Last Post for so many mail offices

VISITING a post office used to be a fairly humdrum exercise, apart from the gamble based on inspired guesswork to decide which queue to join. Those were the days before the simple solution was introduced in post offices and banks of the single queue, the person at the front heading for the next available position.

VISITING a post office used to be a fairly humdrum exercise, apart from the gamble based on inspired guesswork to decide which queue to join. Those were the days before the simple solution was introduced in post offices and banks of the single queue, the person at the front heading for the next available position.

That eliminated the inevitability of the shortest queue stuttering because of a long-winded transaction by the front runner while those in the longest line wanted only a stamp or postal order.

But apart from buying stamps, postal order or wireless/TV licence, having a parcel weighed, sending a registered letter or telegram, or making a deposit or withdrawal from a Post Office Savings Bank account, there was little else that springs to mind once you reached the clerk.

All quite routine and boring, really, apart from the Great Yarmouth head post office opposite the Mercury premises in Regent Street where customers could study the detail in a long and large colourful mural covering the wall behind the counter; the painting had a trawl market theme set in Grimsby.

If I recall correctly, it came to Yarmouth although we were not a trawling port because our public counter had room to accommodate it properly whereas those in more appropriate post offices could not.

Inexplicably, that building has long closed (as have several valued sub post offices in our borough) and it looks as though there are still no firm purchasers on the horizon for a possible planned change of use to restaurant and flats. Building work was in progress behind the empty building when I passed recently.

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I wonder what happened to that mural...

The head post office switched its business to the Spar store on the Market Place where post office clients often have to wriggle their way - with more than one “excuse me, please” - through the queue at the shop till before and after their post office transaction.

The last time I stood in line there, to renew my car tax, I dutifully shuffled forward in the serpentine queue awaiting my turn being signalled by that sing-songy recorded “Position number two, please” message. When my number came up, the very pleasant clerk asked me if I also required car or travel insurance.

How often, I mused, does a customer there to do one planned thing respond immediately with a reply like “Just what I need!” and buy one of the umpteen pricey cold-sell products now offered by the so-called “people's Post Office”? That little interchange between clerk and customer delays the queue a bit more, galling when the line is particularly lengthy on pension pay-out days.

As an aside, on a recent visit I picked up a Post Office brochure in those Yarmouth Market Place premises detailing weights, prices and other information about its services. OK, fine, you might say, but so what?

Well, this was in a strange language - neither Portuguese, Polish nor Lithuanian, as might be expected these days when we have a growing number of those nationalities in the borough, or even Scottish from the long-gone autumn herring fishery era, but...Welsh! That's the British country about as far from Yarmouth as you can get, on the opposite side of the island! The logic escaped me.

Next month, if plans go ahead, Yarmouth's crown post office will transfer from its current Spar location to the WH Smith branch in King Street, one of 70 similar moves nationwide. Presumably the Post Office and WH Smith - in partnership with one another, according to notices on display - are satisfied that there will be enough room in the Yarmouth shop for both businesses to operate efficiently.

Smith's area manager was reported in the Mercury as saying: “Our highly-trained staff are committed to delivering an enhanced service with longer opening hours from a convenient location that is fully accessible to all our customers.” That statement made me assume, perhaps erroneously, that the existing Post Office counter clerks, probably long experienced in some of its business complexities, will be handing over their duties to retrained shop assistants - in other words, to people needing to acquire different new skills…

Bearing all that in mind, I was intrigued by various newspaper items.

An English language newspaper circulating on the Costa del Sol reported that the Spanish postal service, Correos, was investing nine million euros (more than £6m) in 15 different projects in the Malaga province alone, including new offices, more delivery centres, and the refurbishment of seven offices. Hmmm...that was about the same time that Britain suffered the cessation of Sunday collections from pillar boxes after 17 years to improve efficiency.

The Times responded to the current single daily delivery to domestic addresses by looking back to 1914 when the postman called as many as a dozen times a day. (And here in Yarmouth, I read in a 1958 Mercury published a half-century ago that the second postal delivery had been advanced from 2pm to 11am to enable recipients to reply by return to letters received in that second post).

A Daily Telegraph headline read: “Post Office chiefs using 'blackmail' to enforce closures.” Only last month, our sister newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, headlined separate reports on the same day: “PO cuts hit benefit take-up” and “Consultation on post offices 'a smoke screen'”.

The dear old Royal Mail has not enjoyed a good press in the past year or so.

The closure of Gorleston's main post office in High Street was bad enough, but shutting Yarmouth's head office was perplexing, particularly when I notice on my wanderings that Lowestoft and the much smaller towns of Cromer and Beccles still retain their main post offices in their long-serving buildings. That seems illogical.

From an upstairs Mercury office window we used to look down with puzzlement on the queue that used to start to form even in the wintriest of weather on pension pay-out days at least half an hour before the doors opened. I appreciate that those waiting were eager to draw their pension, but the post office was not going to run out of cash…

From that same vantage point we also witnessed the odd situation that stemmed from the GPO and Post Office Telephones split up and went their separate ways. They were in adjoining buildings on Hall Quay, their personnel were all colleagues and mates, and I believe they shared a staff canteen.

But when the Post Office and the new British Telecom divided, the rear yard and parking area beneath our Mercury windows was divided by a high wall to keep the two businesses and their staff apart.

Yarmouth's first post office was established in Row 107 (Middlegate Street-King Street) in 1695, transferred to Row 63 (Howard Street-King Street), then to Hall Quay in the present Royal Bank of Scotland premises from 1840 to 1871 when it moved to a new building in Regent Street where a corn exchange had stood. In 1914 the business occupied the property where it stayed until the closure in recent times.