WILL anyone today mark a truly melancholy anniversary? Will anyone except maybe you and me remember
a day that really did mean the end of an era?
Yes, a cliche, but that’s what it was.
For on July 9, 1983, Cardiff’s head post office closed its
doors for the last time, 88 years after opening them to an ecstatic crowd for
the first time. Now that magnificent building on the corner of Westgate Street
stands empty, still stately but forlorn,
a monument to past glories and symbol of Cardiff’s overwhelming confidence in a
So now, as post offices across the country are closing, let
us look back to a time in Cardiff when the opening of one was an Event, a sign
that our Taffside town was On The Move.
We could no longer carry on as we did
in the 18th century when mail was delivered by coaches taking 24 hours to get
from London to Cardiff’s long-gone Angel Inn.
When the coaches stopped operating in 1850 the time was down
to 15 hours, and by then we had an office in St Mary Street needing a staff of
only 16. But as the town and the docks spread and the coal came down in
torrents a new post office was needed. The Echo was given a privileged peek at
the plans and announced in 1893 that “Cardiff will be able to boast as fine a
Post Office as can be found in any provincial town.”
It took two years to build on the site occupied by Messrs
Hutchinson and Tayleure’s Circus and the builders, of course, were E Turner
Sons, who were to Cardiff what Christopher Wren was to London. Look at it
now, and imagine the wonder felt by your great-grandads at first sight. There
it was (and is) complete with carvings and columns, speckled with spires and
sublime statuary. Inside, an ornate ceiling, a mosaic of a great Welsh dragon,
polished mahogany, gleaming glass, The Echo was right. Here was as fine a building as could be found.
It was opened on December 12, 1896 (in time for Christmas)
by the Postmaster George Fardo, as eminent an Eminent Victorian as you could
get. But surely he couldn’t have been prepared for the crowd that surged
towards him, anxious to inspect the elegant interior they’d read about.
Our Reporter was there to find that “many of the crowd were
anxious to purchase the first stamp.” And judging by the rush, he added, “at
least 150 persons will be able to show it – naturally the number will grow as
time goes by.”
Now just compare the service Then with Now. It can only inspire envy.
The post office, George Fardo told Our Reporter, would open
on Sunday evenings and there would be eight – count ‘em, eight – regular
deliveries every day in Cardiff. Send your young lady a postcard in the morning arranging a meeting for that evening, George
boasted, and you could be sure she’d turn up.” Unless, of course, she was
washing her hair. Or something.
George also revealed he’d been experimenting with the parcel
post – with some pretty sensational results. “I find,” he said proudly, “I can
get a brace of birds, eggs and butter and a hare sent _ anything from
anywhere.” Clearly, quickly enough to
keep things fresh. Try sending a couple of pounds of butter today.
Naturally, as Cardiff grew so did the volume of work
and by the time war broke out there was
a staff of more than 1,000 with 60 telegraph boys delivering messages by bike
throughout the city. They wore dark blue uniforms with pillbox hats and earned
12s 6d (62p) per week, sixpence extra for working on Sunday.
They even delivered horses, meeting them at the station,
then taking them to Ely racecourse, sixpence a mile “postage.”
When the post office closed it was handling one and a half
million items of mail each day, something that would have made George proud.
Had he been around he might even have written a farewell ode because beneath
the official sober suit beat the heart of a Keats or Shelley. Or maybe a McGonagall.
Each evening he hurried home to lose himself in verse
celebrating everything from the Building of Barry Dock to the epic tale of
Caerphilly – A Romance, remembering
Fair Lily who, from a tower in Caerphilly, glimpses her loved one Willy, who
rides a snow white filly. But the world thinks Lily silly and she frets lest
Willy’s heart grows chilly. George even managed to rhyme Caerphilly and Lily
with rude blood-stained ruffians stretched out willy-nilly and a villain
Pity he wasn’t around to give us Ode On the Passing of a Post Office 30 years ago.