P. G. Wodehouse & the Kindness of Strangers

news-graphics-2008-_437680aP.G. Wodehouse, author of the Jeeves and Wooster stories and other zany tales of the British upper crust, famously said that he never bothered to mail letters. Instead, he threw them out his window for passersby to post.

“Someone always picks it up, and it saves me going down four flights of stairs every time I want to mail a letter.”

Alas, that tale is probably apocryphal. Oxford academic Dr Sophie Ratcliffe says that Wodehouse borrowed the story from a friend. (Isn’t that what writers do after all, borrow stories from friends, history, the news and other writers?)

But the concept is so irresistible that more than one British newspaper has put their community to the “honesty test” in recent years, leaving stamped, addressed letters in public places to see how many were mailed to their destination. Will people today take the time to post a letter found on a park bench or pub table?

chard Guildhall built 1834

I first read about letter dropping in an article on the UK website: This is the West Country. The staff scattered 20 letters around the towns of Chard (13,000) and Ilminster (5,800) in Somerset. Those honest citizens mailed back 17 letters, albeit one was opened and resealed before posting. A letter left at Chard’s Guildhall (pictured) was one of those returned.

Tests in London and other large cities have had more mixed results, averaging a 50-60% return rate.

It makes me want to put my American compatriots to the test. I’ll write notes to friends — earning me snail mail brownie points in the bargain — and let them know by email that they may receive an old-fashioned letter, depending on the kindness of strangers. Let’s see how the colonies stack up compared to London, Chard and Ilminster! Check back later for my results. [Amended: Read the results of my “honesty test” here.]

You can read Daniel Milligen’s account of the letter dropping experiment in Somerset. Perhaps he was inspired by an honesty test conducted a few years earlier by the Telegraph.

4 thoughts on “P. G. Wodehouse & the Kindness of Strangers

  1. Terry Lim Diefenbach says:

    Looking forward to the results. Once upon a time the PO would deliver letters with no or insufficient postage and charge the addressee for it. But that would be a different kind of experiment!

    • Susan Lendroth says:

      I remember those little brown envelopes with absurd amounts owed — like 6¢ — that probably cost more to process in terms of staff hours than the amounts collected. Don’t they do that any more?

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