank Lane Lerwick Shetland old postcard


    “The 1st of November 1914, the first Communion Sunday of the War in Lerwick, was exactly one year to the day since I first arrived in Shetland on the mail boat. It was going to be my first free Sunday for many weeks.

    The previous day I’d been on duty from 8am to 10pm with two breaks of half an hour for meals, then an overseer had called at my lodgings at 11pm to ask me to go back at midnight for another shift until 8am, and I’d have the rest of Sunday free as compensation.  I didn’t complain  – that sort of thing was all part of our War Effort.

    “After a couple of hours’ sleep, I was up again, so determined was I not to waste this rare day off.

    I was just on my way out when a messenger turned up at the door. He told me to report to the Post Office immediately.  I protested, but he just said he was sorry, they were sending for everyone.  No explanation.



    I must have been one of the first of the staff to be taken, because the streets of Lerwick were empty. When I reached the Post Office I got quite a shock to see an armed sentry at the familiar front door.

    A few hours passed before we were all rounded up and locked inside the Post Office, 40 of us in all  –  Mr James MacMaster, our Postmaster, supervisors, counter staff, sorters, telegraphists, linesmen, the cleaner, postmen, drivers of the mail gigs, everyone. They even took worshippers dressed in their Sunday suits out of church, interrupting the Communion service. Only two of the staff, serving  Territorials, escaped arrest.

    “By the time the roll call was finished, a bewildered crowd of onlookers had gathered in Commercial Street and there were rumours flying around that a firing squad had been ordered.”

    The assembled men were addressed by Lieutenant-Colonel Horace Carlyon Evans of HM Royal Marine Light Infantry, the officer in command of the Shetland Royal Naval Reserve.  Brandishing a revolver, he told them that they were under arrest. He quoted Sections 12 and 13 of the Defence of the Realm Act.  The locked front door was opened and the suspects were instructed to walk in single file along the main street.

    Only the Postmaster was left in the building and he was approached by the Rear-Admiral with an offer of accommodation for himself on board a naval ship in Lerwick harbour.  Still not knowing where his men had been taken, Mr MacMaster said he would prefer to go in search of them.   He started up Queen’s Lane on foot, escorted by an armed officer.  Guessing that the men might have been taken to the Town Hall, or perhaps Fort Charlotte, he headed in that direction, but was soon informed of their destination by members of the public. Calling briefly at his home, he proceeded to the prison and presented himself for arrest.

    Commercial Street Lerwick Shetland old postcard

    Commercial Street Lerwick Shetland old postcard

    John Sked continued his story:  “When we got out on to Commercial Street and I saw a double line of marines waiting for us, all with fixed bayonets, I realised we weren’t just playing at soldiers.  We were marched past hundreds of local people who knew us, up the hill and past the Town Hall, until our escorts stopped at the county jail. The door of the jail was open, as if they were waiting for us. We were directed to the prisoners’ exercise room on the top floor and there we remained for four hours”.

    A crowd of local people had followed the men and stood waiting outside the prison for news.  In an attempt to show their friends and neighbours that all was well, the prisoners began to sing from the hymn books of those who had been in church. They opened with the 121st Psalm,  ‘I to the Hills will Lift Mine Eyes’ to the tune French, followed by other Psalms to tunes well-known to the general public in those days  – Belmont and Ballerma and finally Crimond, the best-loved tune for the 23rd Psalm.  After each rendition there was warm applause from the street.



    In charge of the prison was a Lerwick man, John R.G.Morrison, who had trained in Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow, and was to become  governor of Saughton Prison in Edinburgh. He had been told to expect 40 men and had assumed they would be enemy prisoners-of-war landed from a ship. In fact, all the men arrested were known to him and some were former school-mates.  Two of the boy prisoners, William and Robert Stout, were sons of the Provost of Lerwick, also Robert Stout, himself a retired Postmaster.

    Fortunately Lieutenant-Colonel Evans’ instructions had come from higher up the chain of command, from Vice-Admiral Sir Stanley Colville himself, and Sir Stanley wished the postal staff to be treated  “not as prisoners but as persons under arrest”. This enabled Mr. Morrison to give the men some re-assurance.

    “As long as you are in my care”  he is recorded as saying  “not a key will be turned against you.  You will have freedom of movement throughout the prison during the day, but remember, should anyone betray the trust I am placing in you, I shall be the one to suffer.”

    Soon word got around that homes were being searched.  In the house belonging to a young telegraphist, George Manson, a list of local names was deemed suspicious and seized, until it was discovered that George was newly-married and these were recipients of a piece of wedding cake. (Three days later in the prison Mr.MacMaster presented the young husband with a wedding present from his colleagues, a marble clock).

    John Sked remembered that the news of the search caused great anxiety to one of the youngest prisoners.

    “He was a boy messenger, only 16, and was later to share a cell with Mr MacMaster and two overseers.  He realised he’d left a letter to a girl in a coat pocket and smuggled a note out to his landlady asking her to burn it. Unfortunately he was too late. He was called for an interview and suffered the embarrassment of explaining himself to the naval authorities”.


