Tag Archives: Post Office counters

The first drive-in post office in the United Kingdom

On 11 December 1959, the United Kingdom’s first drive-in post office opened. It was situated at the new Wharf Street Branch Post Office under the centre archway of the Wharf Street Telephone Exchange building in Leicester, which had a private road running through it.

Customer makes a purchase from drive-in post office, 1960 (P 7183 from POST 122/3954)

Customer makes a purchase from drive-in post office, 1960 (P 7183 from POST 122/3954)

The drive-in post office was to handle straightforward transactions, such as the sale of stamps and postal orders. Drivers would be served from the comfort of their cars via a drive-in counter adjacent to the covered roadway. The intention was that as a car drew up to the drive-in counter, the counter clerk would hear a bell ring. The counter clerk and driver would communicate via microphones and loudspeakers. When the driver had told the counter clerk what was required, a tray was to be extended to the driver upon which money would be placed. The counter clerk would withdraw the tray and exchange the money for whatever had been requested. Letters etc. could be returned by tray but packets and parcels were to be passed to the counter clerk through a hatch.

Despite being announced in a burst of fanfare, the drive-in post office was ultimately considered to be a failure. From the initial 60 to 70 customers a day, this fell to 20 to 25 a day and, by 1963, the number of customers had tailed off to three per day and even this was not always maintained.

Customer collects purchase from Drive-In Post Office, 1960 (P7182 from POST 122/3954)

Customer collects purchase from Drive-In Post Office, 1960 (P7182 from POST 122/3954)

Its location was not ideal. Although adjacent to a public car park, it was situated at a branch and not a head post office, was not on a main road and was away from the main businesses and shopping area of the city.

The drive-in post office suffered from design flaws. The signs directing customers, for example, were too small. Most drivers stopped too far away from the drive-in counter so it was rarely possible to use the tray as had been originally intended. In fact, the tray was rarely used because the unsatisfactory nature of the microphones and loudspeaker equipment. Clerks found that it was easier to raise the glass screen and lean out of the window in order to conduct transactions. The archway also formed a wind tunnel. The wind had sometimes torn paper money, stamps or postal orders from customers so that some had had to leave their cars in order to chase after them.

In fact, there had been scepticism about the viability of such a venture right from the start. A number of the Regional Directors felt that post office counter business did not readily lend itself to this form of service, whilst the United States postal administration reported that such facilities were expensive to provide.

Customer collects purchase (P7185 from POST 122/3954)

Customer collects purchase (P7185 from POST 122/3954)

Although the drive-in post office was considered to be a failure, it did not stop the Post Office from trying out other innovative ideas at this time, including the opening of a self service post office suite in Luton on 4 July 1960 where motorists could buy stamps and post their mail.

- Louise Todd, Archivist

This blog was researched at the Royal Mail Archive, located at BPMA’s headquarters in Clerkenwell, London. There are millions of stories to uncover at the Royal Mail Archive, see our website for Archive opening hours and visitor information.

Telegrams

Each month we present an item from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) have been working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

In this blog, former Post Office worker Les Rawle looks back at the telegram. Les started in the Post Office as a messenger when he left school at 14 in 1939. After he was called up for the War, he returned to work as a sorting clerk in the North District Post Office. In 1948 he passed the exams to work at the counter. He remained working for the Post Office until his retirement.

Greetings Telegram

Greetings Telegram

“Seeing these telegrams has brought back memories. During the 1950s I worked in the South Tottenham Post Office. The wooden counter was L-shaped and the bottom end was used for parcels. Beyond that a door into a room which had the tele-printers which received and sent the telegrams. Beyond that a further room where the Messengers sat before going out.

For telegrams, people paid you the money, so you stuck stamps to the value of that on the forms. The forms were in a box. They wrote their telegrams and brought it to the counter. You’d count the words. I think a minimum was 1/6d and then so much a word, stick the stamps on. Then I’d take it to the tele-printer room. You’d have to allow for those stamps when you cashed up.

Both men and girls worked in the tele-printer room. Holloway and Finsbury Park had a pipe system, compressed air tubes, which sent the telegram upstairs to the tele-printer room. At South Tottenham, there was a partition between the Post Office Room and the tele-printer room. There was an opening with a vee-shape in it, and you’d put the telegram form in there, and they’d see it or hear it, take it out and type it.

They were like large typewriters, electronic, with spools of white gummed tape and as the message appeared on the tape, they’d tear it off, stick it on a form, envelope it and the Messenger would take it out. For elsewhere in the country the tele-printer room would send it electronically to the Delivery Office nearest the address.”

