I have looked at most of our local shops in Beehive Lane. One that I have kept for a whole post on its own is the Post Office. These were very common, not just shops, and an essential part of local services. Before we look into the Post Office ‘shop,’ we need a few preliminaries.
The General Post Office (GPO) was established in 1660 by Charles II. It was Government department and it included what we now know as the Post Office counter services. (The Postmaster General was a Cabinet post.) It also included all mail services (including Royal Mail and Parcelforce) and several other things, which we will see later. By the 1950s, it included all radio, television and telephone services. Since the sixties, its functions have gradually disappeared and it was abolished as a government department in 1969, with its remnants becoming just the Post Office. In the fifties the GPO and the Post Office were synonymous.
It’s strange having to look at postal services first, because to me Post Offices were about post, but now so much has been hived off. Now we have Royal Mail and Parcelforce operating as separate organisations. Then it was a major part of the Post Office.
Letters were collected five or six times a day from pillar boxes throughout the country, at fixed times. (Now they only show the last collection.) It was all sorted by hand (without the help of postcodes.) Non-local post went by train, with many trains used just for mail. Much of it was sorted again on the train journey. There were several stages of sorting before it reached the postman for his final sorting into order for delivery.
First post was delivered before people went to work, arriving at something like 7:00 am. There was normally a second post, around noon, but most mail arrived in the first post. Local letters and most non-local letters arrived the next day (except perhaps for very long distances.) There was no distinction between first and second class post – with stamps costing the equivalent of about 1p.
Apart from normal letters, there was a cheaper rate for printed post (newspapers). Greetings cards used the cheaper rate, provided that the envelope was unsealed. (You may have been technically restricted to a few words of greeting.)
You could take letters to a Post Office for posting and that’s what you did with parcels and other small packets. Just as now, they would weigh them, provide stamps and take the parcels for onward delivery.
There used to be several other options, all of which are now incorporated into Royal Mail Special Delivery. There was a guaranteed next day delivery, a Special Delivery (taken as soon as possible without waiting for the postman to do his rounds) and Registered Post (signed for on receipt and including insurance if lost). Later we had Recorded Delivery, like Registered Post without insurance.
And there were telegrams, hard to imagine in the modern world. You may see telegrams in old films, or read about them in books. They came before the telephone, when they were tapped out in Morse Code.
A telegram was sent over what we think of now as telephone lines and they dated from before telephones. (They were the Nineteenth century Internet!) It was the only way to provide very quick communications. The code was primitive so it had just upper-case letters and numbers. The telegram would be delivered by hand in an envelope. They were expensive, used for emergencies and for very important messages. In the War, people dreaded telegrams because they very often notified next of kin of soldier lost in combat, wounded or imprisoned.
I can’t say I have ever know someone who sent or received a telegram. The Queen used to send telegrams to those who reached their hundredth birthdays. The service has now disappeared.
The Post Office
There were many more actual Post Office shops than now, with one in most blocks of shops. Our local one was in Beehive Lane. There were others at Gant’s Hill and several in Ilford. They were either Main Post Offices or Sub-Post Offices (sharing a location with another shop, usually stationery.)
You would visit a Post Office to send letter, parcels or packets or buy postage stamps. In those days, you could only buy stamps from a Post office. They did not come in books of stamps. They were in large sheets, perforated and easily separated.
If you didn’t have a telephone, the Post office was your point of contact for telephones. You didn’t actually buy a phone set, it was part of your line rental service. See  ‘Valentine 3456′ for everything about telephones.
Here are some of the other things you would get from the Post Office.
Savings Stamps and Certificates
For two and six (two shillings and six pence) you could buy a Savings Stamp, much like a postage stamp but featuring a picture of Prince Charles. As he grew up, his image grew up on the stamps. (I always felt an affinity to Prince Charles and his picture on the stamps, because his birthday missed mine by one day. He is, of course, two years younger than me.) There was another stamp for sixpence, introduced later, featuring his younger sister, Princess Anne, now the Princess Royal.
