Tag Archives: GPO East

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 back through 400 years of postal history

by Jennifer Flippance, London 2010 Project Officer

K2 and K6 phone kiosks at Smithfield Market

K2 and K6 phone kiosks at Smithfield Market

For the last three years BPMA has been running popular walking tours, which take you into the heart of old GPO London, exploring 400 years of postal history and developments in the iconic street furniture of telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The full tour lasts around 3 hours but next year, as part of our programme of activities to celebrate the London 2010: Festival of Stamps, we’re developing a ‘highlights’ version that will last around 1.5 hours and finish up at Guildhall Art Gallery. This will give you the opportunity to visit the fascinating exhibition, Empire Mail: George V and the GPO which will contain many significant objects and items of postal history from the reign of George V, when the GPO (General Post Office) was at its height.

Last week, Chris Taft, one of the curators at the BPMA who helped to develop and run the tours, took me out on the route of the new walking tour.

The Central Telegraph Office c. 1920s

The Central Telegraph Office c. 1935

It takes in the old GPO heartland around St Martin’s Le Grand, once the bustling hub of communication throughout the empire. This incorporates the majestic former GPO headquarters of King Edward Building – opened in 1910, the front of which is still standing today – and the sites of GPO North, the Central Telegraph Office and GPO East, from where crowds gathered each night to witness the spectacle of racing mail coaches leaving London.

Today King Edward Street is overlooked by a statue of Rowland Hill, the social reformer who revolutionised the postal service in 1840, making mail communication within reach of ordinary people for the first time.

Curator Chris Taft, takes a break beside the statue of Rowland Hill, outside King Edward Building

Curator Chris Taft, takes a break beside the statue of Rowland Hill, outside King Edward Building

Then travel further back in time to the site where the ‘bishop mark’ the world’s first postmark was struck in 1661. Continue to the area of the City where many coffee houses clustered in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Coffee houses were significant in the development of communication because many had the facility for visitors to post letters. Due to the coffee shop owners’ close relationships with ship owners, this was considered a more efficient way of carrying letters overseas than using the Post Office.

A little further on is the site of the office of the Postmaster General. In 1680 this was the only place you could post letters in the country. By 1808 the office was called “the most important spot on the surface of the globe.”

Dates for the new walking tour will be announced later in the year.

The last full-length walking of 2009 takes place on Saturday 26 September (1.00 – 4.00 pm). Click here to find out how to book tickets