When service used to come with a whoosh

WHEN the new Debenham's store opens in the Market Gates shopping mall in Great Yarmouth, presumably it will have the latest computerised tills so customer transactions are instantly conveyed to all departments requiring information.

WHEN the new Debenham's store opens in the Market Gates shopping mall in Great Yarmouth, presumably it will have the latest computerised tills so customer transactions are instantly conveyed to all departments requiring information.

That sounds all very modern and efficient, but lacking the pzzazz factor of the ski-lift style overhead cables conveying suspended baskets of money and coupons with which Mrs Peggotty worked long ago in a Sheffield Co-op branch.

I believe at least one of our big shops used to have pneumatic tubes snaking around every floor, linking counters with the cash office. The bill and money were shoved into a cylindrical holder that was popped into the tube, whooshing away; soon after, the tube flap would drop noisily open and the cylinder with receipted bill and change would fall into a basket.

It might well have been the old Arnolds/Debenhams department store that closed in 1985, or Palmers, or maybe the Co-op.

But this pneumatic arrangement was nothing compared to that used by Yarmouth post office during the autumn herring fishery, augmenting an internal one in the Regent Street GPO. These systems were recalled by Mercury reader Iris Martin in a letter to the editor about the pending installation of “whoosh tubes” in the James Paget Hospital.

The GPO tubes that despatched telegrams from the public counter to the top floor for transmission were small-fry, for there was one a mile and a-quarter long connecting Regent Street with the Fishwharf where a sub-office was open while the herring fishing was in progress. In addition to routine business, it had to cope with the deluge of telegrams and cables by which merchants and others engaged in the herring industry conducted much of their business that needed swift communications.

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Years ago long-serving Mercury colleague Audrey Cotton, who was 14 when she joined the GPO as a trainee telegraphist in 1946, recalled for me the frantic activity involving the Post Office each autumn she experienced before switching to a newspaper environment.

The fishery, involving hundreds of drifters and thousands of crew members, ancillary workers and executive and clerical staff, generated hectic business not only for postmen and telegram boys but also over the counters, in the creed room where the telegraphists worked, and in the mail sorting office.

Mrs Cotton told me: “About 17 people were employed to deal with the influx of telegrams and cables because most fish merchants in Yarmouth did a large amount of their business by this means. They used telegrams and cables to inform contacts in most towns in the British Isles and abroad of their despatches of herring, red herring etc.

“Apart from the numerous teleprinters which chattered away during the main office hours and several switchboard positions to operate, the clerks also had to operate the Fishwharf tube.

“To a 14-year-old, this looked gigantic. It was painted in the usual bright red and it took felt carriers about six or seven inches long all the way from the head post office in Regent Street to the Fishwharf post office. Each carrier could hold quite a bundle of telegrams destined for the fish merchants on the wharf.

“It took about four minutes to complete the journey. If memory serves me correctly, three rings on the bell served as a warning that a carrier was on its way. If the person on the other end was preoccupied, sometimes this was overlooked and resulted in a massive snarl-up of carriers in the system.”

Apart from a log-jam that needed clearing, it meant vital telegrams were delayed.

Staff would open and close the tube hoping the air pressure would force its way through and clear the blockage. Failing that, an engineer was summoned and poked long rods through the tubes, like a chimney sweep. When a pile of carriers emerged, some were covered in oil and even fish scales.

An indication of the extra work each autumn was that one major merchant, Woodger and Co, often placed 100 telegrams or cables at a time, many of them in a foreign language. This took a long time, for the messages were dictated and then the alien words checked back by means of the phonetic alphabet to ensure accuracy.

A prime destination for Yarmouth herring was Russia and, because the Cyrillic characters in its alphabet are dissimilar to our language, the clerks had to be painstaking when recording them.

At the other end of the tube, the uniformed messenger boys were given little respite, inserting the envelopes into their leather belt pouches and pedalling their GPO bicycles to the merchants' premises, weaving their way across slippery quays past lorries, horses and carts, milling driftermen and other workers, and piles of herring baskets,.

As an afterthought, Audrey added: “Rumour has it that ping-pong balls 'danced' their way along the Fishwharf tube (in quieter moments) arriving in the telegraph room among other bizarre objects - but that's another story.”

Mrs Cotton joined the then Eastern Counties Newspapers in 1953…as a teleprinter operator receiving late news for the Stop Press column in the Eastern Evening News, among other duties. She retired in 1997, and lives in Rollesby with husband Alan.

Her memories were confirmed by a prewar GPO journalist who in 1937, nine years before her involvement, came here to witness it all first-hand. He wrote in a staff magazine: “The coming of the herrings means a fourfold increase in telegraph work; 2000 transactions daily is the average during the busiest weeks.”

Carriers could pass in either direction through the tube simultaneously, and replies to telegrams began arriving within the hour, the consignments of herring leaving the quays in special trains soon after noon. Evenings, a different type of message was handled, with exporters sending coded flash reports to the continent. Later still, bulletins were sent to boat-owners announcing the results of the day's catches and the amounts earned by each drifter.

Telephones were part of the postal service then, and the writer noted that over 7000 calls daily were made to Europe by the fish merchants based at the Fishwharf in autumn. As for letters and parcels, “on a Saturday evening the (post office) counter is just a tiny piece of Scotland that has drifted south, the meeting place where friend greets friend” as dirty clothing was sent back home, clean wear collected, and registered letters handed in containing driftermen's earnings destined for their families north of the border.

The writer's 1936 visit to Yarmouth coincided with a strike by Scots fisher lassies. He noted: “Work on the wharves ceased and the drifters remained at their moorings. The rush at the post office died away. There were no flickering lights at the switchboard, the teleprinters were silent.”

In 2008 the old head post office stands empty, only a few of the Fishwharf buildings remain half a century after the herring industry died. But somewhere between the two, there could well still be part of the buried telegraph tube that provided such an invaluable business facility for decades.