From Pillar to Post is a London walking tour centred on the history of the GPO (General Post Office), specifically its early presence and impact in central London. It is a brilliant way to spend a weekend morning, discovering the fascinating history hidden within London’s streets. The two hour tour starts in Farringdon and ends in Bank, uncovering along the way the rich postal heritage of London’s roads and buildings, interwoven with the City’s wider history.
The tour began outside the old Metropolitan Railway Parcels office at Farringdon station. Like today, there was no monopoly on the parcel post and you could pay many different companies to deliver your parcel for you. The various disparate railway companies provided a regular, well honed parcel service, if a little complicated and expensive when utilising more than one company at a time. In an endeavour to create a nationwide service the GPO commenced its own Parcels Post in 1883. They initially made a loss having overestimated the number of parcels that would be delivered.
The telephone kiosks introduced by the GPO are well illustrated in Smithfield meat market, with an eye-catching row of the iconic K2 and K6 red kiosks. Both were designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (later Sir). Sir Gilbert Scott also designed Battersea power station and Bankside Power station, now Tate Modern. The K2 kiosk is almost certainly based on the tomb of Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect. Sir John Soane’s tomb is one of only two grade one listed tombs in London – the other tomb is that of Karl Marx.
Next stop on the tour was St Bart’s Hospital, West Smithfield, where we passed an old and inconspicuous wall box. Companies would often have their own wall box for their mail that they would then pay the GPO to collect from. The large ‘A’ sized example at Bart’s not only incorporates two peculiar angled apertures, but also a door situated outside the hospital so that may can be collected even if the gates are shut.
We then came across the four huge buildings that formerly made up a GPO empire. The King Edward building, former GPO headquarters and previously a home to the National Postal Museum, is now owned by Merrill Lynch. A hint of its former GPO importance is indicated by a sculpture in the wall of the building depicting a Caduceus; a Staff with two entwined snakes, belonging to Mercury/ Hermes, messenger to the Gods. Around the corner stands the statue of a hero of the GPO, Rowland Hill – the creator of the Uniform Penny Post. This is known to most as that which gave us the 1d black postage stamp, the first in the World, helping to open the postal service to all.
The tour continued on the other side of the road with a walk through Postman’s Park, adjacent to another former GPO Head office – GPO North. The park has a rich history of its own but it was so called because of its proximity to the former GPO buildings and the popularity of the park with GPO workers resting there between duties. In the park is also sited a memorial established by the painter George Frederick Watts. This consists of a series of plaques that commemorate those often unheralded elsewhere, who had performed heroic deeds (some of whom were children) and all of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice. As you exit the park be sure to notice the bench dedicated to ‘the Central Telegraph Office female staff who helped keep communications open during two world wars’.
We then passed close by St Paul’s station, previously called simply Post Office. Opened in 1900, this station was named Post Office because of its close proximity to the number of large, important and impressive GPO buildings in that area. At the time, another station nearby was known as St Paul’s, and has since been renamed Blackfriars.
The guide continued with stories of the days when the mail was carried by mail coaches across the country, revolutionising mail delivery and the speed at which it travelled and could be received. John Palmer, a theatre owner from Bath, conducted a successful trial run of a mail coach travelling from Bath to London in 13 hours (with the usual time taken being nearly triple this). From then on the time gained by delivering mail by mail coaches was clear and postal delivery was revolutionised. Many of the mail coaches set off from London along the Great Roads from The General Post Office. Just prior to the First World War this office was pulled down to widespread public outcry. Already proving too small for the increase in mail volume, it had earlier proved popular as a gathering point for the public who would assemble to observe the spectacle of the departing mail coaches. Smaller mail vans were hazardous to the unwary; Charles Dickens recorded the death of a pedestrian under the wheels of a galloping mail van in a neighbouring street in Little Dorritt.
The tour also touched on the Post Office Underground Railway that runs underneath some of the areas traversed on the tour. Work on the Railway began prior to the First World War, and was then halted due to the War – with the underground tunnels used to store artworks from museums and galleries such as the National Gallery. The railway opened in 1927. It was used to transport mail using driverless trains, underneath London, to the mainline stations which provided access across the country. Built partially to avoid the traffic congestion overhead, some might argue that little has changed in London today. However, with the closure of most of the large sorting and distribution offices, routing of mail outside London and cessation of use of the London railway termini for mail purposes meant that the requirement for a bespoke underground railway, by now renamed Mail Rail, was no more.
By the time of Mail Rail, the transport revolution had been going for many years with the GPO availing themselves of the opportunities available. Mail was first carried on overland trains in 1830. Again the innovation of the GPO is evident; mail carried by trains was instituted soon after experimentation with the railways and train travel first began.
We came across quite a few pillar boxes on our journey around London. The well known novelist, Anthony Trollope, is credited with the introduction of the first British pillar box, when working as a Surveyors Clerk for the GPO. The pillar box was trialled in the Channel Islands in 1852 and similar boxes were introduced to the streets of the UK mainland by 1853. The first pillar boxes appeared in London in 1855 though no examples of these survive today. Possibly one of the most popular of all the pillar boxes is the Penfold, the only pillar box named after its designer and famously used as the name of Dangermouse’s sidekick.
Towards the end of our tour we came across Post Office Court EC3 near to where the former Lloyds coffee house is situated. Lloyds coffee house provided the shipping news and therefore was very popular with those travelling overseas. Some of the many Coffee Houses in the area acted as Letter Receiving Houses for a burgeoning postal service, though there were many accusations of improper payments and favouritism.
The tour ends outside the National Exchange and the imposing Bank of England, by Bank station. Here stands a First World War memorial that also commemorates the role of the London Regiment, City of London Battalions and the 8th Battalion (Post Office Rifles), providing a fitting and sombre end to the tour.
I would very much recommend the walking tour for its fascinating overview of the City’s streets, buildings and secret histories. I have only touched on some of the subjects and sights experienced. A subsequent visit to our museum store in Debden is a great way to complement the tour and see the actual objects that are part of this rich tapestry of postal history.
The walking tours are run in conjunction with the BPMA, and led by Cityguides. The next tour is on Saturday 26 January at 11am. There’s no need to book, just turn up on the day. For more information please see our website.
– Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer