Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: February 2024

Letters, Pillar Boxes, and Stamps: the Legacy of Rowland Hill, Anthony Trollope, and James Chalmers

Once a beloved national institution, the General Post Office has fallen from grace.

The Cameron government severed the Post Office Ltd., controlling branch post offices, from the Royal Mail, responsible for the delivery of letters. It privatised the latter. After a rushed sale at which they were clearly undervalued, the price of its shares on the stock market rose by 38% on the first day of trading, by 70% within a year, and peaked at 87%. As the profits of shareholders rose, previously high levels of public satisfaction with the service plummeted.

Now  there are proposals to dismantle the Universal Service Obligation under which letters are delivered six days a week to every address in the United Kingdom. Deliveries are likely to be  reduced to five or even three days a week, and the target delivery time for all domestic mail reduced to a meaningless “three days or longer.” But to customers in many parts of the country these  suggestions are the more risible for coming ex post facto, as  the frequent absence of any deliveries for a week or more has already left a legacy of missed hospital appointments, useless postal votes, and financial difficulties. Journeys to sorting offices reveal bundles of missing mail accumulating there. Significantly stamp cancellations no longer show the date and time of posting.

None of which prevents anyone from loving their postmen and postwomen. The determination with which so many wear shorts even in the coldest weather is a source of amused affection. All but the most unpleasant and aggressive drivers will move out of the way for their red vans. In our village, where we do still get a six-day delivery, Nicky is known to everyone. When mail is too unwieldy for the letter box she will knock, when she knows that people are deaf or elderly, she will knock extra hard and wait until we open the door. When there is no response she leaves mail with neighbours. And if subsequently she spots us out in the lanes the red van will stop, and she will lean out to tell us where our post has gone today. But the job involves early starts, heavy loads, exposure to all weathers, and delivery rounds have become larger as management seek to squeeze more productivity out of employees. There are not enough post carriers to cover all rounds adequately.

A similar pall hangs over the Post Office Ltd. In the mid-sixties there were 25,000 branch post offices, by March 2021, there were only 11,415, and it is expected that thousands more will disappear in the next few years.

Moreover, an egregious miscarriage of justice has blighted the lives of thousands of sub postmasters. In 1999 a faulty computer software system, Horizon, was installed in branch post offices. It created false cash shortfalls. Sub postmasters called the Horizon helpline when these errors appeared on their screens and  were led to believe that the problem occurred only at their own branch. Post Office executives persistently claimed that the Horizon system was robust. Between 1999 and 2015, 4,000 sub postmasters were accused of financial wrongdoing. They lost their jobs and were forced to repay the “losses,” many becoming bankrupt and losing their homes as a result. More than nine hundred of them were prosecuted for theft, false accounting, and fraud; seven hundred were convicted; over two hundred were sent to prison. Some pleaded guilty  to avoid jail. Four people took their own lives. Chief executives at the post office continued to deny their knowledge of the faults in the system.

For twenty-five years,  Alan Bates has led his fellow sub postmasters in a fight to clear their names. In 2017, 555 of them took legal action against the Post Office in the civil courts, and in 2019  a judge ruled that the software was defective, and in an out of court settlement, compensation, largely swallowed up by legal fees, was paid. This did however  open the way  for the sub postmasters to challenge their convictions and over a hundred have been quashed. In 2021 the government set up a Public Enquiry to investigate malpractice by the Post Office.

Recently a TV drama series, Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office, recounted these events. Since then, the government has announced plans for legislation to provide a blanket exoneration for all the wrongly convicted, and for the Post Office to pay compensation to all the victims of false accusations, but progress is slow. To date more than sixty people have died waiting for justice.

