A Short History of the Post Office
Issued at the Bedfordshire Millennium Festival
Old Warden, August 1999
By the late Neil Alston
Since almost time immemorial the Royal Mails, that is the letters of the Monarch to their peoples, have passed along British roads. During the Roman occupation there was considerable Mail traffic from the centre of government both in this country and from Rome. This was one of the reasons for the road building programme carried out by these occupying forces, as well as for the easy movement of troops. It is known the major Roman road to the North did not pass through Biggleswade but, in any event, there would have been quite a bit of traffic going North-South and East-West, mail from the various regional governors.
This situation would have continued through the mediaeval era and on to 1635. These mails were for the monarch only but it is known the rules were oft-time “relaxed” by the payment of a sum of money for the privilege of having a letter carried to another town on the Royal Mail route.
1635 saw a turning point in the situation. King Charles I realised there were many private carriers of letters and parcels and that these individuals were making a profit. He therefore caused the Act of Parliament, often called the Post Office Charter, to be passed whereby letters could be sent by private individuals and be carried by the Royal messenger. The King asked a sum of money from each sender for this privilege and thus enhanced his own coffers. That was the real reason for the Act – he was short of money.
There are several good books on the subject of what happened after the 1635 Act and, just recently, there has been a book published on the earlier times from the Romans to the Stuarts. These are held in any good library and are well worth the read.
The earliest record we have of the Royal Mail in Biggleswade is from 1713. This was discovered during research carried out by Biggleswade historian Ken Page into the inns and pubs of the town through the ages. It was found the Postmaster appointed to the town at that time was Mr. John Legas and he received £8 10s. (£8.50) for his work. This may not seem much but it was a different era and he had an inn to run as well. The Post Office held by him was in the King’s Arms pub or inn in the High Street and was situated where Lloyds Bank now stands. (This information was in the brewery records of Greene King).
Since Mr Legas there have been many holders of the Office but one name stands out – the family Wright. Up to 1840 they had a small window which served as the Post Office and callers would request any mail addressed to themselves. If there was a letter they had to pay the postage thereon – there was no such thing as a stamp at that time. If one was sending a letter then a rap on the window would (one hoped) bring the Postmaster to the hatch and he would accept the letter for onward transmission with no payment made, that was up to the recipient. This system led to a lot of ill-feeling for some folk just could not afford to pay for the letter addressed to them, so the letter was returned to sender.
In 1840 the famous Penny Black arrived through the campaign waged by Rowland Hill and this meant a single rate for any letter up to a certain weight. This was much fairer and the amount of Mail passing increased dramatically.
Before 1 850 the town was grateful to the Mail for the servicing of the Mail Coaches as they travelled North and South. The town was a Staging Post and horses would be changed here. This process was honed to a fine art and did not take very long. There were many folk in Biggleswade who depended on these coaches and the servicing thereof for their living. Stable lads, ostlers, fathers, wheelwrights, carpenters and many, many more, let alone the staff of the inn where food was provided. Many are the stories and tales that can be found in the various archives of the way of life at that time for these people.
In 1850 all this changed and must have meant a tremendous upheaval in the town. The railway from London to the North was opened for traffic and the Royal Mail used this method of transportation from the very early days, indeed it is thought from the opening day. What happened to all those jobs and how many people were, therefore, made redundant??
One certain fact is connected to 1850 for that was the date when the Post Office took a lease on the small building in the High Street. The Post Office was at the right-hand end of the block now housing a chemist and a florist shop. Quite where the office was between the time of the King’s Arms and 1850 is, as yet, not known. It would be pleasant to know! !
The drum clock, now to be seen affixed to Messrs. Gale’s shop, was over this office and was removed in 1898 to it’s present position. The removal was occasioned by the Postmaster of the day objecting to the engineer having to enter the Postmaster’s bedroom to maintain the clock. This building became too small for the amount of business and the Post Office put out to tender for a new site. The best offer came from a Mr. Purser for the site where Rose Villa stood at the junction of Back Street and Station Road. So, in 1900 the office was removed to the then new building on the new site. There is a fine report on this matter in the Biggleswade Chronicle for 30 November 1979 in their historical section of the paper. There are photographs existent of the Office in the High Street and also of the staff employed in it. It is hard to imagine the impending move to Station Road was unknown to officials when they sold the drum clock and the expense of that transaction just two years previously.
