Discovering a Slice of London Life

After last month’s archive stocktake, I’ve returned to my ongoing cataloguing project. Today I’ll tell you about a terrific discovery I made on the repository shelves.

Matt inspects the record books in the BPMA Search Room.

Matt inspects the record books in the BPMA Search Room.

This is a set of four record books. Three are from the 1930s, while the fourth covers 1941-1956. They’re not labelled with ownership details but, after studying the contents and cross-referencing with other archives in our collections, I believe they originated from the South West (SW) London District Office, which was in Victoria Street at that time.

The books were used to keep records on the sub-post offices in the SW London District. As you may already know, there are two main kinds of post offices in Britain: crown offices directly managed by the Post Office, and sub-post offices operated by independent businesspeople under contract from the Post Office.

The books are divided into many sections, headed with each sub-post office’s address. The three 1930s volumes cover the entire District between them, while the 1940s volume is a partial continuation. Confusingly, the contents aren’t all arranged alphabetically!

Selected addresses from the record books. Clockwise from top left: 15 Gloucester Road, later number 17 (POST 22/385); 226 Wandsworth Road (POST 22/387); Victoria Station (POST 22/388); 56 Brixton Road (POST 22/386). Centre: Harrods (POST 22/385).

Selected addresses from the record books. Clockwise from top left: 15 Gloucester Road, later number 17 (POST 22/385); 226 Wandsworth Road (POST 22/387); Victoria Station (POST 22/388); 56 Brixton Road (POST 22/386). Centre: Harrods (POST 22/385).

What makes these books a treasure is the staggering amount of detail. There are notes of customer complaints, audit records, specifics of equipment installed, and particulars of disciplinary cases. Every note is dated. This is what you’d expect from the central supervision of agents carrying out work for the General Post Office. But there’s so much more.

Sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses often performed postal work alongside another business. The volumes record precise details of any interruptions in postal work. The main motivation was to monitor revenue, but the notes also reflect SW London’s changing streets. The record below is a good example:

Record of post office at 412 Brixton Road being damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941. (POST 22/388)

Record of post office at 412 Brixton Road being damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941. (POST 22/388)

This note states that the 412 Brixton Road office was damaged by a bomb on 16 April 1941, and reopened at new premises in the local Bon Marché store. There are also records of crimes at sub-post offices, often including dates when staff were absent to attend the ensuing identity parades and police court sessions. Take a look at the note below:

Report of a foiled break-in. (POST 22/388)

Report of a foiled break-in. (POST 22/388)

This brief report of a foiled break-in is notable for giving the full name of the lady who was living above the office! We can glimpse here the locality that the office served. Often the addresses of customers who complained are also recorded.

Finally, there’s genealogical information. Dated records were kept of sickness absence and compassionate leave taken by sub-postmasters and sub-post mistresses. Whenever an office transferred to a new sub-postmaster, the exact handover date and the departing sub-postmaster’s new home address were recorded. There are also family stories:

Note recording the date and time of the death of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster's death. (POST 22/386)

Note recording the date and time of the death of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster’s death. (POST 22/386)

This note records the date (and time!) of the Streatham Hill sub-postmaster’s death. His son was acting sub-postmaster for a few months, then his widow took over the business. All these records were kept for purely business reasons, but the research uses are so much wider than that.

Hopefully, similar records for other areas will be discovered. As I catalogued the record books, I wrote a searchable index of all the sub-offices listed in the notes, with their respective sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. This will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

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