Christmas at the Post Office

Each month we present an item from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) have been working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

This month, Keith Shallcross, a retired Post Office Counters manager, chooses one of his favourite items…

Christmas time for Post Office counters was always extremely hectic and stressful. Double pensions, Christmas cards, overseas parcels, queues going out of the door from opening to closing time. Customers also needing to charge electricity and gas tokens. We were still expected to ensure that 95% of customers were served in 5 minutes – an impossible task at this particular time of year. We of course needed to make sure that every person was greeted courteously and dealt with politely at all times.

I remember we were asked some funny things by our customers too at this busy time. One Christmas Eve I was asked if it was possible for a card to reach the USA by Christmas Day!

Poster advising on final Christmas postal dates, 1981.

Poster advising on final Christmas postal dates, 1981.

As the poster says, ‘post a little happiness’. Happiness for us workers was closing at 12.30pm on Christmas Eve after having endured four weeks of Christmas pressure, and then retiring to the pub!

Post Offices

Cover of Post Offices by Julian Stray

Cover of Post Offices by Julian Stray

The local post office has a special place in the social history of Britain. A new book, published by Shire Publications and written by the BPMA’s Assistant Curator Julian Stray, provides an historical overview of the development of this public institution – from “letter receiving house” to familiar high-street presence.

Outlining the range of services post offices have provided over time – from stamps, pensions and postal orders, to airmail, savings certificates, dog and TV licences – and highlighting the “heyday of the GPO” during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Julian Stray recalls childhood memories of post office counters selling stamps and sweets, the weekly pension queue, and the friendly local postmaster.

Also examined are the many different types of post offices, from the village sub-office to mobile post offices in tents used in bombed areas during the Second World War.

The sub-post office at Shipton-under-Wychwood opened before 1847, but relinquished its title as England’s oldest post office when it closed in 1975.

Shipton-under-Wychwood Post Office, Oxfordshire c.1900

Shipton-under-Wychwood Post Office, Oxfordshire c.1900

By the late 1920s, post office frontages were heavy with advertising. Notices relating to overseas mail and telephone services were a common sight.

The branch office at Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, London, c. late 1920s.

The branch office at Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, London, c. late 1920s.

During the Second World War mobile, tented post offices were produced for quick deployment to areas that had lost their office as a result of enemy bombing.

Mobile post office set up in a bombed area of London, 1941

Mobile post office set up in a bombed area of London, 1941

After 1969, when the Post Office became a public corporation and its relationship with the Ministry of Works ended, local architects designed new offices.

Guildford’s North Street post office (1970-72), by architects Roman Halter and Associates, was a radical departure from previous offices; the building incorporated wrap-around glazing and a projecting gazebo.

Guildford’s North Street post office (1970-72), by architects Roman Halter and Associates, was a radical departure from previous offices; the building incorporated wrap-around glazing and a projecting gazebo.

Post Offices by Julian Stray is a celebration of a very British institution now threatened by modern-day forces. It is now available from the BPMA online shop.

40th Anniversary of the Post Office Act 1969

On Tuesday 13th October we will be welcoming author and historian Duncan Campbell-Smith to the BPMA to deliver a talk on the Post Office Act 1969. Duncan Campbell-Smith is well placed to speak on this topic as he is currently researching an authorised history of the British Post Office, due to be published in 2011.

The logo of the General Post Office

The logo of the General Post Office

The Post Office Act 1969 brought about one of the most momentous changes to the Post Office since Charles I allowed his subjects to use the postal service (or Royal Mail) in 1635. The 1969 Act meant that the General Post Office ceased to be a government department and became a statutory corporation. The office of Postmaster General was replaced by a Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, and the word “General” was dropped from the organisation’s name. At the same time telecommunications were split from postal services, resulting in two separate entities with two separate budgets – Post Office Telecommunications and the Post Office – allowing each organisation to focus on its area of specialty.

Over the next four decades there were further structural and names changes, one of the most significant being that in 1981 postal and telecommunications services were separated entirely, resulting in British Telecommunications and Royal Mail (responsible for post and parcels, Post Office counters and National Giro). This complicated business history and the reasons behind it will no doubt be fully examined in both Duncan Campbell-Smith’s talk on the Post Office Act 1969 and his upcoming book.

To book for the talk 40th Anniversary of the Post Office Act 1969 please see our website.