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Oxford post boxes: Oxford's Central Post Offices


Before 1839

Before the Uniform Penny Post was introduced in 1840, letters had to be paid for by their recipients, and were picked up at inns. In 1800 the Angel Inn advertised the following “Royal Mails”:

To London every night at 10.30pm (“The Gloucester”)
To London every night at 11pm (“The Worcester”)
To Gloucester and Cheltenham every morning at 4am
To Worcester and Ludlow every morning at 4pm
To Bath and Bristol every morning at 5am
To Banbury every morning at 5am

There were also ordinaries (couriers) who would pick up letters from smaller inns: for example, in 1800 the Chequers in the High Street advertised that the inn had “A good Ordinary every Saturday at One o'Clock”.

Until 1838 there was a Post Office at 31 Queen Street. Robson's Directory of 1839 lists Joseph Warne as Oxford's Postmaster. Oxford's four major inns then acted as Posting Houses: the Angel and the Mitre in the High Street, and the Roebuck and the Star in Cornmarket.


Oxford's Central Post Office at 123 High Street, 1839–1842

123 High Street

By July 1839 Oxford's Post Office was at 123 High Street on the corner of Alfred Street, and it shared this large building with the tailor John Parsons.

From 6 May 1840 letters could be prepaid with the first-ever postage stamp, the Penny Black. Stamps were sold at approved shops as well as at the Post Office, and on 9 May 1840 Richard Spiers of 102 High Street advertised that “SPIERS and SON, licensed Vendors, in order to accommodate the public with the new Postage Stamps at an early period, have, at some extra expense, arranged to supply them THIS DAY, at the authorised Government prices.”

The following notice appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 17 July 1841:

OXFORD POST OFFICE

Extensive changes have been made in the Post Office arrangements, with which it is desirable the public should be acquainted.

The day mails to London and Cheltenham are now dispatched at half-past Ten in the morning, the box closing an hour before that time.

A Cheltenham and Oxford Mail, taking bags for Witney, Burford, and Northleach will also be dispatched at a quarter past One.

The Western Mail, taking bags to Gloucester, Stroud, and Bristol, will be dispatched at Nine o'clock in the evening, the box closing at Eight.

The letter box will continue open till Ten o'clock, instead of Nine as formerly, and the office will be finally closed at Eleven o'clock.

The importance of this building is emphasized by the fact that the owner of the Mitre Inn described it as being “opposite the Post Office” in an advertisement in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 16 October 1841.

On Sunday 13 March 1842 at 7.15am a terrible fire, thought to have been caused by the ignition of a smouldering beam in the chimney, broke out at this Post Office in the back room of the one pair (i.e. on the first floor, at the top of one pair or flight of stairs) and also consumed the two adjoining properties. Jackson's Oxford Journal reported on 19 March 1842 that “its breaking out at the back of the Post Office afforded the opportunity of getting the letters and mail bags out without the least injury or loss”.

The Post Office was completely destroyed, and was given a new home in part of the old Town Hall.


Oxford's Central Post Office at the old Town Hall in St Aldate's, 1842–1880

Old Town Hall Post Office

Oxford's very first Post Office, shown above, opened in late 1842 in the two arcades at the south end of the old Town Hall, which opened in 1752. The Oxford University and City and County Herald reported on 24 Dec 1842:

The new office recently erected underneath the Town Hall is now finished, and will be opened for the accommodation of the public on Monday next. A brief description of it will no doubt be interesting to our readers. The new office is situated in the southern end of the Town Hall, and occupies the space of two arches of the arcade upon which the Town Hall rests: it is divided into four parts, — first, the general office, occupying the circular end of the building, in which the boxes for the various towns corresponding with Oxford are arranged; a strong dwarf partition encloses a space for the letter carriers and for the sorting of the letters; a large circular-headed window, filling the whole of one of the arches of the arcade, lights this office, and beneath it are the two boxes for the reception of letters — the one for general use, the other for letters that may be "too late." The second part of the office is the public lobby, which is entered from the second arch in the front of the Town Hall. On entering the lobby, a large window on the right communicates with the general office, and from sliding doors in this window the deliveries are made, money orders paid and granted, and letters with which money is paid received. A window fronting, on entering the lobby, lights the third portion, namely, the money order office, but which, as we understand, cannot be used at present, there being yet no clerk appropriated this important and growing branch of public business. A small and secure room for private business behind the money order office, and lighted from the Town Hall-yard, forms the fourth portion of the office. The office altogether is probably complete as any in the kingdom, and the general arrangement reflects great credit upon Mr. T. Wyatt, the city surveyor, the late Mayor, and the Post Office Committee, who devoted time and attention the matter. The work has been done by Messrs. Adams and Jones, and is throughout a capital specimen of good and finished workmanship. The whole has been completed at a cost to the city of 300l, for which a rental of 40l.. a year will be paid.

By 1878 this Post Office in the Town Hall was longer big enough


Oxford's Central Post Office in St Aldate's, 1880–present

View from south

Oxford’s General Post Office at 102 to 104 St Aldate’s was built between 1878 and 1880, at a cost of about £10,000. The architect was E. J. Rivers, Esq. of Her Majesty’s Office of Works; the builders were Messrs Symm & Co., of Oxford; and the Clerk of the Works Mr H. Luff. On the morning of Wednesday 25 June 1879 Thomas Arnall, the Postmaster of Oxford, laid the foundation stone.

Front of post office

 

The new Post Office was built of Chilmark stone on four floors, to be used as follows:

  • Basement: Clerks, letter carriers, and sorters’ kitchens, battery room, boiler rooms, stores, coals
  • Ground floor: Public office, with Postmaster’s room, and passage to a sorting room at the back that had lavatories for the clerks and letter carriers
  • First floor: Telegraphic instrument room, clerks’ rooms, messengers’ room, lavatory
  • Second floor: Apartments for a resident porter, consisting of sitting room, bedroom, and kitchen, and rooms for telegraph and postal stores.

The arch over the doorway is supported on each side by a cluster of polished Mull granite columns, and in the arch there is “a beautifully carved coat of arms”.

Coat of arms

By 1903 the Post Office had again outgrown its space, and Messrs T.H. Kingerlee and Sons built a large sorting office at the back, as well as a new room for the Postmaster, retiring rooms for the clerks and postmen, and new lamp and store rooms. Telephone and messengers’ rooms were also added, and telegraph messages were conveyed from the instrument room to the boys’ room by means of a pneumatic tube. Electric light was then to be brought in to the old building and the extension.

Postbox

In 2003 St Aldate’s Post Office building was bought by Merton College, which leases the ground floor back to the Post Office and the upper floors (which have been converted to office space) to other tenants. The basement is currently not used, but a planning application from the college to convert it into a restaurant was approved on 7 November 2006. This permission has expired, and another was submitted in November 2010. The letter box shown above (which has a large hole beneath it which originally took letters straight down to the basement) will be moved to the north of the recess, and the cash machine will be removed and replaced by entrance steps to the basement restaurant.


Newspaper reports about St Aldate’s Post Office 1879–1903
These give much fuller information about the building’s original design and use.

See also planning applications 06/01840/FUL and 10/03174/FUL


Architect's drawing of 1879

Above: Drawing by the architect E.G. Rivers, engraved by James Akerman (published in The Building News of 22 August 1879). This shows what the Post Office would have looked like before the shop on the left (102 St Aldate’s) was demolished to allow for an extension with an archway to the south. A postman with a sack on his back is shown walking along an alleyway that presumably leads to the sorting area.

William Compton, ironmonger was at 102 St Aldate’s in 1879, and at No.105 on the other side was Richard Badcock (upholsterer & cabinet maker) and his family.

Below: Postcard of St Aldate’s Post Office dating from c.1905.

St Aldate's post office c.1905

Stephanie Jenkins