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This year — the year Royal Mail became a private corporation — is the 75th anniversary of Glastonbury’s neo-Tudor post office building at 35 High Street.
According to a possibly apocryphal tale, the Revd Lionel Smithett Lewis, who had been High Church vicar of St John’s since 1921, saw builders starting work on an inferior design in the mid-1930s and ordered them to stop. He immediately rang Whitehall — he probably knew the Commissioner of Works from a previous life — and protested that Glastonbury deserved a design in keeping with the town’s heritage. The powers-that-be conceded, and townspeople and tourists today still use the fine edifice that first opened its doors on August 17 in 1938.
Henry Seccombe, architect to the Office of Works, chose Bath stone ashlar, mullioned windows, oak doors and a steeply pitched tile roof with a parapet and a fanciful tall stone chimney. The double gate at right has a swept tile roof on wooden brackets.
The building (not including the red-brick sorting office behind) was listed Grade II in 1989, amid the campaign to keep it as Glastonbury’s post office.
The interior, with its moulded plaster ceiling, is much as it always was, except that the glass across the counter was added in the security-conscious 1970s, the indoor public telephone and its oaken booth disappeared in the mobile-phone 90s, and the postmaster’s panelled office has become a card shop.
The two original clocks — one in the High Street window and one inside the office — still show what looks like original time, presumably because to repair them would require Grade II original parts and cost more than stamps.
The text of the listing at English Heritage calls the building “a notable and virtually unaltered example of the Post Office’s willingness to design buildings to fit their historic environment. This building is one of several attempts to build in character with the two genuine 15th-century buildings in Glastonbury High Street.”
Eric King, in his recollections of the High Street of the 1940s (Newsletter 99), wrote: “One or two firms went bankrupt over the building of this office, caused mainly by flooding in the basement. The telephone exchange was built at the same time behind the post office but the opening of the new exchange had to be delayed until after the war.”
The site at 35 High Street was previously occupied by London House, an impressive two-storey shop. (Seccombe, the post office architect, disagreed: he felt it “spoiled the fine buildings around it”.) London House was owned by the Brooks family and sold dresses and millinery. As Neill Bonham discovered in research requested by the Lewis family, the elder John Lewis, born in Shepton Mallet in 1836, did his apprenticeship at London House in the 1850s before going on to found his own department store in London.
Before 1938 Glastonbury’s post office was farther down the High Street in the building that is now Barclays Bank. The upper floor was occupied by an auctioneer. The building’s Victorian facade, dating from 1897, was completely removed when the bank moved in.
In 1989 the government proposed to downgrade Glastonbury from a Crown post office, close the building and locate postal services into the then-new Safeway supermarket. The proposal roused the town and the Residents Association to send a coachload of protesters to London. Mike Free, the mayor at the time, had to get special permission to wear his chain of office beyond the borough. They called at Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street to hand in petitions and lunched at the Post Office Union headquarters. “And we managed to get them to change their minds,” he said today.
Nevertheless, the status changed to that of sub-postoffice. Ken Watkins was the last proper Glastonbury postmaster and would have been in charge of the front-office counter as well as the sorting office behind. On the verge of retirement anyway, he took up the new role of sub-postmaster, and the postmaster’s panelled office became a card shop. John Oberholzer took over from him in 1993 and is still on the counter staff under the present sub-postmaster, Gerald Cross.
The Royal Mail sorting office at the back has a staff of about 40 today, including 36 who deliver letters in Glastonbury, Street and surrounding area. Matt Alford is delivery-office manager and reports to higher-ups in Bath.
In June this year, a new inquiry office opened. It has a separate entrance off Archer’s Way so that customers do not need to dodge vans in the busy yard. Under the wooden floors are cable ducts, a reminder that the town’s phone exchange was located here in the days of GPO Telephones; the present exchange behind Manor House Road was built in the 1960s.
More to come
Just before going to press I rang Allen Cotton for some extra details for this article, knowing that he has vast knowledge of postal history in Glastonbury and surrounding area — he gave a talk to the Conservation Society on the subject in 1996.
As a result of that phone call we learned about the OBE he received only the day before. And, because he’s done a lot more research since his last talk and is writing a book on the subject, we booked him to give another talk: on January 31 [in 2014].