There had been a postal system of sorts in Britain since the seventeenth century, but it was only in 1840 that Rowland Hill introduced a uniform system with prepayment evidenced by the attachment of a Penny Black postage stamp. Previously the post had been mismanaged, expensive and slow, the rates complex. Payment had been made by the recipient who could refuse delivery. An apocryphal story suggests that Rowland Hill’s concern was aroused after seeing a young woman too poor to claim the letter sent by her fiancée. Hill’s system was speedy, cheap, and dependable. The number of letters sent doubled in the first year and the increase in volume continued. By the late nineteenth century London had between six and twelve mail  deliveries per day. Elsewhere there were four deliveries. It was possible to post in the morning and receive a reply by evening.

The name of Rowland Hill is forever associated with the post, and he is commemorated by statues in Kidderminster, Birmingham, and London, and, the ultimate accolade, a burial in Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is a magnificent building but within lies a mess of centuries of haphazard graves and memorials treading on each other’s toes as they vie for space. Nonetheless Rowland Hill secured both a memorial and grave. In 1879 his was the last arrival amongst  the distinctly crowded and overwrought tombs in St. Paul’s Chapel. His bust peers down at a modest stone marker set into the floor.

From on high Rowland Hill peers down at his own grave marker on the floor of the Abbey

Today Anthony Trollope’s fame rests on his novels. But much of his prolific output was composed on horseback, or later at a portable desk on the train, as he travelled the country in his capacity a postal surveyor’s clerk. The result was forty-seven novels. Perhaps reflecting the circumstances in which he wrote, and his reluctance to revise anything, they tend to the long and repetitious, but he produced some gems. I am particularly fond of the Ointment Heiress; her title alone is a delight. I imagine the eponymous ointment to be germolene pink and contained in a tight little metal tin bearing extravagant claims. Moreover, Martha Dunstable is one of the few nineteenth century heroines who can command respect, being worldly, witty, and sensitive unlike the  simpering paragons and grasping harridans generally beloved of Victorian novelists. *

But Trollope also gave us our red pillar boxes. Sent to mainland Europe to observe their postal schemes, he admired the cast iron letter receiving pillars in France and Belgium. In 1854 at his recommendation the first pillar box was introduced in Britain, obviating the need for a trip to the post office. Originally painted sage green, the boxes turned red in 1874. ** As they reached the height of their popularity in the 1860s and 70s, it is said that he regretted their adoption as it enabled young women to correspond with men in secret avoiding visits to the post office.

Trollope’s grave lies in Kensal Green, the first of the London Big Seven to open its doors to customers. The conventional stone disappointingly bears no reference to his writing nor to his association with pillar boxes.

In memory of

Anthony Trollope

Born 24 April 1815 Died 6 December 1882

He was a loving husband, a loving father,

And a true friend

More controversial are the claims of James Chalmers, bookseller, printer, and inventor. I found him in the Howff Cemetery in Dundee, where amongst the darkened stones his stood out on account of a newer, lighter stone directly in front of it. Placed my Chalmers’ son, the second marker makes no concession to modesty, describing his father as the

Originator of the adhesive postage stamp

Which saved the penny postage scheme of 1840

From collapse

Rendering it an unqualified success

And which has since been adopted

Throughout the postal systems of the World

James Chalmers’ grave in Howff Cemetery with the newer stone added by his son in 1888

I love the idea of anyone sitting down to invent an adhesive stamp, and the extravagant claim that without it the whole postage system would have collapsed, but the truth is more prosaic. Adhesive stamps had long been used on documents to show payment of taxes. Moreover, while Chalmers was certainly an enthusiast for postal reform, the earliest proposal found  in his archives for an adhesive stamp or slip to send a letter is in 1838. In 1837 Rowland Hill had already written a pamphlet proposing not only the single rate of postage but also the use of stamps “covered at the back with a glutinous wash.” The descendants of Chalmers continue to produce pamphlets and articles claiming him as the originator of “stamp gum” but the claim seems tenuous.

I grew up an enthusiastic letter writer: penfriends in school days, letters home and to former classmates in university days, love letters, and, as university friends scattered around the world, letters bearing exotic stamps would arrive from Papua-New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, America. No other form of communication can elicit the same joy as a letter: for someone has taken the trouble to gather pen, paper, envelopes, and stamps; to handwrite several sheets; to address their envelope; to lick their stamp;*** and to deliver the aesthetically pleasing stamped and sealed result to a post box.

