Dunfermline Post Office
Reminiscences of Dunfermline
By George Robertson
A Wee Look Back
During 1886, Alexander Stewart published his book “Reminiscences of Dunfermline – Sixty Years Ago”, which contains a selection of fifty-six stories concerning people and events in Dunfermline. In his Prefatory Note to the book, Stewart remarks “no town in Britain excelled Dunfermline fifty or sixty years ago for the number of intelligent, thrifty, shrewd, good-living people, many of whom were quaint in their ways, and out of the common run”. This viewpoint might well be challenged as an exaggeration but there is no doubt Stewart captured the flavour of Dunfermline and it’s people at the time in question. From a local history point of view, the book is useful since Stewart describes in some detail events taking place in the town and the behaviour of its townspeople.
It is my intention to retell some of these stories and I begin with Stewart’s description of the early history of –
“Between fifty and sixty years ago the Post-Office was a very primitive establishment. Letters were carried to and from Dunfermline in large canvas wallets slung on horseback, and the post-boy carried a long tin horn to herald the approach and departure of the Royal Mail. For some years Mr Andrew Angus, printer, was postmaster, and after he died in 1833 he was succeeded by his daughter Catherine, who had been his assistant. The Post-Office was then in Kirkgate, and it was a place of small dimensions. Miss Angus was postmistress till 1851, when she was succeeded by Mr Robert Steedman, who for thirty years faithfully filled the office of postmaster.
Miss Angus was a most anxious and painstaking public servant. She was very sharp, and a most intelligent woman, and what one would call quite a lady in her ways. Perhaps she might be considered too particular and too exacting, but she was highly conscientious and had the best interests both of H.M. Service and also the public at heart. During her tenure of office the service was a slow going affair compared to what it is now. She was for a number of years assisted by her brother George, a very worthy man, but he ultimately got so infirm with rheumatism that he had to relinquish his post. For some years he had to rise from his bed at midnight to receive the mails, and despatch them by the young lad who had come on horseback from Queensferry, and who then galloped, booted and spurred, with his bags for the west.
There was no penny post in those days and the postage was so high that thousands of letters and invoices were sent in parcels and by private favour. There were no money or postal orders issued, no Post-Office savings banks, no registered letters, no parcel post, and no postage stamps or post cards issued. That marvellous and inestimable blessing, telegraphic and telephonic communication, was unknown and utterly undreamt of. The letters of soldiers and men-o-war’s men were franked by some nobleman or high official, and this was a boon which saved the expense of postage at home or abroad. This was abolished in 1840. Through the agency of the telegraph, news from all ends of the earth is now brought, silent as thought, while we are quietly taking our night’s rest! Letters to or from Edinburgh cost between 5d and 7d each, to or from London 1s3d if single, but if double letters the cost was greater. One sheet of foolscap was considered a single letter; if a half-sheet were enclosed, the rate of postage was doubled. I remember seeing Post-Office officials looking through the letters by means of an ivory folder, to see if they were single or double, in order to charge them accordingly. Sixty years ago there was only one letter-carrier for the town; her name was Peacock and I remember her carrying the letters in a small black silk hand-bag. Annie Couper, Miss Angus’ domestic servant, succeeded Peacock as letter-carrier. A friend told me she remembered seeing the letter-carrier, while delivering letters from house to house, sit down at the people’s firesides and have a quiet chat as she leisurely went along on her onerous duties. And yet the folks used to say, when they saw anyone in a hurry, “they were going post haste!” There were then no swift steamers defying wind and tide, no network of railways such as we have now on all hands, and there was no special haste in the transmission of mails or in the delivery of them; a few hours sooner or later did not matter so much as in these go-a-head times of ours. Wind and tide were matters of vital consideration, and it was an event of frequent occurrence for mails to be detained for hours in consequence of the stormy state of the Firth of Forth.
