Post Office's long tradition as the hub of village life

The Post Office today

Emails, texts, digital images, the Internet; today's amazing technology means we can communicate at a speed we couldn't have imagined just a generation ago. But communications 150 years ago is equally difficult to appreciate now: Blanchland's Post Office was the villagers' vital link to the outside world, sending and receiving messages of family news, business agreements, tragic and joyful events.

Just how long it took the mail to get through to Blanchland shows how arduous the journey must have been then. We might grumble about afternoon deliveries today, but Whellan's 1855 Directory (the forerunner of the phone book) tells us: "Letters arrive from Newcastle and Gateshead via Riding Mill, at 3pm, and are despatched thereto at 8am."

The Post Office has always served several different functions, including being a point where people could leave and collect informal messages. A small classified advert in the Newcastle Courant of September 1863 selling two setter dogs for £5 the pair asks potential buyers to apply to JW, Post Office, Blanchland.

The Post Office
The Post Office and Square in the early 1890s. Click on image to enlarge.

It looks as if the Taylors - first William and then his son Thomas - made sure the Blanchland mail was received, sorted and sent off for at least half a century; William is named Postmaster in Whellan's Directory in 1855, and 16 years later the 1871 Census returns show that he is still Draper and Post Master. His headstone in Blanchland churchyard shows that at his death in 1886 he had been Postmaster for 39 years, and his son Thomas was still in the role in the 1901 Census.

New technology was revolutionising the way people communicated even then. An entry in The Times newspaper of October 1870 grandly proclaims that Blanchland is to be one of 19 post offices across the country "which will be opened for the transaction of telegraphic business". Nine years later William Taylor, now aged 75, is still listed in the 1881 Census as Draper (linen woollen) but his role as Post Master is not mentioned. Perhaps he preferred to leave that new-fangled telegraph nonsense to 14-year-old school leaver Joseph Bell, who is listed as the Telegraphic Clerk and residing at the same address.

Joseph clearly sticks at his career in the post office; a small story appearing in the Newcastle Weekly Courant in October 1894 mentions that he had left his job as "Sub-Postmaster" at Blanchland after two years and Miss Elizabeth Patrick had been chosen from several applicants to succeed him. But Blanchland Post Office staff have always had to have special qualities, and the article continues: "Miss Patrick's kindly disposition and eligible qualifications are appreciable features in the case".

Elizabeth and her sister Mary, the Post Office Clerk are still running the post office when the 1901 Census is taken, and Hilda Askew (who sadly died aged 92 in December 2012) said the business stayed in the Patrick family until she took over in 1955.

Hilda herself was postmistress at Blanchland for 34 years after moving to the village with her husband James Wilson Askew and two-year-old daughter Janet. She'd worked at Consett Iron Company and been a Civil Servant at Longbenton in Newcastle, so the job as postmistress in Blanchland was completely new to her.

Hilda Askew
The late Hilda Askew at the door of her cottage in 2008.

The day would start early when the post would come in and be sorted by Hilda and the postwoman Olive Harding who would deliver it. Once she had learned to drive, Hilda had to deliver the telegrams, but a nightmare journey up to a remote farmhouse made her vow never to do it again: "I had my two young daughters with me and had to get out of the car and open and close nine gates to get to the house!" she remembered.

In addition to the Savings Bank work, the foreign parcels and money orders, the Post Office also sold newspapers, sweets, groceries, buttons and threads and even the linens and draperies that William Taylor had sold a hundred years before.

Hilda said: "We sold just about everything from wool to Calor Gas - and we were a collection point for people's medical prescriptions which were dropped off by bus from Consett." As if all that weren't enough, it was also Hilda's job to keep the telephone kiosk round the corner clean and tidy for callers.

Blanchland's white postbox
Blanchland's white postbox. Photo by Leighton Cooksey

And just as it had been for the Taylors a century earlier, running Blanchland Post Office was a family affair; in the Sixties Blanchland was a hugely popular destination for coach parties, and the Askews would be run off their feet selling ice-creams to queues of overheating visitors. Hilda's daughter Dorothy remembers standing on a crate at the age of seven to help out behind the counter.

On Hilda's retirement, Andrea Hodgson took the helm for seven years, and Kath Lennon for another seven after that. Jacqui and Ian Dart continued the long tradition of friendly service for four years, and in 2011 Shaun Kelly took the helm.

And what about Blanchland's distinctive white post box? It's certainly Victorian, with its beautifully formed "VR" lettering - but why is it white, and thought to be one of only three white boxes in the country? Originally postboxes could be any colour, and there is still the odd green or blue box here and there. There was a time when Blanchland's postbox was going to get a fresh coat of RED paint, but we have Hilda Askew to thank for putting her foot down and refusing to allow it. So the "Ludlow" style postbox set into the shop window frame kept its original colour. Whatever the reason, it's very special - a bit like Blanchland Post Office itself, and all the Postmasters and Postmistresses who have served behind its counter.