Focus on Post Office
Postal services of some kind have existed in Britain for centuries, but the Industrial Revolution saw a huge increase in demand both to meet the needs of commerce and in response to the spread of literacy. As early as 1838, 50 million mail items were being dispatched each year in England and Wales. With the spread of the rail network and the introduction of the universal "penny post", that figure had risen to 169 million items in 1840 (the year the famous "Penny Black" stamp appeared), to 917 million in 1871, and to 2,000 million in 1890.
Villages such as Girton were not left out of this picture. In 1879, when the population of Girton was only around 480, letters were dispatched to the village "by foot post through Cambridge", and there is no record of a village Post Office as such. Instead, the post would be delivered to a "receiving house" which was often a small shop providing the service in return for a commission. In 1882, Kelly's Directory lists Frank Heard, a carpenter, as Post Office "receiver" in Girton, but by 1896 he is described by the official title of "sub-postmaster". Letters arrived by 7.30 a.m. and were presumably then delivered around the village; letters were collected and sent to the Cambridge sorting office twice a day, at 1.25 and 6.40 p.m. Letters also arrived at 12 noon, but you had to collect this second post in person from the Post Office.
By 1900, the functions of the Girton (sub-) Post Office had expanded to include handling postal orders. This very natural extension of the mail service was a vital development, as commercial banks provided services to a restricted clientele, so it was the only means of sending and receiving small sums of money available to people such as craftsmen and small shopkeepers who were outside the banking system. As an insight, in 1900-1 over 85 million postal orders were issued in the UK, with a mean value of less than one shilling in old money.
The Post Office in Girton seems to have led a peripatetic existence throughout the 20th century. One account relates that the Post Office at one time occupied the bakehouse (at Binfield, near the old rectory), where villagers who did not have an oven could leave their Sunday joints to be roasted by Postmaster-cum-baker Mr Philip Cranfield while they were in church! More usually, the Post Office was run alongside a small village shop. John Aworth is listed as sub-postmaster in 1916 and 1922, probably running it from the cottage next to the George public house; in 1916 it appears Girton also acquired two wall letter-boxes, one in Cambridge Road and the other in the Huntingdon Road. During and after the Second World War the Post Office was run by Mrs Vera Hills (formerly Miss Vera North) from one of the front rooms in a thatched cottage opposite the Women's Institute in the High Street. Later the Post Office was taken over by Mrs Peggy Ingle and run for 15 years from the front room of the red brick cottage in Cambridge Road beside Redgate Road. It moved to its present position (and apparently its first purpose-built premises) in Dodford Lane in 1969.
Although much has changed in the way we communicate, the modern Post Office has a lot in common with its historical predecessors. Girton's busy and thriving Post Office is now under the care of Postmaster Michelle Reed, successor to Daniel Pilecki in this role. Yes, "Postmaster" - the Post Office no longer employs Postmistresses! Michelle and husband Leon moved to the village from Peterborough in November 2006, Michelle from working for Norwich and Peterborough Building Society and Leon from a job as a business development manager with BMW. Their two boys, aged 9 and 10, currently attend Oakington Primary School. With ideal backgrounds for their new roles, Leon now runs the George pub, and Michelle runs the Post Office and its associated shop, with the cheerful help of Juliet Dunn, and on Sundays, Glenda Prior. As with her predecessors in the village for over a century, Michelle is the owner of the Post Office and shop, and Royal Mail pays her a salary for the many Post Office counter services she provides.
Historically, central to the Post Office is posting things. And although we seem mostly to have given up, as a nation, writing letters to people, and text our friends or send emails instead, there are still transactions where we simply have to turn up at the Post Office counter. Who wants to trek into town to post a birthday card or an odd-shaped package overseas, or send an important document by recorded delivery? In addition, the appearance of the internet has had one unexpected impact on Post Office business, which is through the growth of eBay and other internet trading. You or I can now run a small business from home which just would not be possible, or at any rate so easy, without a convenient local Post Office through which to dispatch items. As with the introduction of postal orders a century and a quarter earlier, the Post Office has turned out to provide vital support for small businesses.
Another and related important service is acting as a sort of mini-bank for the village on behalf of many larger banks, including providing cash dispensing services during normal Post Office business hours on behalf of a number of banks. A growing number of banks have signed up to this service throughout the country, and in Girton, with a near-absence of alternatives, this has saved many residents a trip into town.
Apart from postal services and banking, other services available at Dodford Lane are bill payments, a bureau de change, telephone services, phone cards, mobile phone vouchers and e-topups, savings stamps, and of course postal orders and moneygrams. In addition, you can get information and leaflets about services offered from third party providers through the aegis of the Post Office such as travel, home and car insurance, personal loans, and investments.
Girton Post Office was surviving if not thriving when the Reeds arrived, but when they took it on they were determined to make it grow. Their hard work and enthusiasm have meant that the business has indeed been growing steadily ever since. Michelle describes herself as a "people person", and this is clear in the cheerful smile and friendly welcome she offers to regulars and newcomers alike. The Post Office is now very much part of the community. Many older residents like to get their regular exercise by walking up to the Post Office to post a letter or parcel or transact some other business, and at the same time get some item of groceries they have run short of such as bread or milk or tea. And when there, the chances are that they will meet someone they know who will stop for a chat. In the summer months (when the weather is up to it), there are tables and chairs outside where customers can sit and eat an ice cream or have a cool drink on a sunny day. Throughout the day, as anyone who has used the Post Office will know, there is the pleasant, friendly bustle of a community hub.
Michelle and Leon have updated the shop and improved the layout, as well as widening the product range considerably. It now provides all the things you would expect from a typical "corner shop": milk, eggs, bread, frozen meals, cards and stationery, beer, wine and cigarettes, and newspapers (which are delivered locally). Going the extra mile, if a regular customer isn't feeling too well, they can telephone in and Michelle will see that whatever they need is dropped off at their home. Shop hours are taxing, with the shop open at 7.30 a.m. every morning, but when I asked her how she liked the life, Michelle said, "I'm loving it!"
With news in the past few years of numerous Post Office closures throughout the country, we are very fortunate in Girton to have clung on to ours. Along with a primary school and a village shop, many regard the existence of a Post Office as essential to the flourishing of a village community. The Post Office in Girton is secure for the moment, but with Royal Mail still in poor financial shape, its future existence can't be taken for granted. So if you don't want to lose it - use it! Angela Blackburn
"Focus on Girton" is a series of occasional articles on the organisations of Girton. The first series ran from September 2005 to April 2007 and concentrated on public service and commercial organisations. This present series covers the community and voluntary organisations of the village. Articles are written independently by members of the editorial team of the Girton Parish News, with the consent and cooperation of the organisation concerned. The selection of organisations featured is entirely at the discretion of the editorial team. The articles do not in themselves represent an endorsement of the aims or activities of organisations. No link exists between the publication of an article and any advertising in the Girton Parish News, whether in the same issue or more generally.