Tag Archives: GPO Headquarters

Where did 19th century postmen go on their coffee break?

Nestled in between King Edward St and St Martin’s le Grand, just up the street from St. Paul’s tube station, there’s a little bit of green called Postman’s Park. It’s a quiet little park with a fountain, a beautiful memorial, lingering headstones and a variety of flower beds and greenery.

Some rain-covered flowers in the garden

Some rain-covered flowers in the garden

Centre of Postman’s Park

Centre of Postman’s Park

The park is so-named for its popularity among the postmen who worked at the 19th century GPO headquarters and central sorting office, St. Martin’s Le Grand, just south of park. When GPO headquarters moved again in 1910, they didn’t go very far: just on the other side of the park, to King Edward Building, so postmen could still flock to this green space. Today King Edward Building is the home of Merrill Lynch, but outside stands a statue of postal reformer Rowland Hill, keeping the park nestled in a bed of postal history.

King Edward Building and statue of Rowland Hill outside the west entrance to Postman’s Park

King Edward Building and statue of Rowland Hill outside the west entrance to Postman’s Park

Postman’s Park was built on the site of former burial grounds, where the severe shortage of burial space lead to bodies being piled on top of one another and covered with earth, hence the ground level of Postman’s Park is well above the street level on either side of it. You can still see some lingering headstones in the park, somewhat hidden in between the gardens. The burial grounds were converted into a public park after in the 19th century, and it was reopened after extensive work to cover the burial ground on 28 October 1880.

Headstones tucked in a corner

Headstones tucked in a corner

Its greatest claim to fame is probably George Frederick Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. This memorial champions those ordinary people who gave their lives saving others, who might otherwise have been forgotten.

G.F. Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice

G.F. Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice

The memorials take the form of a long wall of ceramic tablets, detailing the names and cause of death of those who died in the service of others. The tablets are very personalised, detailing the circumstances in which that person sacrificed themselves. Some of these more detailed stories can be found on the park’s Wikipedia page.

Close up of one of the ceramic plates on the memorial wall

Close up of one of the ceramic plates on the memorial wall

As somewhat of a tourist myself, I feel like this site is one that is generally overlooked in the face of everything else there is to see in London, and I never would have discovered it if I hadn’t gone on the BPMA Walking Tour, From Pillar to Post: GPO London. It’s one of many lovely stops on the tour, about which you can find more information here.

Fountain and view of the east entrance of the park

Fountain and view of the east entrance of the park

- Sarah Cooper, Intern

The General Post Office: GPO East – 1829-1912

One of the earliest sites occupied by the ‘General Post Office’ in London was in the area of Lombard Street, near the Bank of England. Since 1678, the General Post Office had been headquartered in this part of the City, purchasing more property as its work increased in volume and scope.

However in 1814 the Post Office’s piecemeal acquisition of buildings had gone as far as it could and the Post Office Architect reported that it wasn’t worth continuing to develop the site.  He recommended a new location be selected for the construction of a purpose-built headquarters building.

This engraving shows St Martins Le Grand before the construction of the Post Office.

This engraving shows St Martins Le Grand before the construction of the Post Office.

The area chosen was St Martins-le-Grand, less than half a mile away, to the north of St Paul’s cathedral. It was an area of poor repute and presumably the land was relatively cheap. In clearing space for the new headquarters over 130 houses were demolished and 1,000 inhabitants displaced.

The Post Office wanted a building that would reflect its increased national importance, so it employed Sir Robert Smirke, the architect who had designed the British Museum.

Hand-coloured engraving showing the new building around 1829.

Hand-coloured engraving showing the new building around 1829.

Construction was complete in 1829 and the entire General Post Office was relocated from Lombard Street to their imposing new premises. Known as the ‘General Post Office’, the building combined the functions of administrative headquarters, sorting office and London’s principal public Post Office.

The structure was nearly 400 feet long, with a Grecian-style frontage facing onto the east side of St Martins-le-Grand. At night, the exterior was lit by a thousand gas burners.

GPO East

GPO East

Letter Carriers Room arranged for the dispatch of newspapers.

