Grave Stories

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

Watery Tales from Winchester

Saint Swithun

Saint Swithun’s was the first watery tale to attach itself to Winchester Cathedral. The Anglo-Saxon bishop had putatively requested a burial outside the old church, “subject to the feet of passersby and to rain drops pouring from on high.” A century later however his body was transferred indoors, first to the Old Minster and later to the new Norman Cathedral. A heavy rainstorm on the day the body was moved supposedly lasted for forty days, and a popular myth developed  that rain on St. Swithun’s Day, 15 July, would presage rain for the next forty days: St. Swithun expressing his displeasure at the move.

Nonetheless his tomb became a popular site of pilgrimage. The monks, required to rush to the church to celebrate every miracle which  allegedly occurred, found themselves having to get up several times during the night such was the volume of these preternatural events. He remains the recommended saint for those praying for a drought.

A modern monument to St. Swithun stands on the site of his final shrine which was demolished in 1538 during the English Reformation. At this time his relics disappeared.
Prior to 1476 Swithun’s relics were displayed on a feretory platform behind the high altar and the “Holy Hole,” still visible here, allowed pilgrims to crawl beneath the platform to be closer to the curative powers emanating from the saint’s remains.

King Canute

Most of us remember only one thing about King Canute: the apocryphal aqueous anecdote which has him sitting on his throne beside the sea unsuccessfully commanding the incoming tide to halt. According to his biographers’ sympathies this indicated either humility, as he sought to illustrate the limits of his secular power to his sycophantic courtiers, or extraordinary hubris in thinking he had a god like control over nature. Rival traditions locate this thalassic legend in various places. Bosham in Sussex is one contender.

When the tide comes in at Bosham…
…the road along the foreshore disappears…
…and the turning for the church requires careful negotiation.
You can only wait

The presence of the grave of Canute’s eight year old daughter in the Bosham church lends credence to the town’s claims.

The remains of Canute’s daughter who drowned in the millstream at Bosham

Canute himself however lies in a colourful mortuary chest in Winchester Cathedral. Around him other chests contain the remains of Saxon Kings whose lands he conquered in 1016. The Saxons may be even closer to the Dane than they would have chosen, for the chests were ransacked and their contents scattered during the English Civil War. It is unlikely that the comingled bones were all replaced in the correct chests.

Mortuary chest of Canute
Canute is joined by Saxon Kings…
… their mortuary chests located on the presbytery screens.

William Walker

My third story concerns a diver held in high esteem in Winchester – and this is a true story.

In the early twentieth century Winchester Cathedral was in danger of collapse. The Cathedral was built by the Normans who demolished both the Old and the New Saxon Minsters and replaced their bishops with men more sympathetic to the new regime. In the fourteenth century William of Wykeham deployed his master mason to remodel the Norman nave in Perpendicular Gothic.

But the foundations of this great cathedral were unsound. Constructed on a floating raft of beech trees, which were rotting by the twentieth century, the cathedral was sinking into the peaty soil beneath and listing to the southeast. The walls were bulging, and stone was falling. Cracks in the  vaulted ceiling and the walls were variously described as large enough for owls to nest or a small child to crawl into. Trenches were dug under the walls to replace the rotten foundations with concrete, but the high-water table meant that they flooded before any reinforcing could be done. An attempt to pump out the groundwater accelerated the destabilisation of the foundations, and the building sank further. Collapse seemed imminent.

William Walker, a deep-sea diver, trained at Portsmouth dockyard, was called in. Between 1906-1911 he worked for six hours a day, descending into the flooded trenches and diving under the cathedral building. At a depth of six metres, in water rendered septic by the presence of bodies and graves, in complete darkness since the sediment suspended in the water rendered it impenetrable to light, Walker worked by touch. He dug out the rotten foundations and put concrete underneath the walls.

The task required 25,800 bags of cement and 114,900 concrete blocks. Walker’s diving suit weighed 91kg even when it was dry and took so long to put on and off that he removed only the helmet to eat his lunch and smoke his pipe. At the weekend he would cycle home to south London, a round trip of 150 miles.

When Walker had completed his work the groundwater was pumped out without fear of the walls collapsing, and bricklayers were able to restore the damaged walls. The highwater table still causes the Norman crypt to flood in winter, and the waters reach the knees of Anthony Gormley’s life size statue which lives down there, but the shored-up cathedral walls stand firm.