But letter writing is in rapid decline. The volume of letters which the post office handles is down from twenty billion in 2011 to seven billion today, and most of those are invoices, business letters, advertising. In 2004 the second daily delivery was officially scrapped, but few of us recall receiving a second post that recently. At first, as friends embraced innovative technology, I held to my pen. Typed epistles would arrive as email attachments with requests to my partner to print them out as, “I don’t suppose she’ll deign to read it otherwise.”  At work, younger colleagues watched with amusement as holding onto a pen like a comfort blanket with one hand, I stabbed crossly at computer keys with the other. But I succumbed at length: email is instant, photos easily attached, replies immediate, as many mails as you like in a day. And there is WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, Skype and Zoom; so much immediate, cheap communication. And yet, it carries little of the romance of a letter.

O Rowland Hill, Anthony Trollope, James Chalmers, the world has changed, your lovely post offices are disappearing, soon our post-boxes may join our K6 telephone kiosks as museum pieces. And the end now looks to be a bitter one, with a once noble organisation torn apart and all sacrificed to shareholders’ profits and CEO’s bonuses, but I treasure the memory of your Post Office in its happier days.

*Martha Dunstable appears in Dr. Thorne and in Framley Parsonage, both in The Chronicles of Barsetshire.

**In the 1930s blue post-boxes were introduced for airmail letters but were phased out again from 1939. One survives in Windsor.

***or to wet it with one of those sponges which used to appear in little round dishes in the post office. Self adhesive stamps appeared in America in 1974 but were not introduced in Britain until 1993.

Sarajevo Roses

Sarajevo is a lovely city surrounded by hills; to the east lies the Turkish old town with its narrow cobbled and marbled streets, gracious squares, small wooden shops, bazaars, mosques, fountains, and pavement cafes serving Bosnian coffee with lokum and baklava. To the west is the new town flaunting the grand, imperialistic buildings of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My  taxi driver spoke of his city with pride: did I know that under the Ottomans it was the biggest and most important city in the Balkans after Istanbul itself; that it was the first city in Europe to have an electric tram network; that the 1984 Winter Olympics were held here…

Yet Sarajevo has a troubled history. The Ottomans conquered Bosnia and Herzegovina in the fifteenth century and stayed for four hundred years. In 1878 Austro-Hungarian armies ousted them and occupied the territory, formally annexing it in 1908. A trading centre and an ethnic and religious melting pot with Jews, Moslems, Orthodox and Catholic Christians amongst its population, Sarajevo became known as the “Jerusalem of Europe.”

But armies of occupation are always unwelcome, and Sarajevo became the centre of Bosnian-Serb resistance to Austrian rule. As we learned in school, drafting painstaking essays on the causes of World War One, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Bosnian Serb, Gravrilo Princip, was the spark which ignited preexisting conflicts and dissensions, as European armies mobilised against each other in 1914. By 1918  Bosnia Herzegovina had escaped the Austro-Hungarian yoke, only to emerge from the war  annexed to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes under a Serbian monarchy. In 1929 this became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and in 1939 the Cvetkovic-Macek Agreement effectively partitioned Bosnia between Croatia and Serbia.

When German forces invaded Yugoslavia in World War Two, the Serbian royal family fled, and the Axis powers created the independent state of Croatia, incorporating Bosnia. The quisling Croat Ustase regime ran the state as a Nazi satellite  promoting terror and genocide. Meanwhile the Chetniks, royalist Serbs, conducted their own campaign of genocide against Croats, Muslims, and Communists in pursuit of an ethnically pure Greater Serbia.

From 1941 however the Yugoslav Communists under Josip Brod Tito had organised their own multiethnic resistance group; the Yugoslav Partisans fought both the Axis and the Ustase. In 1943 they established Bosnia Herzegovina as a republic within the provisional state of Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, and on 6 April 1945 they liberated Sarajevo itself from the fascists.