Letter Carriers Room arranged for the dispatch of newspapers.

Running the width of the building – 130 feet from the Portico on St. Martin’s-le-Grand through to Foster Lane at the rear – was a grand public hall with a 50-foot ceiling supported by six columns of Portland Stone. Either side of the public hall were offices, with further offices on the first floor. Above those were sleeping rooms for the foreign clerks who were required to be available to receive the foreign mails that arrived at all hours. The basement of the building held the mail-guards rooms, armoury and servants quarters.

Each evening mail coaches gathered at the General Post Office to collect mail for overnight delivery to other cities around the country. The coach, horses and driver were all provided by contractors. The only Post Office employee aboard was the guard. He was heavily armed, carrying two pistols and a blunderbuss.

The nightly departure of the mail coaches, racing off in different directions, became very popular, drawing crowds of spectators.

The Royal Mails departure from The General Post Office, 1830.

The Royal Mails departure from The General Post Office, 1830.

The last London-based mail coach made its final journey in 1846, made redundant by the development of the railway.

Beginning with the Central Telegraph Office in 1874, several other Post Office buildings were constructed in the immediate vicinity and, to avoid confusion, the General Post Office became known as GPO East.

GPO East, early 20th Century

GPO East, early 20th Century

In the above photograph from the early Twentieth Century you can see the two extra storeys that were added following the huge expansion in mail volumes after postal reform in 1840 made the postal service affordable to all.

The basement was also extended but it still didn’t increase capacity sufficiently and eventually the building was declared to be too small. In 1912, after its functions were transferred to the other GPO buildings in the area, GPO East was demolished.

Pen and wash by Sir George Clausen RA, 1913, showing the demolition of GPO East

Pen and wash by Sir George Clausen RA, 1913, showing the demolition of GPO East

The demolition of such an iconic building was not without its opponents and some effort was made to preserve the portico and pediment. However no one was prepared to bear the cost of carrying it away.

Eventually all that remained was the Ionic cap from the right hand corner of the portico. This five-ton relic was presented to the Walthamstow Urban Council and can be seen today at Church End, Walthamstow Village.

Walking Tours of GPO London

Anyone walking through the City of London will note weird and wonderful street names such as Cheapside, Poultry and Undershaft, or the more mundane Milk Street, Bread Street and Oat Lane, and get a sense of the Square Mile’s past history as part over-crowded slum, part burgeoning centre of trade. But the history of postal communication can also be seen in the City, with Postman’s Park and Post Office Court being merely the most obvious examples. These and other sites will be explored as part of the BPMA’s programme of GPO London walking tours.

In 1643 the first General Post Office was established in the City, with the site most likely to have been in Cloak Lane, near Dowgate Hill. This came just eight years after Charles I made the Royal Mail available to his subjects, although it was Oliver Cromwell who formally established the Post Office in 1657.

At this time Coffee Houses were considered more reliable mail providers than the newly formalised Post Office. Many Coffee House owners collected letters and made arrangements with ship masters for their delivery overseas. This practice was illegal for it infringed the Post Office monopoly, but the service continued to be popular. It is not coincidental that so many early Post Offices were also established in the City of London.

The site of the Garraways Coffee House (rebuilt 1874) and Lloyds Coffee House (1691-1785) will be visited on the tour, along with the sites of the former GPO Headquarters at Lombard Street and St Martin’s-le-Grand.

Other notable sites visited on the tour are King Edward Building (the former Chief Post Office now occupied by Merrill Lynch), and GPO North. Also in the vicinity was the Central Telegraph Office where Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated wireless telegraphy to William Preece, Engineer to the GPO.

There will also be an opportunity to explore a range of operational GPO street furniture from many eras, including manhole covers, telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The tours last around 3 hours and are conducted by BPMA Curators. For more information and booking details please see our website.

BPMA Walking Tours, 2009
GPO London – Tuesday 30th June 2009, 1.00-4.00pm
GPO London – Saturday 19th July 2009, 2.00-5.00pm
GPO London – Tuesday 26th September 2009, 1.00-4.00pm