190 Years of London’s Post Office Quarter

2019 marks the 190th anniversary of the move of the Post Office to St Martin’s-le-Grand.

Discover London’s Post Office Quarter with our guest blogger and researcher Alex Obradovic. Alex had a 32 year career in the Post Office and Royal Mail.  His interest in the history of the Post Office brought him to our Discovery Room to research the iconic postal buildings. Read on to see what he found.

BT Centre and its General Post Office Roots

The London headquarters of British Telecommunications (BT) is currently housed in a large 1980s building in EC1 known as BT Centre. It dominates an island site bounded by Newgate Street, St-Martin’s-Le-Grand, Angel Street and King Edward Street.

BT Centre, Newgate Street © Stacey Harris

This includes the site of the former Central Telegraph Office (CTO) which operated from 1874 until 1962. A plaque records that Marconi sent the first public wireless signals from there in 1896. CTO was just one of a series of historic edifices created in this small part of the City by the former General Post Office (GPO) during the 19th and 20th centuries. BT Centre is now the last feature of the area’s GPO heritage to retain a working continuity with its original purpose.

Central Telegraph Office – exterior with King George V Silver Jubilee decorations, 1935 (POST 118/1130)

Generations of Londoners and thousands of Post Office workers came to know the area as the hub of the capital’s postal and telegraphic services. In its heyday it was, so to speak, London’s ‘Post Office Quarter’. During the last 35 years, technological and economic factors have changed all this. The outer shells of King Edward Building and the former Post Office Headquarters still stand nearby but have long since contained the offices of City financial businesses.

St Martin’s-Le-Grand, New Home of the GPO in 1829

The story goes back to the era before Rowland Hill’s Penny Post and had its opening chapter during the glory days of the mail coach. The Post Office had been established in the City since the mid-17th century but it was in 1829 that the Post Office moved from cramped premises in Lombard St to a new home in an imposing neoclassical building nearer St Paul’s.

Original aquatint of postal transport – General Post Office, 87 St Martin’s-Le-Grand (POST 118/5646)

Situated on the east side of St Martin’s-Le-Grand it was Grand by address, grand in design and become known fondly as ‘The Grand’ by its occupants. The new building housed the Postmaster General, The Secretary and his administrative staff together with the main sorting offices for mail for London, the provinces and overseas.

The building, designed by Robert Smirke, was the best known public face of the Post Office in London throughout the Victorian period. After much internal alteration to cope with the enormous growth in business, it was eventually – and controversially – demolished in 1912-13.

Demolition of the General Post Office St Martin’s le Grand – Lantern Slide, c.1900 (2011-0422/06)

By then known as GPO East, the building had been joined by three near Post Office neighbours:

  1. The Central Telegraph Office, dating from 1874; GPO West. It stood on the west side of St Martin’s-Le-Grand. Demolished in 1967. (Now part of the site occupied by BT Centre)
  2. A large office building housing Post Office headquarters which opened in 1894-95; GPO North. The site is bounded by St-Martin’s-Le-Grand, Angel Street, King Edward Street and Postmen’s Park. (Now Nomura House)
  3. King Edward Building (KEB), containing the main sorting office for London and overseas mail together with the capital’s main public post office. It opened in 1910. The site extends from King Edward Street to Giltspur Street. (Now the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Financial Centre)

From the left, GPO West (CTO) and GPO North (PHQ). A view looking west across St Martin’s-Le- Grand photographed after the demolition of GPO East, c.1900 (2011-0422/10)

Working in the ‘Post Office Quarter’

The area had a special feel about it for those of us who remember it as part of our working lives. This was not only because of the historic buildings we worked in but was also due to the sheer number of Post Office people concentrated close by. There was a wide and varied range of grades and duties spread across different departments and different hierarchies but we had one thing in common – working for the Post Office. When I first got to know the area in the 1970s much of the old order was still intact.

King Edward Building

KEB was a short walk from St Paul’s underground station, which had been named ‘Post Office’ until 1937. The Edwardian grandeur of the London Chief Office, lavishly decorated in marble and bronze, was the public face of KEB. In the pre-computer age, its very long counter was kept busy with the daily postal output of the many nearby city firms.

King Edward Building: Interior view of counter, 1962 (POST 118/17761)

Within the Chief Office was an impressive war memorial to fallen comrades of the two world wars. Around Remembrance Sunday each year this was the venue for a wreath-laying ceremony led by the Director of the London Postal Region. For many years the event was honoured by the attendance of surviving WW1 veterans of the Post Office Rifles.

King Edward Building, London Chief Office: Exterior from junction of Angel Street and King Edward Street, 1952 (POST 118/16836)

Grace Golden captures the bustle of the interior of London Chief Office in 1948 (POST 109/198)

Adjacent to the Chief Office was the National Postal Museum (1966-1998), the forerunner of today’s much expanded Postal Museum. In the block behind the Chief Office were the vast sorting offices for the EC district and the Foreign Section (FS). Here were to be found the ‘Men of the EC’ and the ‘Gentlemen of the FS’ – a distinction going back to the Victorian era when the sorting of overseas mail was the preserve of the Clerk grade.

Postmen leaving South East entrance of KEB, 1929 (POST 118/5083)

Deep below ground there was a busy station on the Post Office Railway (now known as Mail Rail).

Postal Headquarters and its Offshoots

Outside Chief Office the statue of Sir Rowland Hill gazed solemnly, then as now, across King Edward Street to the imposing headquarters building known as PHQ. Both KEB and PHQ had been designed by Sir Henry Tanner and bore impressive witness to the golden age of the GPO.

PHQ doorkeeper and Telegram Messenger next to the Sir Rowland Hill statue in King Edward Street, 1961 (POST 118/18125)

PHQ had entrances in both King Edward Street and St Martin’s-Le-Grand. In the days of the Postmaster General, one of the PHQ doorkeepers had worn a scarlet frock coat and black top hat to welcome important visitors. In the late 1970s, the upper floors of PHQ provided a good view of the archaeological excavation of the former CTO site being carried out by the Museum of London.

Development of former Central Telegraph Office site: Excavation in North West corner, 1975 (POST 118/18823A)

Not so obvious to public view were the various commercial office buildings which the Post Office had leased nearby to satisfy the demands of its expanding bureaucracy. Ironically, three of these buildings stood on the site of the long demolished GPO East in St-Martins-Le Grand; Armour House, Union House and Empire House. (The upper floors of Empire House had magnificent views of the dome of St Paul’s).

A Place in Post Office History

2019 sees the 190th anniversary of the move of the Post Office to St Martin’s-le-Grand. BT Centre is the most recent chapter in a remarkable story which saw this corner of the City of London play host to a vital cluster of infrastructure and people serving the communication systems of the nation. Whatever the future may hold for the area, its important place in Post Office history will be assured.

Post Office Quarter Map (adapted from Duncan Campbell-Smith’s Masters of the Post p208)

Visit The Postal Museum’s Archive to see what you can discover.

– Alex Obradovic, Researcher