Special delivery! When herrings and the Post Office were in harmony
PUBLISHED: 07:00 16 December 2018
We grumbled about long queues in post offices like the Regent Street premises in Great Yarmouth, but the fickle public probably misses them since the privatised service decamped to shops.
As for mail, the smartly-uniformed postman has been succeeded by a man, often in baggy shorts, wheeling a trolley.
Decades ago, springtime was Yarmouth postal service’s quieter period. Obviously Christmas was a peak time, summer meant visitors sending postcards and boxes of bloaters galore, while in autumn the herring fishery generated huge business.
Wisely, the GPO established a post office at the Fishwharf to handle most of the demands of the herring industry.
Although the fishing season was mid-October until late December, from the beginning of the summer holiday period it was a major player for our local Post Office.
In 1937 the national in-house Post Office Magazine included a six-page feature about how it coped with the urgent demands of those involved in the business generated in the world’s premier herring fishery port.
The anonymous writer told readers that despite the short season, up to 850 million herring were landed in Yarmouth and Lowestoft, most “gutted and packed at speed by a thousand deft-fingered lassies” from Scotland.
Just before his visit, the Scots drifter Riant “with ten weary men on board, their eyes bloodshot and two days’ growth of beard on their faces, crept into harbour with three million herring. Continuously for 36 hours they had been hauling in those silver fish.”
He learned from Yarmouth’s head postmaster, Mr P E Webber, about “the extraordinary figures” of boxes of bloaters sent home by holidaymakers - in three high-summer months the number collected from 23 local fishmongers exceeded 162,000, peaking at 84,976 boxes in August.
Most of that traffic was handled by the parcels sorting office after 5pm!
The Midlands and Yorkshire were the main destinations. These figures excluded boxes in small batches from fishmongers and individuals.
Communications? “The coming of the herring means a four-fold increase in telegraph work; 2,000 transactions daily is the average during the busiest weeks.
“The windows of the telegraph room overlook the river and the drifters; in the road below lorries laden with fish pass incessantly. The very air is heavy with the smell of herrings.
“On a normal non-season day at the Fishwharf branch office, one telegram is all that is handled. Nearly 600 messages a day have to be dealt with during these hectic herring times.
“At the wharf, fish sales begin about 8am. Buyers get an early idea of the trend of market prices and there is a rush to the Post Office to send batches of telegrams quoting quality and prices to customers all over the country.
“Telegrams are transmitted between the branch office and the head office by a pneumatic tube a mile and a-quarter in length, one of the longest in the country.
“The carriers can pass in either direction by means of a double-acting air compressor, and it takes approximately three minutes for a carrier to travel from end to end of the tube.
“During the evening a different type of message is dealt with: the exporters are getting busy and code reports are flashed to the Continent.
“Later still, off go bulletins to boat-owners announcing the results of the day’s catches and the amounts earned by each drifter.”
The author noted “three teleprinters going all out to cope with the rush.”
Telephones? Fish merchants around the Fishwharf each autumn made over 7,000 calls a day, many to European merchants.
Scots drifters stayed in port throughout Sunday, crews writing to families and preparing parcels of dirty clothes to send home for laundering, said the author.
However, weekends brought heavy pressure in the Yarmouth sorting office, special mails being made up for Scottish fishing ports.
Besides packets and parcels, hundreds of registered letters were handled as driftermen and fisher lassies sent part of their earnings home to their families