Bellaghy Historical Society – March 2014

The History of the Post Office
Speaker: John Stuart
11th March 2014

At the March meeting of the Bellaghy Historical Society, members received an interesting lecture from John Stuart (retired Teacher from Ballymena) on the history of the Post Office.

John expressed a regret shared by many in the audience, that in an age of increased electronic communications, fewer people now communicate by letter and therefore, the activity with which the Post Office has been traditionally associated has declined. In 1947/48, the Post Office handled ten billion letters while today that figure has reduced to around one billion, even the holiday postcards and Christmas cards have reduced in number.

Only recently the Post Office has been privatised with share prices set by the Government and John speculated on what privatisation will mean for the delivery of mail, particularly postage costs and deliveries in rural areas. Ironically, it was a former Conservative leader, much in favour of privatisation, who had stopped short of privatising the Post Office on the basis that ‘we don’t privatise the Queen’.

Over the years, services have changed. In the 1960s the second delivery ceased, Post Offices began to close or move into local shops. Post Offices began to deal with car tax and passport applications. John noted that the Post Office in Ballymena had closed on Saturday 5th March past and was now located in the Spar Supermarket.

Thanks to internet shopping, parcel post is now increasing but the Post Office no longer has the monopoly on deliveries as other providers move into this market. The Post Office still has some influence here however, as many companies will charge extra for deliveries to Northern Ireland or do not deliver at all.

The business of delivering mail is and will continue to be a labour intensive job however, the move towards privatisation is likely to result in a reduction in staff. There are now approximately forty thousand employees at Royal Mail while at its peak the company employed a quarter of a million staff.

In terms of exercise, it is estimated that in urban areas, some postmen and women may walk up to 8 miles per day delivering our mail. In rural areas the red mail van is a feature of daily life.

The Royal Mail service was introduced by Charles II in 1641. Prior to this there were some small companies operating in London and between cities. These were not very secure.

In 1841, the ‘Penny Black’ was introduced to help bring some uniformity to a system that previously had been operated by different companies, all charging different rates.

The familiar red post box became a feature on many streets in early Victorian times. Some can still be seen in the south of Ireland with the distinctive lettering VR (Dublin and Kildare), GvR and EviiR although these are now painted green.

In 1784, the first Royal Mail coach service was established and ran between Bristol, Bath and London.

In 1786, it took twenty sets of horses to bring the mail between London and Edinburgh and took sixty hours. The London to Glasgow coach service began in 1788 and took seventy hours. The last horse drawn mail coach between London and Norwich ran in 1846.

Up until the 1950s, horses were still used in London and in small towns and villages where trains could not reach. Horse drawn mail carriages were operating in Belfast until 1963.

Two Steamers were introduced in 1821 and operated between Holyhead and Dublin.

Mail began to be delivered by train in 1831 (Manchester)

Between 1831 and 2001, the bulk movement of mail in UK was by train. Road and air services now account for the vast majority of mail transport. The use of trains as the primary source of transporting mail in Northern Ireland ended in late 1980s.

Mail transport between Newtownards and Comber ceased to be taken by train in 1853 as road transport was cheaper.

The first electric vehicle operated from London Paddington in 1897 and the first internal combustion lorry began service in 1907 and operated for 30 years.

Mail was also carried by sea and both the Titanic (1912) and Lusitania (1916) were part of the Royal Mail Service (RMS).

In 1950 this Britain / USA mail route was switched to air although the first transatlantic flight (1919) did carry some mail. When Concorde took over this service the flight time was by then reduced to 2 hours.

In 1927 a fully automatic (driverless) underground train (2 feet gauge) began from Paddington to Whitechapel and is still operational.

One of the most famous incidents involving the Royal Mail took place on 8th August 1963 in what became known as ‘The Great Train Robbery’. Thieves took £2.6 million gold bullion from the Glasgow to London post train. This equates to approximately £50 million today. Only £100,000 from the original theft was recovered.