You collected these stamps in a special book, until you had enough to buy a Savings Certificate. Savings Certificates were complex. Every few years a new Issue would have its own price, number of years, and interest terms. Typically they cost 15s (That’s 75p) or £1, and matured in from seven to ten years. They paid best if you left them for the full term and no longer. For anyone without a bank account, which was almost everyone, they were the best form of savings. National Savings were part of the Post office. It will not surprise you that this is no longer true.
Premium bonds Introduced in 1956, this form of savings replaced regular interest with a lottery each month paying prizes of from £25 upwards. Originally they were just loose certificates, issued in £1 units. I still have some, but I have yet to win a £1 000 000 prize! When it started the maximum was £100 000.
In 1956, picking random numbers was not as easy as it is now. It used an early computer called ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment) now to be found in the Science Museum at London. On the launch of premium bonds, ERNIE had much publicity, as it (he?) had to be seen to be impartial – and the public knew nothing of computers.
Postal Orders I was surprised to find that postal orders are still used. It was a way of send money, for example small amounts for birthday presents – or for those without bank accounts instead of cheques. For a ten shilling postal order you would pay something like 10s 6d. You could keep the counterfoil as proof of purchase – in case it was lost in the post – so you saved the bother and expense of using Registered Post.
Vehicle tax There was, of course, no Internet and there was no easy way of paying for things. For your annual car tax disc (If you were rich enough to have a car) you filled up the appropriate form, queued up at the Post Office with everyone else, and paid – either in cash or by cheque. The tax disc came as a square with a line of perforations marking the edge of the circular part. After tearing carefully, the disc was left clearly visible on the front windscreen of the car. You will see from the picture an annual cost of £17 10s in 1967 (£17.50) – in the days when petrol was less than 50p per gallon (say 10p per litre). As of September 2014, the system is so automated that discs are no longer required – but you still have to pay!
National Insurance Stamps When National Insurance started, we all had a National Insurance card, identified by your National Insurance Number. You gave it to your employer who looked after your National Insurance payments. Each week he would buy National Insurance stamps for each employee and stick them on the card. (Self-employed people bought their own.) These came, of course, from the Post Office. [You may still hear the expression ‘get your cards,’ for someone who is dismissed from his job. It’s another euphemism for getting the sack or being fired.]
Television Licences As for all the other things listed here, you could only get a TV licence from a Post Office. You also needed a separate radio licence until 1971.
Dog Licences Yes, you also need a dog licence. I think it was always 7s 6d (equivalent to 37.5p) and it survived decimalisation as 37p. It was widely ignored but in theory you had to have one, bought from the Post Office. (Of course, dogs were not micro-chipped.)
Pensions and Allowances
The Post Office was the payment agency of the government. It paid state pensions, weekly in cash, using a pension book.
The original child benefits ware called Family Allowance, five shillings (25p) a week for each child except the first. Again, you had an allowance book, stamped to show when payments were made.
The Post Office was also used for all other social security payments and for paying Rates – local taxes, now turned into Council Tax. They included water supply.
I end with what to many was the most important function of the Post Office, Post Office Savings Books.
I was almost twenty when I opened my first bank account. Before that, the Post Office Savings were my bank. The interest rate was low but they looked after money for the millions with nothing else. My book looked very similar to the picture. My account was at Beehive Lane and I had a four-figure number – I think it was lower than this. (The picture has been kindly supplied by a friend, through the medium of Facebook and a Group which reminisces about Ilford in the sixties!)
The interest rate was 2½% per year, which conveniently came to ½d each full calendar month – so it was not too difficult to work out without calculators. You could put money in at a Post Office and take out small amounts. As for almost everything, you filled out a form. For large amounts, or to have interest entered, you let the Post Office send it to headquarters and provided an addressed envelope for its safe return.
You could use the Savings Account as an alternative to savings stamps and save up for savings certificates. To most people it was effectively their bank.
So Post Offices were busy places, generally involving queueing at the counter.