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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.