In Scotland and Wales Post Buses carried mail and passengers. A few small services still operate.

Philately, the hobby of stamp collecting, can be an interesting and expensive activity. There are no philatelist shops in Northern Ireland but there is one in Dublin.

Stamps often reflect historical, political and cultural events e.g. in 1966, Britain produced stamps to commemorate the Battle of Hastings (1066) and England winning the World Cup. These commemorative stamps cost 3d but would now, at auction, achieve a price well above the rate of inflation.

The production of stamps, in particular the event or message depicted can be highly political e.g. there were attempts in the 1960s to remove the Queen’s head from postage stamps however, this was defeated by the Westminster parliament.

Security is an issue although during WWI and WWII, the mail, for the most part did manage to get through and troops were well catered for. During our own ‘Troubles’ there was some disruption to services on occasions and some postal workers were murdered. There were the threats of letter bombs and to prevent the postage of such items, the slot on post boxes in many areas was restricted so as to prevent items of a certain bulk from being posted.

Privatisation is likely to lead to further changes. Saturday deliveries may end and people living in more remote or hard to get at areas may be expected to collect their mail from a central location perhaps even an end of lane box. There may even be an end to daily deliveries.

The delivery of parcels is likely to increase (internet shopping), Christmas cards will decline and so too (let’s hope) will be the volume of junk mail.

Mechanisation has probably gone as far as it can and electronic communications has taken over banking and payment of bills.

The introduction of postcodes helped in the location of the intended recipient of the letter but our system of letters and numbers is not best suited to technology. In Australia, postcodes use numbers only.

In the past the Post Office also controlled broadcasting and the birth of pirate radio and radio Luxemburg presented a particular challenge to the Post Office at the time. The Post Office no longer controls broadcasting.

First and second class mail was introduced in 1965.

In the late 1970s the Sunday collection ended.

Telegraphs ended in 1972 except for international telegraphs.

Bellaghy Post Office

The following information about Bellaghy Post office has been collated by Mrs Lowry from the Belfast and Province Directory:

  1. Alicia Steele, Post Mistress. Letters from Dublin and all of the South and England arrive every forenoon at 11.30 and are despatched every morning at 8.30. Letters from Londonderry, Belfast etc arrive every morning at 8.30 and are despatched every forenoon at 11.30 o’clock
  2. Alicia Steele, Post Mistress. Mails arrive every forenoon at 11.30 and are despatched every afternoon at 1.30
  1. The same except for afternoon despatch which is given as 1.58
  1. Lists no details of Bellaghy PO but states Mail Car to Magherafelt from Castledawson PO at 8.30 am
  1. Post Office – Telegraph, Money Order Office and Savings Bank. Mrs McErlean, Post Mistress. Mails arrive and are dispatched twice daily. (Note change of spelling of dispatch!) That could still be by horse – first car in Bellaghy 1912
  1. The same as above (1909)
  1. Ditto
  1. As above except J.J. McErlane (sic) is given as sub-post master.
  1. Same as 1930 but adds Mails arrive and are despatched (sic) twice daily with the addition now of Telephone Exchange.
  1. Postmaster J.J. McErlane, grocer and hardware merchant
  1. Exactly same as 1937
  1. Entry simply says J.J. McErlane, Postmaster and Grocer
  1. J.J. McErlane, sub postmaster. Arrival and despatch of mails twice daily
  1. The same but Mrs M.M McErlane given as postmistress

1953-1969 same as above but giving no further details about post arrivals

1971-1986. Mrs B.J. Madden, Postmistress

1992-1996 simply gives address as 11 Main Street

Today the village post office is located in the Spar Shop (H.H Graham & Son) just across the street from its original location.

Some gaps exist in our information and readers might help us with answers to some of the following questions:

  • When did the original post office cease to operate as a shop?
  • When and how did mail arrive?
  • When were family allowances paid out?


Any other information about our local post office and services would be welcome.


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