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.
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details about dates of opening of new post offices, and names of architects, as well as correspondence, press cuttings, unpublished research papers and a fine selection of photographs.
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.
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