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A PRECURSOR TO URBAN DECLINE


In the UK there is an institution at the heart of every community that has been a part of life in England for more than 150 years but it is changing irrevokably undermining every village that relies upon the service it provides. When the Post Office no longer exists the days of a village are numbered.

Have you ever stood in a village Post Office waiting to be served by a clerk that seems to know everything about anything you might ask? You might get the impression that it is just a “front” for something much bigger and of course it is.
The clerk that serves in the Post Office is the face you see when you draw your pension or buy a stamp but unseen, standing right behind her are literally thousands of services that are brought to the smallest village by its presence.
Behind the facade of the counter is the Post Office we all think of as we post a letter in that pillar box miles from anywhere that no one could possibly come and empty three times a day. A collection that ensures that each letter is put into a system of communication that has existed in its present form for nearly a hundred and sixty years. In the early days of the present postal system there were often three deliveries a day, morning, noon and teatime. It was possible to put a letter in the post box in the morning and have it delivered the same day by the teatime post and all for the price of a stamp. In those days there was no such thing as “first” or “second class post” every letter was just as urgent as the next, the Queens or Kings mail was of such importance that no one was allowed to interfere with it in any way. If it had a stamp and an address postmen everywhere guaranteed its safe passage by an instillation of values that would be regarded as “quaint” today. Now we have a two-tier post that has evolved over many years to a point where you are never quite sure that the urgent letter posted “first class will get there at all”. Many years ago each sorting office, the place where letters are sorted into “walks” for delivery, had its own “Dead letter department” so that if a letter could not be delivered it was kept until it could be, locally. In these enlightened times such letters are sent to a central “Dead letter drop” and wherever they come from they are all sent to Belfast in Northern Ireland to await some solution to the delivery problem. There they wait, forever if necessary until they are resolved, there were letters delivered recently to this locality that were posted during the First World War. They have taken ninety years to travel about two hundred miles but forgetting that for a moment you have to marvel at a system with such tenacity and all for the price of a stamp. Somewhere in the vastness of the postal system that care taken in delivering the Queens mail still exists.
Generally the postal deliveries are now once a day, six days a week but at certain times of the year the sheer volume of post to be delivered dictates that this is a “moveable feast”. Under normal circumstances the ensconced postal system can handle all of the required deliveries and collections but not long ago in early December things would take a very different turn.
The Post Office was overwhelmed by the frenzy of Christmas post, If it could be put in a post box and sent to someone then it usually was and as long as it had an address and a stamp then every effort was made to deliver whatever was posted to whatever address it was sent to. The Post Office was accustomed to taking on extra staff to “Deal with the Christmas Rush” up until quite recently. Many years ago this writer was one of those taken on by the Post Office for the Christmas Post.
The “deal was, you would work under the direction of a regular postman” and did what he told you to do.
In that year I was assigned to the parcel post delivery, we had a furniture van that we delivered from and there was a crew of five, the driver who had been seconded with his vehicle for the duration, a postman who was “in charge” and oversaw all deliveries and three “temps” of which I was one. The “run” was a suburban area of Birmingham, which had a large population of itinerant workers living in bed-sit type housing, streets and streets of them.

The van would be loaded each morning before the temps arrived, most mornings the floor of the van would be around four foot deep in “items” to be delivered and when I say “Items” I mean just that “Items”. Most of the population of the area we were to deliver to came from that old country across the water, Ireland. The Irish seem to have a quaint idea of what can be put in the post and how it should be wrapped. The thickest letters and weirdest shaped parcels were commonplace as you would expect from the folks back home trying to make sure that Paddy had a good Christmas but when we had to deliver a salmon with an address label tied to its mouth by a string fed through the hole made by the hook it had been caught on we were took a little by surprise,it took all three “temps” to deliver it, two to carry it and one to ring the bell and get someone to accept delivery, the recipient turned out to be a little old lady of about five stone…I remember thinking the salmon was bigger than she was, we had to carry it around the back the house and put it on the kitchen table for her. It was not the only piece of post that was once livestock that we had to deliver During the three weeks prior to Christmas, in addition to the salmon there were numerous geese, braces of pheasant, grouse and guinea fowl and one pigs head, nothing from the place across the water was ever wrapped in brown paper or parcelled up, they just found a convenient orifice where a label big enough to take the address and postage stamps might be affixed and dropped it in the post to take its chance with everything else. At one point one of the other temps did ask what happened to items we could not deliver just as he was about to deliver some exotic looking fowl to a house, the postman smiled and said “now that would be unfortunate, wouldn’t it”? I suspect the reason he asked was not unconnected to his course work at the college of Food and Domestic Art.
We seemed to spend the whole day running, starting a seven each morning and not finishing until eight or nine each night but everything was delivered…no honestly!

There were once more than 30,000 Post offices in the UK, some were owned by The Post Office but most were what was called "Sub-Post Offices". Small offices usually a counter in a village store or newsagent. There are around 15,000 of them left but they are subsidised by the Post Office.
Their measure of "Viability" is quantified by how many transactions take place across their counters every week. The transactions have been dwindling because the bodies which used the Post Office as an agent have been making other arrangements, bodies such as the TV licencing and records office,Vehicle taxation,the Department for Social security and the passports office.
all of which has taken transactions away from the Post Office counters and strengthened the case to enable the closure of nearly 6000 Sub Post Offices.
 
Village Post Offices like village shops are now constantly under threat of closure but in addition to their function as a place to buy stamps or post letters they are centres of communication and some of their customers can only get there one day a week, pension day to stand in queues and talk……….ahead of me….....Now what did I come in here for? A photo, some stamps, to pay a bill, pick up a form, have my passport checked, tax the car,draw some money out, read the notice board, talk to someone in the queue, meet someone, weigh a parcel, TV licence, get a premium bond, change my address? Now I remember…to buy a lottery ticket!

JP.


Posted: January 24, 2007 



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