Tag Archives: Ministry of Works

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.

“Are the public really after the date stamp?”: Photograph albums of post office interiors in POST 91

by Anna Flood, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

Some of the most attractive items I have listed in preparation for cataloguing the records in the POST 91: Buildings, Furniture and Fittings series have been the photograph albums of head and branch post office interiors from the 1930s to the 1950s. The quality of the photographs is excellent and they depict the difference in styles ranging from ornate, to minimalist and art deco. They also give an idea of the bustle of public offices during their everyday usage.

Central London Post Office

Central London Post Office

Prior to the Second World War little consideration had been given to uniformity in post office interior design. As reflected in the photograph albums new features and layouts were implemented in various offices, but none prevailed. The post office constructed for the Glasgow Exhibition in 1938 was more a showpiece than a model for things to come.

Glasgow Exhibition Post Office, 1938

Glasgow Exhibition Post Office, 1938

However, a study undertaken by the Post Office Architect’s Branch in 1954, entitled ‘The Public Office: Some Notes on Design and Layout’, indicates a developing concern for the post office interior as a key element of corporate image. Perhaps the “battleship grey” and “chocolate brown” public office colour schemes were too reminiscent of the war. Certainly the muted Ministry of Works 1939 colour schemes for post offices, also in POST 91, have an element of Dad’s Army about them.

Folkestone Head Post Office circa 1950s

Folkestone Head Post Office circa 1950s

It’s hard to tell whether the author of the ‘Notes on Design and Layout’ was entirely serious in his scathing observations on post office interiors; referring to the public office as a “mortician’s parlour” and seemingly haunted by a pair of wall lights, referred to rather ominously in several photographs as “the twins”. The public did not escape criticism either; pondering the height, dimensions and material of counter screens, the author questioned the likelihood of people attempting a smash and grab for the date stamp. He clearly didn’t think much of the habits of the average post office customer, asking whether ash trays were really necessary given the large number of cracks in the floor.

Manchester Head Post Office, circa 1950s

Manchester Head Post Office, circa 1950s

Looking at the photographs of the polished and, in some cases, grand interiors of public offices during this period it seems the criticism they received was unwarranted. The fact that the majority of the photographs appear staged, depicting spotless public offices devoid of their usual activity may actually be advantageous to those interested in the specifics of post office design; the angle from which many of the photographs were taken, providing a broad interior perspective, captures many details of furniture and fittings.

Diss Head Post Office, 1953

Diss Head Post Office, 1953

The albums are a valuable illustrative companion to the numerous post office plans and design guidelines currently being catalogued as part of POST 91.

Scarborough Head Post Office, 1953

Scarborough Head Post Office, 1953

In future blogs I will provide further information on the plans of post office buildings. In particular there are a number of watercolour elevations from the turn of the twentieth century that are most striking in their craftsmanship.