William Walker died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. There is a bust of him in the cathedral and a much more attractive one in the cathedral garden; in both he wears his diver’s suit and in the former he holds his helmet.

and a far more attractive image in the cathedral garden

Walker is buried in the cemetery at Elmer’s End near his south London home. Ironically, the cross marking his grave became unstable in recent years and has been laid flat. A new slate slab bears an engraving of the diver  and recalls his achievement.

The new slate records his achievement




The diver who with

his own hands saved

Winchester Cathedral

But, like Christopher Wren and St. Paul’s, you can see William Walker’s  real memorial if you stand in the nave of Winchester Cathedral and look around you.

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The Royal National Lifeboat Institution: Compassion, Bravery, and Tragedy

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It was founded in the London Tavern in Bishopsgate on 4 March 1824. At this time around 1,800 ships a year were wrecked on the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Under the aegis of the RNLI, lifeboat stations were strung around the coasts like jewels, but these were not gaudy, meretricious, coloured stones, but plain shelters housing sturdy boats ready to put to sea in the worst of conditions.

Their volunteer crews have saved nearly 150,000 lives, an average of two per day since its inception. But this comes at a cost and more than six hundred people have died in the service of the RNLI. Graves and memorials in coastal towns and villages bear witness to tragedies. One story stands for them all.

The historic fishing village of Mousehole in the southwest of Cornwall is a fairytale place. Huddled cottages of Lamorna granite tumble down to the perfect little harbour once home to the great pilchard fleets. There are seals swimming off the coast and a tidal pool for wild sea swimming. The summer brings holiday makers and in winter the Mousehole Harbour Lights draw crowds from early December to the first week of January. But every year on the 19 December the lights are dimmed in memory of the crew of the Penlee lifeboat, the Solomon Browne.

On the 19 December 1981, the Union Star was sailing from Holland to Ireland with a cargo of agricultural fertiliser. On board were the captain, four crew members, the captain’s wife and their two daughters. Around 6pm the ship’s engines failed, and the fuel system became contaminated with water. As rough seas and powerful winds blew the coaster towards the dangerous shore, she lost one of her anchors. The Penlee lifeboat launched in a hurricane, ploughing against ninety knot winds and 18m waves as it struggled to came alongside the coaster. Once in position, the crew of the Solomon Browne waited to catch people as they jumped for the lifeboat. They radioed to the coastguard that they had rescued four of the eight people, but as they made a final desperate attempt to save the others, radio contact was lost. Ten minutes later the lights of the Solomon Browne disappeared. In the morning wreck debris from both boats washed ashore.  (“The 1981 Penlee Lifeboat Disaster – RNLI History”)

The sea beyond Mousehole harbour may look unthreatening,
but a memorial in the church above the village recalls the tragedy of the Solomon Browne

For all its charm and beauty there is a sadness about Mousehole as in all those towns and villages which have lost brave crews to the sea. The compassion and selfless courage which has led generations of volunteers, often from the same families, to risk their own lives to help others, inspires a measure of love and admiration for the RNLI which is seldom equalled by any other institution.

So, it was sickening  when in 2021 Nigel Farage condemned the RNLI for  rescuing asylum seekers trying to reach the UK in small boats, claiming that the lifeboats were providing “a taxi service” for illegal migrants. Influenced by his demagoguery and the moral panic about migration stirred up by the right-wing press, some members of the public verbally abused rescuers bringing people to safety, others tried to prevent the RNLI launching a rescue boat in Hastings just days before twenty-seven people drowned in the Channel.

Priti Patel, then Home Secretary, and sharing Farage’s views, introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill which sought not only to make it illegal for asylum seekers to enter the UK without permission, but also to make it a criminal offence “to facilitate the entry of asylum seekers” by taking them ashore – an offence which was to carry a maximum sentence of 14 years.

But reaction was swift. The RNLI released harrowing footage of a sea rescue and volunteers detailed the desperate state of asylum seekers in overcrowded boats at risk of drowning in the Channel.

The RNLI chief executive, Mark Dowie, said that the lifeboat service had always rescued whoever needed their help: “We were pulling German airmen out of the Channel in the Second World War.” The RNLI, he emphasised, exists to save lives at sea without judgment. They do not question why people get into trouble, do not ask who they are or where they are from.

Subsequently, the RNLI’s fund raising, with money coming from one off payments, new supporters, and increases in regular contributions, reached £200,000 in a single day, thirty times the usual average, and a record year of donations followed.

Some quirky fundraising campaigns ensued. Partly in jest, Simon Harris sought to raise money for a new RNLI hovercraft to be called the Flying Farage. Donations reached £238,130 of its target £250,000 this Easter weekend. Harris has made clear that the specific proposal was tongue in cheek and that all money raised will go directly to the RNLI to be spent at their discretion.

