Men of letters held top posts

THERE was a time when they were prominent pillars of the community whose arrivals and departures - for pastures new or retirement - were duly chronicled in local newspapers like the Yarmouth Mercury. They were middle-class professional men like bank managers, station masters (of which the borough had four) and head postmasters who were interviewed by the Press, joined their local Rotary Clubs and Freemasonic Lodges, and were respected during their stay among us.

Those days have gone, for the authority of people like them has been diminished in the public’s eye. Society and attitudes have changed.

Take, for example, a head postmaster. In Great Yarmouth and other Norfolk towns where I plied my journalistic trade, we would know one another, and he (always a “he”) would tell us of changes, how many “wish you were here” postcards were sent in peak summer, the number of students hired to help cope with the Christmas rush... And we would probably have penned an illustrated feature about that Yuletide pressure in the sorting office.

In that era, he would have overseen both the Royal Mail and General Post Office - and probably the telephone service too that was part of the GPO.

All towns and cities had a head post office, often imposing buildings. In Yarmouth his headquarters was the building on the corner of Regent Street and Hall Quay. Neither Yarmouth nor Gorleston has had a GPO for years, their functions being shoved to the back of shops, their former premises now occupied by housing association offices and an undertaker’s. Our sorting office moved to a distant new building on North Quay, its opening hours inconvenient for customers who have received a slip through their letter-boxes about undelivered items that must be collected.

I suspect that the current equivalent of the long-gone head postmaster is a manager there, anonymous as far as the public is concerned.

When I went to Lowestoft and Beccles recently, the Post Offices were still in their traditional premises, although the main Norwich one has moved into the Castle Mall.

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Soon after this column was launched nightly in our sister paper, the Eastern Evening News, in 1936 the then Peggotty interviewed Mr A S Fenn, a Post Office employee since 1892 who was retiring not as guv’nor but as second-in-command at Yarmouth after 44 years, never missing a day through illness. Colleagues described him as courteous and conscientious - “it would not be going too far to say that the Post Office could hardly have had a more loyal servant,” wrote Peggotty.

My predecessor logged some of the multiple introductions to the Post Office service during Mr Fenn’s career: old-age pensions, health and unemployment stamps, National Savings Certificates and stamps, entertainment duty stamps, wireless licences, postal orders rising in value by sixpences (2� pence today) instead of half a-crown, telegraph money orders, savings bank withdrawals by telegraph and “on demand”, cash-on-delivery parcels...

And the frequent technological innovations in the telephones side of the business must have been as bewildering then as they are today.

Yes, Mr Fenn did tell Peggotty about the amazing upsurge in picture postcards...and also of the rise in boxes of bloaters sent home to relatives and friends by holidaymakers!

“The gradual increase in the number of picture postcards bought and posted in Yarmouth during the summer season is remarkable,” he reported. “I remember their introduction – and they have grown from a few hundred posted daily to as many as 80,000 out of 110,000 letters and postcards posted at Yarmouth on August Bank Holiday last year (1935).”

That, of course, was when August Bank Holiday was at the beginning of the month, before it was changed in 1971 to the end of the month.

Fish exports? Mr Fenn recalled: “Once only a few score of boxes of bloaters were posted by their actual buyers, but under the present system in which the Post Office collects the boxes from the curers, as many as 120,000 were collected by Post Office vans between July and September last year. The heaviest days were in August Bank Holiday Week when 6000 were posted daily.”

In 1935, the year before Peggotty interviewed him, the Post Office collected 120,862 boxes from Yarmouth fish merchants, a 19 per cent rise over 1934’s 101,131, largely due to a decrease in parcel charges and more visitors coming to the resort.

Mr Fenn was moved to Yarmouth in 1897 before the building of the premises on the Regent Street-Hall Quay corner with which we old-timers were familiar. We studied the trawler-themed mural along the wall behind the counter as we queued for service, originally willy-nilly as you gambled on which line would move quicker but latterly in an orderly file with the front person heading to the next available clerk.

Recently I walked along the quay from town hall to Nottingham Way and back, comparing the fascias of some of the elegant buildings with a picture, long in my possession as a 7in by 5in monochrome negative; I cannot remember how I came by it. In the shot a bowler-hatted man stood in the doorway, and various signs indicated that its usage was commercial, not residential: offices within included Phoenix Fire and Pelican Life, accountants Lovewell Blake, a coal merchant...and the Yarmouth Mercury!

Now and again I thought I had found the right place, but the number of windows or their positioning or the shape of the porch caused me to rule it out, and I gave up.

However, the nearby reference library helped, identifying it as John Ramey’s House that had stood on Hall Quay between the end of Regent Street and the start of Row 67. John Ramey was the town’s mayor in 1760 and his name was one of the three given to that Row, the others being Nicholas Cutting and Star Tavern (not the present Star Hotel).

Obviously Ramey’s House ceased to be a dwelling at some time and embarked on a commercial use, but it was demolished to make way for...the new head post office on the corner in 1914! I think it replaced that built in 1871 farther up Regent Street on the site of a corn hall.