    Old photo of herring gutters in Shetland  © Ella Gordon 2015-07 img_5955

    Old photo of herring gutters in Shetland © Ella Gordon 2015-07 img_5955

    The prison had 16 cells, two of them occupied  –  one by four male civilian prisoners and another by a woman and her baby.  The mother, while pregnant, had  –  fraudulently according to the charge   –  taken arles from several fish curers recruiting female gutters, knowing that she would not be in a position to fulfil the contracts.

    Herring gutters in Scalloway CJ Williamson ©Shetland Museum and Archives

    Herring gutters in Scalloway CJ Williamson ©Shetland Museum and Archives

    For the 40 newcomers there were only 14 cells, which meant three or four men to a cell designed for single occupancy.  The men were allowed to choose their own room-mates and it soon became evident that their families would have to provide bedding and food  –  the price of being  ‘persons under arrest’  presumably.  Shetland’s prison was little-used and most of the cells were bare.

    Lerwick prison and police station - Wikimedia

    Lerwick prison and police station – Wikimedia

    John Sked recalled:  “Mattresses and blankets were the first to arrive, then a queue of wives, mothers – and in a few cases landladies  – handed in cooked food and home baking and thermos flasks of tea;   also tobacco, pipes, cigarettes and matches, for almost all men were smokers in those days.  It was then conveyed to the women that the authorities expected them to supply four meals daily”.

    “We were mystified, no-one came to explain to us what was going on  –  in fact, we were never to be interrogated and no charges were ever made against us.  Each of us had a clear conscience and not for a moment did any of us suspect a colleague of wrong-doing, so we decided to make the best of things and, though it may sound strange, have some fun to pass the time.

    “We were allowed to visit each other’s cells and we made the most of it, starting with impromptu story-telling competitions in the darkness  – the old fish-tail gas lights were useless, so we turned them off. We then graduated to the old music-hall songs of the day and when we’d sung ourselves hoarse we closed the session with a respectful rendering of God Save the King.”

    On the second day of the incarceration the post office cleaner was allowed to send for his gramophone and his collection of some 400  records, brought to the prison entrance in a hand-cart.  In the evenings he was what we would now call a disc jockey, playing special requests – providing he could locate the record.  He was a remarkable character with many stories to tell, having served with the Royal Horse Guards in his younger days.  He had a fine voice and liked to sing the old songs which he interspersed with an imitation of cathedral chimes. Most of the men played the fiddle or the flute or the mouth-organ and their instruments duly arrived. For those who favoured quieter pursuits, whist drives were organised, with prizes of cigarettes”.

    Freedom of movement was not granted to the other prisoners.  The four civilian male prisoners were ordered to clean all the cells and the postal workers showed their appreciation for a job well done by pushing cigarettes under their locked doors at night. They also took turns at carrying the baby around the prison yard.  The young mother seems to have been well treated, with a female warder to herself.

    The local Prison Committee arrived for an inspection and the only complaint registered was about the poor lighting in the cells. Soon afterwards a squad of tradesmen arrived and replaced the old gas fittings with more modern burners.

    “Looking back” John Sked told me “our circumstances had actually improved in some ways.  We were having regular meals and our full quota of sleep, which we hadn’t had for ages.  With all the increased traffic caused by the war, Lerwick Post Office had become one of the busiest in Britain. Staff regularly worked far into the night. Whenever a new ship came into harbour its manifest had to be taken ashore, copied without delay and a transcription, usually not far off 10,000 words, sent by telegraph to Whitehall”

    The Shetland Times title banne

    Important war business must have suffered while the Territorials struggled to provide a service at the Post Office.  The Shetland Times had to cancel its daily War News supplements which had been telegraphed from London. Postal deliveries were in chaos. One firm in town was said to have had twelve deliveries in one day –  most addresses had none. To prevent a total breakdown, the Postmaster and a member of staff were allowed out of the prison under escort for an hour or two each day, until the middle of the week when post office officials arrived from Aberdeen.

    At the jail the days passed tolerably in mirth and music, but underneath the all the joking and singing there were unexpressed feelings of humiliation and a deep anxiety concerning how long the imprisonment would last. Worst of all was the complete absence of information about the causes of the arrests and the likely outcome of the whole sorry business.

    Then,without warning and without any reasons being given, the affair was ended on the morning of Saturday 7th November.  John Morrison passed to the Postmaster a document stating that all detained were to be released  “immediately and unconditionally”.

    The illustrated header of an old issue of The Shetland News

    The illustrated header of an old issue of The Shetland News

    The Shetland News had something to say (the newspaper had hitherto been forbidden to refer to the post office affair, though it had been widely publicised outside the islands) :

    “The most ugly feature of this infamous act has been that in the South the loyalty of Shetlanders has been called into question.  Nothing less than a full inquiry will satisfy the whole outraged community of Shetland.”