Recently the local shop owner on the island of Sanday in the Orkneys accidentally ordered eighty cases of Easter eggs instead of eighty eggs. He organised a raffle in aid of the RNLI to get rid of some of the 640 excess eggs. By Maundy Thursday this had raised over £3,000, and the food company producing  the eggs has agreed to match the final total.

Meanwhile,under pressure, and with bad grace, the government accepted an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill in December 2021. The RNLI was exempted, if people’s lives were in danger, from laws criminalising anyone helping asylum seekers to enter the UK.

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William Webb Ellis: Ill-Founded Fame ?

The first sign appeared in late January when I noticed that the wine rack had been pushed to one side to accommodate a generous collection of beers. The Six Nations Championship was imminent, and my partner was making his preparations. When I was teaching I always received two forewarnings as the Head of Games would hand out Sweepstake Charts. A little judicious questioning at home usually enabled me to surprise the staff room with the moderate accuracy of my predictions.

Now there is only the one alert signifying that during  the coming six weeks I will be periodically banned from the television room unless I guarantee To Remain Silent or at least Not To Ask Stupid Questions. (This stipulation rises to a crescendo during the cricket season.)

The temptation to watch some exceptionally large men apparently bent on inflicting the maximum amount of pain on one another is not great and I rarely infringe the ruling. Occasionally, under the mistaken impression that a match cannot yet have begun or must be over, I encounter the pre- or post-match discussion. Once I recognised one of the pundits who had been on my PGCE course many years ago. My partner has never been more impressed: “Lock Forward,” he murmured in awed tones, “three caps in the 1989  British Lions tour of Australia. Part of the England side that won the Five Nations Grand Slam in 1991. You knew him? You never mentioned this before?”

“Well, I hardly knew him, we just did our teacher training in the same department.” I dredged my memory. “He was the only one who avoided a scolding if he missed classes, and the first to be offered a job.” A faint recollection stirred, “I think it was in quite a prestigious school, but they didn’t have any slack in the English department, so they offered him some junior Latin. We were all impressed until he revealed he only had O-level Latin. It was obviously the rugby they were after.” My partner gave me a look of contempt, clearly I did not recognise the importance of my brief encounter.

The only other reminiscence I could conjure involved standing chatting to the great lock forward as we waited to go into the examination hall. Suddenly he was joined by half a dozen of his mates, and as deep, hearty voices resounded, I found myself trapped in a forest of massive denim thighs: “It was like being surrounded by giants. Literally, I was at eye level with all these huge thighs, while voices boomed above me.”  “The second row,” said my partner with a weary and withering sigh, “are always very tall.”

This was the longest discussion we ever had of rugby  until we took a holiday in the south of France. There in Menton, at the top of the Colla Rogna hill, on the site of the old castle above the town, sits a stunning little cemetery. Its fortunate occupants, shaded by the cypress trees, can view the harbour and the promenade, the Mediterranean stretching in one direction to the Italian Riviera and in the other to Cap Martin, and all beneath an intense cerulean sky. We climbed up through the narrow streets of the old town, and at the top I wandered through the section of the cemetery generously provided for the residents of foreign colonies. In the nineteenth century  large numbers of minor poets, academics, and clergymen from chilly, northern countries brought their agues, distempers, and infirmities to the sunny place, though they seldom survived for long.

He Died Learning
A quotation from the Song of Solomon 2, verse 11. Confidently interpreted today as an expression of sexual love, but in Tawney’s day more likely interpreted as love of god and church.

A sudden shout from my partner drew my attention to one flat and one upright marble stone, surrounded by beribboned railings and fronted by a collection of plaques.

The upright stone provided all the explanation I needed:

The small plaques presented by rugby teams and enthusiasts pay further tribute to this achievement:

Here lay the man hallowed by rugby enthusiasts around the world. He attended Rugby School from 1816-1825 and is credited with picking up the ball in a school football match of 1823 and running with it thus inventing the new game, whose agreed rules were later written down by boys at the school in 1845.

The veracity of this story is however in some doubt. It did not surface until 1876, more than fifty years after the putative event, and four years after the death of Webb Ellis. In the intervening years no one seems to have heard it. Its origins lay with  Matthew Bloxam, Old Rugbeian, and antiquarian of Rugby, who claimed to have learnt it from an unnamed source. In 1895 when the Old Rugbeian Society investigated the story they were unable to find any first-hand evidence of the occurrence. Contemporaries of Webb Ellis did not remember the infamous match and others recalled that running with the ball, though not unknown, both before and after 1823, remained forbidden in the 1830s.