During the arguments over the siting of this new office it was stated by many of “those who think they know” that people would not walk up Station Road to the office as it was “too far” from the Market Square. There is the parallel today when people will not walk fifty yards from their car!
It is of interest to note the office in the High Street was also a Telegraph Office and the operators of the Morse Code instruments were female. Ladies were not allowed, at that time, to serve in the Office itself.
Not until 1883 did the rank of Postman emerge. Before this time they were known as Letter-carriers and were, as today, uniformed.
The new building in 1900 was to be used until 1980 when reconstruction became very necessary to accommodate the amount of mail and the staff required to handle and deliver it.
There is a lot more to the story of the Royal Mail in Biggleswade and the effects it had, both business and social, on a small market town. It is an interesting study and one well worth pursuing to find how it changed the lives of many folk. There are, as mentioned earlier, books on the subject which may be loaned from your local library. The best way to start is to visit the Post Office Archives in Mount Pleasant, just up Grays Inn Road from King’s Cross. The staff here are of the very best and are always willing to help you learn of any aspect of Royal Mail history. They, and the service they provide, are to be commended.
Postmasters of Biggleswade
Major reference PO Archives Post 3/20
1713 John Legas with office in the King’s Arms. Salary £8 10s.
1743 John Legas and John Willis
1745/6 John Willis
1747 John Willis and George Fletcher Salaries £8 10s. 1747 George Fletcher
1770 George Fletcher and William Lindsell Salaries £17 10s.
1771 William Lindsell Salary £10 00s.
1781 William Lindsell Salary £17 00s.
1791 William Lindsell Salary £29 4s.
1793 William Lindsell Salary £23 4s.
1795 William Lindsell and Thomas McGrath Salary £25 4s.
1802 Thomas McGrath
1803 William Wright Salary £21 00s
In the accounts for 1840 – 1876 there are no references to individual Postmasters’ salaries and the other records as Kelly’ directories show Mr. W.M. Wright as Postmaster in the Market Place from 1830 to 1862. There is a reference from this source that, in 1876, the post was held by a Miss Wright.
In 1850 the premises in the High Street were obtained.
1876 There is a reference to a testimonial to Mrs. Wright upon her retirement (Post 35 Vol. 157). It would seem possible the office was held by the same family for these years.
1877 Stamp Hutton.
1892 J. Langley, Head Paper Keeper appointed.
1892 W.G. Young of Leigh. Salary £150 00s.
1897 R.E. Thomas
1900 Office moved to Station Road. The residence of the Postmaster incorporated into the building.
1903 H. Wright.
1911 H.F. Peake, Relay Clerk, Engineer-in-Chief’s Office.
1912 Mr. Peake appointment cancelled due to inability to occupy the official residence.
1912 J. Evans, Overseer, Manchester.
1922 C.J. Passmore.
1928 C. Barker.
1936 P.L. Smith
1945 W.A. Lee.
1958 Vivian A. Jenkins. 1968 Richard R. Moore. 1976 John Crane.
1982 Charles Collins.
1988 Mrs. Iris Bettles as Counter Manager and Mr. C. Scott as Sorting Office Manager.
From this date the position of Postmaster was extinct.
There is much more to be found out about the Royal Mail in Biggleswade, why don’t YOU have a go at it and tell us what you find?
The Post Office Archives can provide, free of charge, a series of Information Sheets that are well worth having. Even down to the story of Post Office Cats!
Family historians can, through the archives, research the lives and careers of their forebears who served on the Mail. This extends to their rates of pay, pensions, promotions and absences.
“Royal Mail – the Post Office since 1840” by Daunton is a most excellent book relating the story of the Royal Mail.