24th December 2018 was a dark day, even for those used to the seemingly endless stream of announcements about post office closures. It was on this day that Trafalgar Square Post Office last closed its doors to the public.
Once claiming to have one of the longest post office counters in the world, the Trafalgar Square office finally succumbed to a combination of financial, policy and external changes that have dominated the recent history of the postal service. In fact the office had already been severely reduced, in 2001 losing much of its counter space and the frontage onto St Martin’s Place, which rather took away its street presence from the tourist trap of Trafalgar Square itself. It also meant the loss of the dedicated philatelic counter (also selling Royal Mint coins) although replaced by a smaller counter inside. This too, has now gone, though there are rumblings it might spring up, phoenix-like, in Broadway post office SW1, one of a diminishing number of crown offices that seems to be surviving.
The Trafalgar Square office opened on 27th November 1962 and was something of a showcase. And it was huge. It replaced the Charing Cross branch office near Leicester Square, an unsuitable office in Charing Cross Road opposite Wyndham’s Theatre. It was one of the first new post offices to demonstrate the new corporate identity adopted by the GPO (General Post Office) for its customer-facing premises. Not a great deal of this identity system survives now, but it involved the usual angular metal and glass style, perversely being adopted by many other organizations at about the same time. Externally a stainless steel strip was favoured with lettering impressed in bold red capitals. Internally the latest plastic signage was evident together with the latest fad in typefaces, a modified version of the Clarendon typeface undertaken by designer Stuart Rose for the GPO public relations department (and castigated by another specialist design house appointed soon afterwards).
So proud of its new premises the GPO produced a handsome booklet to mark the occasion. It described all the facilities to be provided, including new features such as posting slots at each counter position and a lower floor provided with a large number of telephones from which (if required) international calls could be made in relative peace and tranquillity. (I must explain that in those days one was fortunate if one could dial more than 50 miles from central London without operator assistance, let alone abroad. However ‘Subscriber Trunk Dialling’ was becoming available in London and was available from this post office).
The GPO was ever so proud of this facility (referring to it as one of the finest Post Offices in Europe). The main counter, with its 33 service positions that occupied most of the length of the office also had a large parcels acceptance area at the Adelaide Street end. The GPO claimed that the counter was as long as Nelson’s Column was high. It was intended that the office operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Taking a leaf from the famous Windmill Theatre, the GPO for a little while used the slogan ‘we never close’. It is hard to say with certainty that owing to some external event the office never closed, but some press photos taken during the dark days of the 3-day week show it fully open for business and illuminated by lanterns and torches.
To see this post office first reduced to that of a normal-sized office, was depressing enough. The floor space was simply lopped off at one end to become a posh sandwich and coffee outlet, with a few other shops occupying space fronting William IV Street; the surviving area was little better than a lash up with long-standing decay now more obvious and very unattractive. A visit by the Financial Mail in 2004 found the office ‘a shabby disgrace’, and that ‘it looked appalling, with grubby floor tiles, broken lights and a gloomy interior’. Perhaps this and representations from others who had an interest in the survival of this office caused a rethink. I cannot recall whether this had the slightest immediate effect, but in 2011/12 there was a complete refit which ‘turned it into a welcoming place, busy with tourists and locals alike. Red leather sofas welcome customers who sit and wait to be called rather than queue. The 16 counters are almost all manned and there are four machines to handle postal needs if you do not require the personal touch’, said the Financial Mail commenting in 2012. It was hoped the premises was now secure. It was, for a while, but the position became unsustainable and it has now gone, and with it, its loyal staff. I have not found a date for the end of its 24-hour service but suppose it was during the early ’90s when late night collections ceased at all the main London sorting offices.
I do not blame the Post Office, or, at least, not very much. Like various government bodies it has been a victim of long-term poor and unimaginative political control whose well-rehearsed solution to difficult problems is to put off any controversial action that can be pushed into the future, to reduce budgets (impacting on services and appearance) and to make arbitrary decisions to outsource bits and pieces (for reasons good and bad) with little comprehension about unexpected consequences. These problems are not unique to the Post Office but have manifested themselves particularly conspicuously in this area and with an irritating degree of inevitability (that is to say, some of the ills seen now could perhaps have been avoided).
