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.
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.
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.
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.