    No inquiry ever took place.  Normal postal services were resumed on the Monday, though Mr. MacMaster would have preferred his staff to wait until some apology was made for the slur on their characters.  He had lost no time in sending a strong complaint to the Postmaster-General, but there was no reply..

    Four months after the arrest, each of the men received a letter from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty confirming that  “relative to the alleged tampering with correspondence between the Admiralty and the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleets, the innocence of the whole staff has been proved.  As compensation their Lordships desire to make a grant of two days’ pay to each member of staff in respect of each day spent under arrest, if the Postmaster-General sees no objection”. The offer was unanimously declined.

    Mr. MacMaster continued to press for an explanation, and suggested that his staff should be awarded promotion and special increments. For his pains, he was transferred to England, to a smaller post office at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Once there, he tried to enlist in the Army, but was refused.

    “We were very sad to see him go,” John Sked recalled.  “We organised a farewell party for him and his wife.  We all remembered the kindness of Mrs MacMaster, who would come down the lanes with her maid when we were working late, carrying a hamper of sandwiches and home-baking.  And we appreciated how valiantly Mr MacMaster was fighting the authorities on our behalf.”

    Three years later, John MacMaster was back in Scotland as Postmaster at Kilmarnock, subsequently working in Greenock and Perth, and finally Dundee.  Every year, until he died at the age of 92, a parcel would arrive at Lerwick Post Office, containing a large box of fine cigarettes, to be smoked by the staff on 1st November, the anniversary of the arrest.

    Still no-one in officialdom saw fit to cast light on the mystery.  What was the nature of the alleged tampering with mail, and how did it come about that the Lerwick postal staff were suspected ?

    An article in the Shetland News many years later gave some clues. It was contributed by one of the prisoners, George Manson, the newly-married telegraphist.  “When the staff resumed work at the Post Office,” he wrote, “there were a lot of sacks to be examined and turned inside out to make sure they were empty.  While some of our postmen were thus engaged, they found inside one sack returned from Swarback’s Minn and marked  ’empty’,  a small canvas mailbag.  It was addressed to the Commanding Officer and the seal was unbroken.


    Swarbacks Minn Busta Voe map Shetland Mainland © 2016 Scotiana

    Swarbacks Minn Busta Voe map Shetland Mainland © 2016 Scotiana


    “Mr.MacMaster passed on this information to the base and was asked to bring the small mailbag to Swarback’s Minn personally.  He was escorted aboard the flagship and handed it over to the Commanding Officer, telling him how it had been found.  The C.O. opened the bag and said the contents were not important.  He apologised for the trouble caused by the carelessness of his staff.”

    When John Sked was of an age for military service he was called up and served in the Army for the remainder of the First World War.

    General  Post Office and Waterloo Place - Edinburgh old postcard

    “After I was demobbed I got work in the Edinburgh G.P.O.,” he recalled.   ” I was surprised one day to get a letter from the Lords Commissioners, asking if I would now accept their compensation – the original offer, no improvements.  I refused, and that was the last I heard from their Lordships.

    “It may seem a strange thing to say, but I see the postal imprisonment as one of the great experiences of my life.  I had applied for the job in those far-away islands because I was looking for adventure. I was young and single and had no family in Shetland to worry about. It was only some years later, when I was a bit more mature, that I understood just how anxious the older men with wives and children must have been, under all their bravado.

    “I’ll never forget the camaraderie and good humour of my colleagues, and the kindness of Mr. MacMaster and Mr. Morrison.  Actually, I wouldn’t have missed those six days for all the world”.

    A bientôt et Bonne Lecture !


    ‘C : Copyright Margaret Henderson’

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    2 comments to Lerwick Post Office Staff Imprisoned, November 1914 .. ..

    • Absolutely fascinating! I had never heard of this before.

    • Reality is often more amazing than fiction !
      Many thanks to Margaret for sharing with us this incredible story which took place in Shetland, at the beginning of WWI, when these islands were a strategic place for the Royal Navy and with ‘spy fever’ in the air.
      We’re always waiting with much anticipation our next ‘Letter from Scotland’, be it signed ‘Margaret’ or ‘Iain’, and once more we have not been disappointed. What a story! The whole staff of Lerwick Post Office being arrested and with nobody knowing why! A captivating story from beginning to end!
      Margaret’s and John Sked’s very lively narratives naturally complete each other. We feel as if we were there and we enjoy very much the way the unlucky Post Office staff manage to turn the tide in prison. We can nearly hear the songs coming from within and outside the building 😉
      Today, there remain few doubts regarding the whys and wherefores of the whole affair which would have been worth of the very popular French radio programme ‘Monsieur X’;-)
      From beginning to end we feel outraged by this quite unfair treatment of the Post Office staff and their courageous manager by the military authorities. But this is also a remarkable story of friendship and solidarity !
      Merci Margaret for this great story ! A quand la prochaine histoire ?

      A tout bientôt !


      PS – I’m going to pull out my old issues of the ‘Scots Magazine’… some of them date back to the time when Maurice Fleming was the editor of the magazine and include articles written by Margaret 😉

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