Robert Brown's article published in The Gazette August 15, 2003

ONCE again, the Post Office is in the news, both locally and nationally.

This time, in Basingstoke, it concerns the closure of the Black Dam Sub-Post Office, while, throughout the country, there could be a postal strike if the postmen ballot for one.

Meanwhile the discontinuation of mail trains, known as the Travelling Post Office (TPO), has been announced.

The TPO has been around for more than 160 years, and, except for the few years of the two world wars, has run across the countryside delivering mail.

Part of the work carried out by Basingstoke postmen was to travel up to the railway station and collect the mail dropped off by the TPO trains, and to hand over mail for other parts of the country.

The TPO for this area would leave Waterloo station in London and travel down to Weymouth, stopping at Basingstoke and other main stations on the way. As the train sped along the line in the night, the dozen or so postal workers in the specially fitted carriages would be sorting the hundreds of letters into pigeon holes (each one being for a specific town). Once the pigeon holes were full then the letters would be tied up and put into bags for despatch upon arriving at certain stations. The train would later return to London.

It was back in January 1838 that the Post Office converted a horse-box into a wagon and coupled it onto a train between Birmingham and Warrington as an experiment.

It proved successful in transporting mail between those stations, so a second one was run between London and Bletchley by the end of that year.

A special device by the railside was designed to exchange mail bags as the trains sped past, and these were put into use across the country until they were discontinued in 1971.

By 1850, an intricate system of TPO services running both day and night came into being. But these trains were far from perfect for they were lit by oil lamps and had no heating or toilet facilities. This situation was later improved.

Over the years, the Post Office paid the railways to build and maintain its fleet of TPO carriages and, until recently, there were 39 such trains with 650 staff operating from Monday to Friday.

The trains would reach up to 100mph to deliver some 300 million items of mail. Now there are only 16 TPOs left, and by January next year, they will be none. In future, all mail will travel by road and by air.

The Royal Mail trains will be remembered in W. H. Auden’s famous poem, in which he quotes: “This is the Night Mail crossing the border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order, Letters for the rich, letters for the poor, The shop at the corner, the girl next door.”

As far back as 1808, Basingstoke had a Post Office, situated in Winchester Street, but in those days it was the stagecoach and horses that carried the mail.

Robert Cottle opened up a general store in that year and part of the building was devoted to giving a postal service, including an outside post box which people could drop their envelopes in.

These were then taken along to the nearest coaching inn for transport to other towns.

When Mr Cottle died in 1859 the postal section was acquired by Miss Elizabeth Curtis in upper Wote Street.

Later on, in 1893, a Post Office was established at 25 Wote Street, where it remained until 1925 when a large building in New Street was constructed with a rear sorting office for the increasing amount of mail.

The reason for this last move was due to the increase in the postal staff, which in 1920 totalled 60 people. In 1924 the first motorised mail van was brought into use.

In March 1971, the Post Office moved into the old Woolworth’s store in London Street, while the sorting office went to a site at Priestley Road in 1978.

The demise of the mail trains will mean that the postmen will not have to stand on platform one at the railway station waiting patiently for the nightly TPO to arrive, especially in the winter when the cold easterly wind blew through the open structure.

To them, as one postman quoted, “it was the coldest place on earth”.