The Eternal Flame dedicated to the Partisans who liberated Sarajevo from the Fascists
Dedicated 6 April 1946 on the First Anniversary of the Liberation

After the war, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,  comprising the six republics of Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia, emerged as a successful decentralised federation, supplanting the national disputes of the past. For forty years Yugoslavia developed its own brand of Communism, maintaining neutrality in the Cold War and close ties with developing countries. An open society whose inhabitants were free to travel for work and holidays, whose borders were open to foreign visitors, it witnessed economic growth and political stability. Along with the other capitals Sarajevo, a multicultural city of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats, flourished.

But the Bosnians were to suffer again. By the late 1970s inflation, economic recession, and western trade barriers had led  to a heavy IMF debt in Yugoslavia causing disputes between the Republics reflecting their divergent economies and differing levels of productivity. Moreover, with the death of Tito in 1980 ethnic nationalism revived. Serbians sought a more centralised state under Serbian hegemony while the other partners favoured the continuation of a looser federation. The breakup of Yugoslavia began with Slovenia and Croatia  seceding,  and in March 1992 following a  referendum Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence. The UN recognised its status. Bosnian Serbs however revived the spectre of a Greater Serbia, to include all Serbian populations, and under Radovan Karadzic established the Republica Srpska in the northeast of Bosnia Herzegovina.

From here between 1992 and 1995 the Serbian army directed a programme of ethnic cleansing  against the Muslim Bosniaks. They conducted massacres, the most egregious that of Srebrenica, and  systematic mass rapes of Bosnian women throughout the country.Their soldiers encircled Sarajevo from the hills, attacking the city with artillery, mortars, tanks, machine guns. Sniper attacks in the city accompanied the shelling. Sarajevo was besieged for 1425 days, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. An average of 329 grenades hit the city every day; 100,000 Bosnians lost their lives, the dead included 11,541 civilians of whom 1,500 were children; 56,000 were wounded including 15,000 children.

The Massacre of Srebrenica shocked the West into calling for a cease fire, a NATO air campaign ended the siege, and at length the Dayton Agreement brought the Bosnian War to an end.

More than a quarter of a century later my  taxi driver could still make no sense of it: “We were all living together,” he said, “then out of nowhere….” his voice cracked, the memories obviously still sharp and painful.

And Sarajevo bears witness: outside the reconstructed library, burnt to the ground during the siege with the destruction of two million  books, a plaque reads, “Do not forget, remember and warn.” In the Martyrs’ (Kovaci) Cemetery soldiers and civilians killed in the war lie alongside Alija Izetbegovic, the first President of Bosnia who declared Bosnian Independence in 1992.

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Kovaci, Sarajevo
Lives lost too soon: young victims of the war
Alija Izetbegovic, First President of Bosnia, declared Bosnian Independence, March 1992

The Siege of Sarajevo Museum uses film, photographs, artefacts, and written material to recount harrowing personal stories of the siege. The poignant Sarajevo Roses mark the places on pavements where sniper fire killed people queueing for bread and water during the siege. The pock marked concrete has been filled with red resin like candle wax, creating the red flowers. There are two hundred of them, beautiful but terrible memorials, scattered throughout the city.

Sarajevo Roses

Sarajevo and its inhabitants have suffered horribly, but as he drove me back to the airport my driver’s principal concern was to know if I had enjoyed his city: was my hotel good, had I been up Mount Trebevic in the cable car, did I like the food, had I tried cevapi, had I seen the national museum and the botanical garden, had I had coffee in Sebilj Square, did I like Sarajevo, would I come again, would I tell my friends to visit. It was a resounding yes to everything. For all its sorrows Sarajevo is a warm, welcoming, friendly little city, bruised and hurt by foreign occupations and ugly wars, not forgetting its past and its dead, yet looking forward  even while remembering. I hope its future is as bright as the red roses on its pavements.

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