Natasha Mann – The Guardian

A mummified hand, a wooden leg, even a live snake – it’s amazing what gets lost in the post and ends up at the National Return Letter Centre. Natasha Mann pays a visit to the ‘letter detectives’

“You shouldn’t send anything alive in the post, to be honest with you,” says Ray Kennedy, his face quite serious as he sits in the Royal Mail’s special office in Belfast’s quayside. “I would also prefer that people didn’t send anything dead in the post.” He has just been telling me about the time staff opened up a Jiffy bag envelope only for a live snake to fall out and start wriggling on the floor. But the dead things are no more fun. “We’ve had a mummified hand, which wasn’t too bad,” he says. “But once we had this packet and it was stinking the place out. When they opened it up, it was a putrid salmon. Somebody had caught a salmon fresh, wrapped it up and posted it to his mate. It was sitting for three weeks in the delivery office uncollected.”
Ray knows all about what people try to send in the post because he is in charge of the Royal Mail’s undeliverable mail service. Letters and parcels – and there are millions of them – that people probably think are lost end up here. In fact, they are usually just undeliverable: address incomplete, handwriting illegible, street name wrongly spelt, and sometimes no address at all. The operation, known as the National Return Letter Centre, also deals with letters and packages where the addressee has moved, or failed to pick up an item from the post office.

Three hundred sorters try to match up the mail either with the sender or, by using a bit of detective work, its intended recipient. This, and the smaller office in Portsmouth where most of the parcels go, is the only place in the UK where the Royal Mail is allowed to open letters.

January is the busiest time of year for the centre. Boxes crammed with mail are stacked outside waiting to be opened. Many of them are Christmas cards. This year’s haul also includes tartan tins of shortbread biscuits, a family photo album of old black and white photos signed only “Dearest Dad, with love always, Lucy x”, and an old-fashioned wooden leg.

“Valentine’s Day is another busy period,” says Ray. “That’s quite sad, when you have all these undelivered Valentine’s cards.”

Mail that cannot be delivered or returned to the sender is recycled, but the letter detectives will do their best. Last year the sorters came across an envelope addressed to Lord Nelson containing £1,000 and a note simply stating: “Thanks for a great party – Harry.” It was only when someone worked out that Lord Nelson was a pub that the note made any sense. After phoning round a few Lord Nelson pubs, they managed to locate the right one.

On another occasion, they came across a photograph of a boy in hospital with his leg in plaster. By identifying the hospital, they were able to have the picture returned to him. Once, after finding some antique estate deeds in the post, they even went to the local media to try and trace the owner.

Last year a staggering 72m items of undeliverable mail came through the centre, an 18% increase on the year before. Around a quarter of these were successfully redelivered. Much of the work is business mail. But Ray also thinks people have got a little sloppy with their letter-writing etiquette. “If only they would put a return address on the envelope,” he says, in what soon becomes a theme for the afternoon, “the item would get back to them and they would know the reason why it wasn’t delivered.”

The main sorting gets done in a huge, aircraft hangar-sized room. Drew Orbinson, 37, has been working here for 10 years as one of the centre’s letter detectives. He can normally fix addresses with bits missing, little things like the town or city, but the pile of Christmas card envelopes on his desk with a name scribbled across the front and no address are beyond his powers of deduction.

“Look,” he says, opening up a Christmas card with a fiver stuffed inside it. “Probably one in every 20 of these will have some money inside it.” There is no address on the envelope, only a name in a half-legible scrawl. The money will be banked and a record taken of all details. The card will be held for three months, but claims can be made up to a year later. The largest amount staff ever came across was £25,000 in an envelope meant for the internal mail of a big department store. It was supposed to go into the night safe but was posted accidentally.

Cheques are another frequent find. Last year they recovered £175m worth. They are sent back to the bank so that they can be returned to the sender. “When I first started, things you’d find seemed funny, but now they just seem normal,” says Curtis Lockhart, 32, who, like Drew, seems pretty nonchalant about what he comes across. “You get used to so many different things coming through. I suppose there are strange things. You get a lot of underwear. Oh, and we did have an anthrax scare once. We were evacuated for days. The whole place had to be sealed off, and lots of people had to get the whole spray treatment.”

“That was soon after September 11,” adds Drew. “Someone had found a white substance. They found out later it was a narcotic.”

“Then there was the time the letter bomb went off. Over where they open the letters,” says Curtis, warming to the topic now.

“I don’t know that Ray wanted us to talk about that,” says Drew quietly.

The National Return Letter Centre was originally known as the Dead Letter Office, a name coined in the days when people used to send game through the post. Game that could not be delivered would end up in a room at the post office. Ray has a photograph of the Dead Letter Office circa 1900 with dead pheasants, rabbits, hares and turkeys hanging from the ceiling.

There are other such offices around the world. But nowhere do they go to quite such lengths as they do here to return undelivered mail. Every item is handled individually, and these days anything thicker than an envelope has to be scanned for safety. “We had some visitors from China who were shocked at the amount of wasted resources that we put into returning undelivered mail,” says Ray. “Some countries actually burn it.”

The Belfast centre has been here since 1992, when the system was centralised. Despite email, text-messaging and the whole panoply of modern communication, the volume has increased every year. Contract mail accounts for 27%, metre mail – used by large companies – 40%, and stamped mail 30%. The service costs £10m a year.

“If it’s an important letter, something of real personal, sentimental value, we will go the extra mile. But if it’s just an ordinary piece of communication or a card and there’s not much to go on, then there’s not much we can do,” says Ray.

“When people say they have lost something in the post, is it really lost? Or did it have a wrong address, or was it not collected? The bulk of what people think is lost probably comes to us. Sometimes, though, I do wonder whether we should make as much effort as we do.”

It is not only undeliverable mail that ends up at the centre. They also handle the Royal Mail’s Santa Letter Service, and there are items addressed to other fictional characters. “We get a lot of letters to soap characters, Peggy Mitchell or Dot Cotton. And letters to famous football players telling them how they should be playing, or that they’re rubbish.”

Then there are the occasional pieces of celebrity mail. But Ray refuses to give away any names – all customer mail, he says, is handled with complete confidentiality. “Yes,” pipes up one of his colleagues, “just think of all the stories we can’t tell you. Like, which supermodel sent which rock star a certain item with the note, ‘I hope you keep these. And remember what you’re missing.’ ”

If only she had put a return address on the envelope, the letter need never have ended up here.

· The National Return Letter Centre can be contacted by calling your local Royal Mail service centre.