Martyn Sharpe: Why will rue the day we allowed the closure of rural post offices

Mary Marsden might struggle to make sense of it all. In her day the post office was at the very centre of village life.

Letwell has a thriving community spirit, but the loss of the post office will be keenly felt.
Letwell has a thriving community spirit, but the loss of the post office will be keenly felt.

No competition from the supermarkets in 1922. If you wanted to buy a stamp at Letwell almost a century ago then Mary’s cottage was the only place you could go. If you wanted to claim your pension – which was running at around eight shillings a week for a married couple in those days – Mary’s front room was the place to be. Automatic bank transfers weren’t on anyone’s horizon way back then.

Mary’s tenure of office lasted over 20 years, and the mother of 12 went on to become the oldest postmistress in Britain, continuing to work and serve the community five days a week until she was 89 years old.

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Little changed during Mary’s time. But my wife, Mary’s modern-day successor, has not been so fortunate.

When Janice initially took on the responsibility back in 1975 business was booming as much as it ever would in a tiny South Yorkshire farming village with a population of around 140.

Often there was a queue of customers cashing pensions, sending parcels, buying stamps, postal orders and TV licences. The local farmers would pop in to buy their National Insurance stamps.

The post office, such as it was, filled the front porch of our cottage, and measured a mere 6ft by 6ft. There was no security screen, just a shelf with leaflets and a desk on wheels which Janice moved into place each morning at 9am.

The porch was abuzz with chatter most of the time. The elderly would call in for a second class stamp, and stay for an hour or more. If anyone from the village knocked on the door at 7pm wanting something or other then Janice would always open up come what may. We’d take in parcels and deliver them to the door or keep them for a couple if someone was on holiday.

In 1979, the arrival of our first child saw Janice retire. The post office moved to our neighbour Margaret’s cottage 200 yards up the road. Customers would knock on the door, and end up being served in Margaret’s front room. Janice returned to run the post office again in 1996, but things were never the same.

Management cut the opening hours from five days a week to three mornings. In future the business would only operate on a Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 9am till 11am. Successive governments got in on the act as the years went by chipping away at the core of the post office’s business. Pensioners – who had been encouraged to have their weekly benefits paid direct into the bank – no longer queued outside the front porch. Janice lost the right to sell TV licences. National Insurance stamps were no longer available either. Postal orders were a thing of the past. Most of the customers bought their stamps while they were doing their weekly shop at Sainsburys or Tesco. It was easier than making a special trip to the post office.

The end was nigh when management undertook a review of Janice’s pay. The outcome was devastating. Instead of £265 a month, her salary for 26 hours a month was reduced to £175, a cut just short of 33 per cent. In simple terms she was now earning less than £7 an hour – an amount below the Government’s minimum living wage.

You could earn more cleaning the toilets at the local Town Hall. The girl who washes the floor at our village hall gets £10 an hour. She’s got a job, of course, where safety’s not an issue. Stand behind a post office counter, and there’s always the danger that a man in a balaclava’s going to turn up one day holding a shotgun.

We turned to our MP for support. He felt it was a case of “closure by stealth” and so did we. But his intervention brought no results.

Janice asked her union for help, but senior management stuck their heels in and refused to budge.

When she finally resigned one of the managers asked her if Janice had “anybody in mind” to take over the office. Her reply was simple: “Who’s going to do it for that salary?” Not surprisingly no volunteers ever came forward.

Now nobody chatters on our porch anymore. A focal point has disappeared from our village forever. Letwell Post Office is no more.

Let’s be grateful that Mary Marsden wasn’t around to see it happen.