It was a very common thing for people to address their letter, “With care”, sometimes “With haste”, and in some instances “With haste and care”. Envelopes were never used, because then unknown. Letters sealed with wax usually bore the impression of the watch seals which used to hang imposingly from gentlemen’s watch-fobs. Some ladies were content to use their thimbles or a sixpence. The writer remembers well the case of a man in Limekilns who had lost his child, and had sent out funeral letters inviting friends to the funeral. The large black wax was sealed, inadvertently and unthinkingly no doubt, with his watch seal which bore upon it the figure of a cockerel, and the startling motto, “While I live I’ll crow!”
Up until the year 1840, when Rowland Hill’s uniform rate of postage was fully inaugurated, and postage stamps were introduced, the business of the Post-Office was carried on in a quiet and easy-going fashion: but after that period this department of the public service awoke up with amazing energy, and other nations followed in our wake. The rapid expansion of the railway system and the great increase of steam ships, combined with the introduction of the telegraph, have given enormous facilities for the transmission of correspondence and of news to all parts of the world. The book-post branch was established in 1848; the money order department was in existence many years before that. In 1839 the total amount transmitted throughout the three kingdoms by Post-Office orders from all the various Post-Offices was only £313,000; in 1863 it was £16,494,000! It is very large now, being £24,223,295 in 1885. As regards postal orders, £646,989 was transmitted in 1881; and in 1885 £18,832,104!
Through the kindness of the late and present post-masters, I am able to give the following statistics of the Dunfermline Post-Office –
Officials employed –
1826 – One postmaster, one assistant, one letter-carrier (the domestic servant).
1845 – One postmaster, one assistant, two letter-carriers, three rural letter-carriers.
1885 – One postmaster, twenty eight clerks, telegraphists, letter-carriers, and messengers.
1851 – Number of letters delivered weekly – 4,700.
1875 – Letters, etc. per week 16,112.
1885 – Letters, papers, cards etc. per last return, 29,218 in the week.
At the time Mr Steedman was appointed postmaster the postal department of this country was just beginning to develop, and has gone on increasing ever since. The small premises in the Kirkgate were soon found quite inadequate for the transaction of the ever-increasing business, and the department was moved to Guildhall Street, where it was carried on for some years, till that place also became unsuited for the purpose. It seems that even now, in the larger premises in the High Street, they are greatly hampered for want of room, and no doubt some other place may by and by have to be provided”.
Alexander Stewart gives us an interesting snapshot of how Dunfermline Post Office operated during those early days but we have to give thanks to another local author, who takes us back a few decades earlier. The Rev. John Fernie in his “History of the Town and Parish of Dunfermline”, published during 1815, tells us in 1796 the revenue to government, derived from Dunfermline Post Office, was in the region of £300, but from 1804, when the revenue was £650, it had increased annually until in 1813 it amounted to £1,050. He goes on to tell us the gross revenue from stamps sold at Dunfermline during the same period rose from £744:4/- in 1804 to £1,515 in 1813. Unfortunately, Fernie gives us no further information regarding the Post Office during those earlier days.
It should be noted the Post Office in Kirkgate moved during 1852, when it transferred to Guildhall Street, with an extension provided during 1872. It is noted, after 1872, Stewart gives High Street as the address of the Post Office, which appears to indicate its access was via the main door leading from High Street into what was then known as the County Buildings. This building is now occupied by The Guildhall and Linen Exchange Hotel and Restaurant. A further move took place when the Post Office moved to a new building in Queen Anne Street, which opened for business on 24th November, 1900, a move which was predicted by Alexander Stewart. Unfortunately, this building was closed for postal business on 2nd March 2017, with plans for future conversion into a restaurant. The current Post Office has now returned to High Street, being situated within the shop premises of WH Smith, a move which has caused much discontent amongst the people of Dunfermline.
Stewart’s description of Dunfermline’s early Post Office might seem to us to be from another world. However, one wonders what he would think if he were to be transported to the present time and was able to see the facilities we have at our finger tips when seeking instant information or communication – perhaps he would think he was the fortunate one, living as he did at a time when things were much simpler and perhaps easier to understand.