Moreover, almost concealed beneath these new stones, the original flat grave marker makes no reference to rugby, recording only the death of the rector of a London church.

It is indeed improbable that the actions of a single boy changed the game and more likely that it evolved gradually. Some authorities* go further suggesting that the 1895 investigation was an attempt by Rugbeians to assert their school’s authority over the sport at a time when they were losing control of it following the schism between rugby league and rugby union, and that for this they needed a specific character and a good story. Webb Ellis’ relative obscurity for the rest of his life added to the mystique and he died entirely ignorant of the role posthumously attributed to him.

Back with the world’s oldest tournament. On the penultimate Saturday  a triumphant shout reached me in the garden as England won 23-22 against Ireland who had been tipped for the Grand Slam. It was also drawn to my attention that Italy had defeated Scotland 31-29 in Rome. This was Italy who had earlier lost 36-0 to Ireland, before beating Scotland, who beat England, who had just beaten the Irish: it was results like these that made the tournament so fascinating. I glazed over.

Today the tournament ended with Ireland winning the championship, albeit no Grand Slam. The beer bottles are in the recycling, the wine restored to its usual place, the television quiet, and on the Cote D’Azur an oblivious William Webb Ellis slumbers on.

*E. Dunning and K. Sheard, Barbarians, Gentlemen, and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby Football (1979)

See also Michael Aylwin, Webb Ellis didn’t even invent rugby, so why is his name on the World Cup? in The Guardian 16 September 2019. Feelings run high on this issue.

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Patrick Caulfield: Death After Lunch

The first time I saw it Patrick Caulfield’s After Lunch caught and held my attention and it continues to do so whenever I visit the Tate Gallery. The cartoonish, black outlines of the deserted restaurant, tables, chairs, the half obscured fondu set, the bored waiter staring across empty space, are suffused with an eerie blue light. Then, in contrast, from the wall at the back of the restaurant strident colours blaze out, a picture within a picture, a photomural of the Chateau de Chillon. In front of this but barely obscuring it Matisse-evoking goldfish swim around a plastic castle in an aquarium.

Clearly it is not a Swiss restaurant, more likely one of those themed restaurants which enjoyed popularity in the England of the sixties and early seventies. I have no idea what first drew me to the painting save that I wanted to know where and why, and what happened next.

After graduating from Chelsea Art School in 1960, Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005), visited Crete where he was inspired by the hard bright colours and fascinated by the Minoan frescoes. Later, looking at the postcards he had bought, he realised that the printer had added black lines around objects in the frescoes. Intrigued, he began using similar black outlines in his own work.

He developed a graphic style, depicting everyday objects – lamps, glasses, clocks – with deceptive simplicity in flat, bold colours: the banal rendered intriguing. At first he used household gloss paint on board, later oil paint, and finally acrylic on canvas.

But it is always the larger stylised interiors of empty public buildings, offices, and restaurants, which attract me most. I am fascinated by the saturated planes of colour bound by heavy back lines  contrasting with the photorealistic landscapes on the walls. They hold me spellbound, transfixed by the unease with which I might regard a snake charmer. For although I find them alluring there is also a sense of foreboding  about them. The anonymity and melancholy  with which I feel quite comfortable in the works of Edward Hopper, here seems sinister and menacing.

When Caulfield died, William Feaver’s obituary recalled  a discussion about famous artists’ epitaphs. Someone had asked  Caulfield what he would put on his own gravestone. The response: “DEAD, of course.” And that is exactly what it says on his grave. Designed by Caulfield himself, the curt monosyllable is laser-cut through a block of granite like a  child’s letter puzzle. Eye-catching amidst the crosses and angels, open books and obelisks, it brings me to a halt as my first sighting of his painting did. And I am not alone, for the arresting design exerts a magnetic lure over amused visitors. The distinctive grave has become one of the most popular in Highgate East.

Patrick Caulfield’s Grave in Highgate East.
A Contrast with the Angels, Crosses, and Urns

Perhaps people empathise with the blunt statement, welcome its frankness. I recall a friend who, wearied by delicate, well meant, euphemisms said crossly, “You don’t lose people. You lose your keys. People die.”

It is a view with which I sympathise and by all accounts Caulfield’s funeral was a joyful celebration of the life which preceded the death. And yet, fascinated  as I am by the memorial, its stark, bleak message chills me, fostering the same disquiet which I experience when I stand in front of those rather threatening interiors.

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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.

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