Ah, the good old days of the military-style dressed postie

PICTURE POST? No, not the old national magazine, but a section of an outsize mural displayed for yea

PICTURE POST? No, not the old national magazine, but a section of an outsize mural displayed for years in Great Yarmouth's long-gone head post office in Regent Street. The painting is being removed for storage.Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

We are all aware of the consequences of being late, but recently I missed the post despite being early. The letter I was mailing near Peggotty’s Hut in Gorleston was nothing important so it did not matter a jot that the post-mounted small box had been cleared too soon.

WHERE CUSTOMERS QUEUED: the Regent Street building that was Yarmouth's head post office from 1914 un

WHERE CUSTOMERS QUEUED: the Regent Street building that was Yarmouth's head post office from 1914 until the later years of last century.Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

It was a point of principle. If my letter had been urgent, it would have meant driving about six miles to and from the Laughing Image Corner sorting office on North Quay in Great Yarmouth.

This was at 11.55am on a Saturday. The latest collection time that day was noon, announced the permanent information notice on the box – but the little metal square above the slot told me that the next collection was Monday, so the postman/woman had already been before the appointed Saturday time.

“Drat!” I exclaimed to myself as I shrugged my shoulders and walked back home. “It wouldn’t have happened in the old days.”

Ah yes: the old days. We pensioners talk about the “old days” and look back on them a lot, yet they were probably no better – perhaps even worse – than now. At the time when we lived in those so-called “good old days”, we were probably just as peeved about missed posts, buses passing stops and thus ignoring waiting would-be passengers, the radio oscillating and crackling just when action hero Dick Barton or gentleman detective Paul Temple were in full flow, cold bedrooms, Gorleston roller-skating rink closing on Sundays, rationing, cleaning out ashes in the fireplace daily and filling the coal scuttle...

Today’s postman - dressed in shorts, trainers and hi-viz jacket - probably delivers more advertising flyers and junk mail than letters. But in the pre- and post-war era, when he carried the mail in a canvas bag with a broad strap across one shoulder, he wore a serge navy uniform, peaked cap and highly-polished footwear and, I believe, had to pass a daily military-style inspection by superiors before setting off on his rounds.

Vaguely I recall smartly uniformed postmen marching hereabouts in a parade with the armed services.

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Every town and city had its own Head Post Office. Many have closed, and we have to use public counters tucked away in shops. Both Yarmouth and Gorleston’s GPO - in Regent Street and High Street - have long gone, yet Lowestoft and Beccles have retained theirs.

Well-used and convenient sub-post offices were also axed, despite public protests: Blackfriars Road in Yarmouth and within the chemist’s shop in Springfield Road at Gorleston were among the casualties of the wayward policy.

Before the introduction of a single queue system, with the front customer heading for the first available counter clerk, the lines at each open position in the Yarmouth head post office were often daunting, and picking the one moving fastest was always a gamble. Those impatiently waiting were able to enjoy a full-length colourful mural depicting the bustling trawl-fish market in Grimsby, not our herring market here.

So, why was the mural here? Well, it was presented by the organisers of the 1951 Festival of Britain to the national GPO which discovered that none of its post offices in appropriate trawling ports was large enough to accommodate its width.

But Yarmouth did possess a wide counter, so it was able to display it on the rear wall here for customers to enjoy. When the Regent Street premises closed, the mural was deposited in our Time and Tide Museum for safe keeping, but has probably never been on display there, its length again proving a factor. Soon it might be loaned to a special exhibition in Hull – a traditional trawling port.

This year, the Royal Mail celebrates its 500 years in business, having been created in 1516 when King Henry VIII knighted the first Master of the Posts, Brian Tuke. In 1660 the General Post Office (GPO) was officially established in England, eventually incorporating both postal and telecommunications functions.

Those two were split in 1980 and became separate entities, resulting in the ridiculous situation in Yarmouth where a substantial brick wall was erected at the Howard Street rear of the adjoining Head Post Office and telephone exchange to divide the staffs – former colleagues of the same employer – and premises.

There are still reminders of the postal past on the streets of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, and perhaps some of our neighbouring villages. Probably the oldest is an iconic hexagonal-shaped pillar box designed in the Victorian era (VR) by John Penfold, a surveyor and architect in Surrey, and it stands on St George’s Plain, still in use.

An explanatory note says that for years it stood at the Alma Road-King Street corner but was given to Yarmouth museums in 1969. Then it was carefully restored by Royal Mail engineers and put back into service in 1994. Several Victorian pillar boxes with the entwined VR monogram moulded into the front are still in daily use hereabouts.

While pillar boxes survive – although under threat from thieves to the extent that some rural ones are being electronically tagged - the old red phone kiosks which originally belonged to the same national organisation are now an almost forgotten part of our street-scene, replaced by the part-glazed easy-clean variety. With mobile phones so abundant, I am surprised anyone uses phone boxes any more.

Admitted, the phased-out traditional variety were often smelly and littered, but were draught-free and proved their worth before household and mobile phones became commonplace.

When they began to be phased out two or three decades ago, many folk bought them as garden attractions or for storage and, from the upper deck of buses, one could often espy their tops above garden walls. Parish councils acquired their village red phone box for posterity, in some cases using their interiors as notice boards, but most now look unloved and forgotten, the familiar red paint reduced to a mottled peeling pink.

That on the main road through Fritton looks sadly forlorn and neglected, for example, but a few miles farther on, there is still a modern hand-set visible in one at Haddiscoe.