For example, the Post Office (then known as the GPO) was once a single integrated organization providing postal, parcels, telecommunications and savings services. The buildings were provided and maintained by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, so the GPO itself had little infrastructure of its own except telecommunications apparatus. The Ministry sometimes co-located GPO activities within other government buildings, for example in Holborn the large Board of Trade office called Lacon House incorporated a large ground-floor post office on the busy Theobald’s Road frontage. To me this seems a very sensible approach. Successive reorganization of the GPO resulted in loss of its savings activities in the early 1960s, its setting up as a hands-off corporation in 1969 and the separation of telecoms activities in 1981. At each change, the consequential remnants acquired the property interests required to operate their respective bits of their businesses, central government ownership ceasing. This was problematic. Buildings designed as integrated premises, for example government offices with post offices inside, or buildings designed as integrated post offices, sorting offices and telephone exchanges, became divided up in a way inconvenient to manage as a whole. The outcome was property in a form that was found inefficient and inflexible in the long term, increasing maintenance costs and making redevelopment awkward.
It is helpful to add to the two dates just given, that the Post Office Corporation became a stand-alone publicly-owned company in 2000 (you may recall it was first called Consignia plc but after howls of outrage—or, in some quarters, hilarity) it was rebranded Royal Mail Holdings plc. It presided over two subsidiaries, Royal Mail and Post Office Counters Ltd. The latter (essentially the high street counters) was eventually spun off and remains in the public sector as its shares are wholly owned by the government, whilst Royal Mail (which collects and delivers mail) was sold off. This further complicated matters of historic ownership.
Taking what became Post Office Counters Ltd, a 2005 report observed that the company owned the freehold of only 23 per cent of its estate, some 130 of the directly managed branches. However 31 per cent was owned by Royal Mail Ltd which, as just stated, was divorced from the Post Office and which, unlike the Post Office, has now been privatized. 46 per cent (256 properties) were leased from private landlords, about two-thirds from a wide range of other businesses or property companies and the rest from individual investors or local government. Seven percent was owned by BT, reflecting the two companies’ histories. At that time, of all the leased properties, more than half the leases had only five years or less to run. Renewed terms, even if renewing were possible, were bound to be on less favourable terms. All in all this was a very adverse financial situation for the Post Office to find itself in. Nor was it helpful that it could not be certain about its own future which did not help longer term planning.
Obviously, the explosion of electronic communication has severely damaged the concept of the traditional post office and some kind of change was inevitable. However, unless it is actually policy to shut every last one of them, then business viability would seem to me to involve giving them more useful work to do than perversely taking it away so that the illusion is given that somewhere else in the government’s repertoire something might be proclaimed cheaper (but ultimately might well not be).
It hardly needs saying that with the government progressively withdrawing Post Office business, one might even think it strange that anybody thinks that survival at all might be possible. The Giro banking business (created by the Post Office) was sold, much government business such as pension payment is now done directly with recipients. The government is desperately attempting to put on line or outsource everything else, taking away further post office business and making what remains even more difficult to deliver. Yet under government control it has not the freedom to do entirely what it might otherwise like, such as filling the huge geographical gaps left as a result of banking closures. This of course deeply affects certain groups of people more than others, especially very old people who cannot use computers. For this group the Post Office was, and is, crucial and screaming headlines during 2019 that the whole organization was in crisis is not reassuring. It does sometimes make me wonder why Post Offices could not become more representative of government within the local community and perhaps at the same time even provide a third party ‘front’ for the larger banks. In the meantime, nearly all the news is negative. Unfortunately, it is often the case that when ‘in the interests of economy’ services are reduced, outsourced or just cease, the rump that is left, also becomes unviable as it cannot reduce overheads at the same rate and loses the power of scale of business. If it becomes more inconvenient to find a post office, let alone use one, then what is left will become an unusable service.
In the case of Trafalgar Square, we are given to understand that the building within which it was situated was not Post Office property. When built the land was part of the Crown Estate and the building was built as a private development with facilities for the GPO on the ground and lower ground floors. The actual Post Office element was designed by Philip Watkinson (of the Dept PB&W) but I am not sure if he was involved with the rest of the structure. The building in its existing form appears to be life expired and the present owners want to make profound changes to it and alter its usage, apparently with ground floor retail and a hotel (yes another one), roof garden and some residential. The usual sort of thing to delight a planning committee. In the circumstances it is not viable for the Post Office to remain. A banner outside explained the nearest Post Office branches were at Aldwych, Regent Street or High Holborn, none exactly a direct replacement.
A copy of the letter announcing the closure may be found HERE.
Naturally I regret its passing. I was once involved in an enterprise where large quantities of mail had to be dispatched and well recall late night visits to Trafalgar Square where one could buy stamps, had space to seal and stamp a lot of mail and post it at 11pm. It was busy too. Such a thing is now impossible and businesses having such a need get some third party organization to do this. It seems odd that in a World capital city one cannot do this now. Perhaps Royal Mail, no longer shackled by government, might set up its own post offices and use a bit of imagination about it.