Built for Service

Despite the importance of the post office in the lives of our communities, it has surprisingly been overlooked by architectural studies: furthermore, historians of the Post Office have by and large concentrated on its administrative history, with only passing reference to its buildings. In an attempt to redress the balance Built for Service: Post Office Architecture (published by the BPMA in 2010) chronicles the history and development of the post office building in Great Britain from the mid-19th century to the 1970s.

Derby Post Office (1870) (architect James Williams)

Derby Post Office (1870) (architect James Williams)

Southampton Post Office (1894) (architect Sir Henry Tanner)

Southampton Post Office (1894) (architect Sir Henry Tanner)

Hull Post Office (1908) (architect Walter Pott)

Hull Post Office (1908) (architect Walter Pott)

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Northwich Post Office (1915) (architect Charles Wilkinson)

Maesteg Post Office (c.1935) (architect Henry Seccombe)

Maesteg Post Office (c.1935) (architect Henry Seccombe)

Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Plymouth Post Office (1957) (architect Cyril Pinfold)

Hitchin Post Office (1962) (architect J.O. Stevens)

Hitchin Post Office (1962) (architect J.O. Stevens)

Although new post office buildings were commissioned by the Post Office, execution of the work was the responsibility of another Government department, the Office of Works and its successors. This duality of purpose, with the tensions that it created up until the First World War, is described in the book, and means that historians are required to research in two major repositories: for plans and contract drawings (where they have survived), the National Archives at Kew; and for the role of the Post Office, the British Postal Museum and Archive, although they are by no means mutually exclusive.

One of the joys of study in the BPMA Archive is of course working with the catalogued material, which reveals how assiduously the Post Office took its responsibilities with regard to the fitting-out of its buildings and the welfare of its staff, but also with the extensive ephemeral material in the Portfolio files. Here may be found a wealth of unique material (such as programmes of opening ceremonies), revealing details about dates of opening of new post offices, and names of architects, as well as correspondence, press cuttings, unpublished research papers and a fine selection of photographs.

Souvenir programme of the Opening of the New Post Office, Clevedon. One of many such items in the BPMA Portfolio collection.

Souvenir programme of the Opening of the New Post Office, Clevedon. One of many such items in the BPMA Portfolio collection.

The recent spate of post office closures has begged the question: what happens to redundant post office buildings? Do they still have a presence on the high street, and if so, what has happened to them?. Many Victorian and Edwardian post offices have been statutorily listed as Grade II structures. This generally means that their external appearance is protected, while the interiors can be altered to suit a new purpose. Many inter-war post offices, no longer required by the service, have also survived demolition. The nature of these buildings, featuring a large open space on the ground floor, has meant that it has been relatively easy to convert them into public houses, nightclubs, and chain restaurants. The names of many of the public houses recall the former association – “The Last Post”, “The Old Post Office”, “The Penny Black”, and so on.

“The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

“The Penny Black”, Bicester (1914) (architect Henry A. Collins)

“The Last Post”, Loughton (c.1930) (architect Archibald Scott)

“The Last Post”, Loughton (c.1930) (architect Archibald Scott)

“Zizzi”, Surbiton (c.1895)

“Zizzi”, Surbiton (c.1895)

In many cases, the upper floors of these buildings have been converted into residential use.

Built for Service serves as an introductory guide to the post office building, but it is supplemented by a website. This is an alphabetical illustrated guide, detailing years of opening, names of architects, archive sources for further research, bibliographical references, and current use (if no longer a post office), with links to further information available online.

- Julian Osley

2 responses to “Built for Service

  1. Absolutely love the old photos in this article! Though not so keen on the architecture of the Plymouth one!

  2. These 50s and 60s post offices deserve a little appreciation and more detailed study

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