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WHEN the old Mail Coaches were still running through the Market Place and Upper High Street, some sixty or seventy years ago, it was a feat of no mean skill for a driver to tool his four horses through the narrow intricacies of the latter thoroughfare. A few reminiscences of the appearance of this street in those days will be not only interesting in themselves, but will serve to make apparent the difficulties of threading this tortuous bit of highway with a cumbrous coach ; it is needless to state that it was next to impossible for two vehicles topass each other there without the greatest difficulty. If any reader will take the trouble to walk along Upper High Street, and examine that block of old building which was occupied for so many years by the Trussfields (or Thursfields) it will be noted that the gable end of it, adjoining the shop of Mr. Heynes, grocer, has had the corner cut away. This corner was taken off many years ago on account of the Coaches being unable to pass that point without being in grave danger of coming to grief there ; an inspection will make it quite evident that this corner projected right into the narrowest passage of the street. Then this irregularity in the building-line was not the only obstruction to pedestrian traffic at that time. Across the unpaved footways, rows of steps led up to the front-doors of those houses built prior to the lowering of the highway ; and to that block of building now void, owing to its condemnation by the Local Board, there were, at that time, brick porches which protruded their obstructive forms right across the path.
Different lines of Coaches had different stopping places in the town. One line stopped at the Red Lion Inn, another at the Green Dragon Inn, and a third at the Turk's Head Hotel. At that time the Turk's Head Stables were on the opposite side of High Street, on the site now occupied by Nos. 51 and 52. At the back of the Hotel was an open field, where Mr. John Russell, the proprietor of the Hotel, trained his hunters. Of course Russell Street (named after this family) did not then exist, but there was a saddle-path to the field from the Market Place by the side of the Shambles. The Shambles still exist in part, and are used now for storing away the stalls ; but at that period they were used by the butchers on market days ; while the pig-pens were situated on the inner side of the Shambles, and were frequently used for the sale of live stock.
Sometimes the Mail-bags were put off at the Inn, and sometimes at the Post Office. The locale of the Post Office changed several times. At one time it was where Messrs. Byrne and Son carry on their Tailoring Establishment ; it then removed to No.52, Bridge Street, where Mr. E. Turner lives ; thence it crossed the road to the corner of New Street, and afterwards returned to No. 24, High Street, where Mr. Booth's Boot and Shoe shop now is. Once more it was removed to the corner of Bridge Street and New Street, and from thence migrated to the bottom of Russell Street, where the business was carried on for 21 years. When the new Holyhead Road was cut from the corner of Camphill Lane towards Moxley, in order to save the Coaches the necessity of winding through the narrow defile of the Upper High Street - and this was done notwithstanding a proposal to widen the road to the line of the Lamp Tavern - old Martin Worcester, the postmaster, had to meet the Coaches for the Mails, which did not now pass his office in the High Street. He therefore had a Watchbox erected at the corner opposite Lloyd's Bank, where he might be comfortably sheltered at night while awaiting the arrival of the bags. The cutting of this road was accomplished between 1817 and 1825. After Waterloo in 1815, the distress arising from the heavy taxation consequent upon the prolonged wars, drove the lower classes to extremities, and bread riots, and other disturbances ensued. As a kind of relief work the great Holyhead Road was projected from London to that port. It was carried into execution, and many of our colliers and forgemen in Wednesbury were glad to get work upon this road at one shilling a day. In those times when letter-writing was a luxury, one solitary letter-carrier was sufficient for the requirements of Wednesbury. This primitive Mercury was an old woman who trudged around the town with a basket, from which she delivered the costly missives to their lucky owners, who had to pay for each letter a sum varying from tenpence upwards. Tradition says that this old dame could neither read nor write, but from the order in which the postmaster placed the letters, and the instructions he gave her respecting each one, she remembered where they were to be delivered, and how much was to be paid on each. So late as 1839 the average number of letters delivered per week in Wednesbury was only 679 ; with the first uniform postage of 4d. at the end of that year it only rose to 733, and in the first year of the penny postage (1840) it was but 1,328.
The story of Post Office reform has a special interest for Wednesbury readers because its hero, Sir Rowland Hill, was at one time as familiar with the streets of this town as any one of us who now live within earshot of the Old Church bells. Sir Rowland was born at Kidderminster in 1795, but in 1802 his father removed to Hill Top near this town, and kept a school there, where young Rowland recieved his early education. Here, in close proximity to this town he spent his boyhood's days, and many times he may have seen the mail coach stop and put off the mails at the Red Lion in Bridge Street. While yet a boy he developed a wonderful faculty for organizing, and actually establishing at Hill Top, a constitution for the government of his father's school, through the medium of a committee of the pupils chosen by the whole body ; and it is said that by this means the curriculum of Hill Top School possessed a great and undoubted power for preparing the boys for the real business of life. The School was removed to Birmingham in 1819.
In 1835 Rowland Hill set himself to work out a better Post Office System ; after a very laborious and protracted investigation, he in 1837 elaborated his "Post Office Reform ; its Importance and Practicability" - for such was the title of his pamphlet. After all his searching inquiries, one great fact was discovered, and became the leading idea for his revolutionary proposals. It was, that the difference in the cost of a letter's transit from one place to another was infinitesimally small, no matter whether the distance traversed by it was great or short ; and in his new proposals for taxing the carriage of missoves this petty inequality was altogether ignored. For instance, he ascertained that it cost less than a ninth of a penny to carry a letter between London and Edinburgh, but that there was an immense amount spent first in the collection of the tax of 1s 1½d., 2s. 3d., or 3s. 4½d. upon it, according to its size,and further in the assessing of that tax. Consequently he based all his estimates simply and solely on the cost of collection and delivery, and his plan of prepayment by labels, which required no taxing staff at one end, and no collectors at the other, was finally adopted by the Government in 1839, after Mr. Hill had suffered much discouragement and many rate of 1d. per ½oz. letter was established.
In 1846 this great benefactor re-organised the Money Order Department and made it yield a profit for the first time.
After many slights by the Government, Mr. Hill was at last kinghted and rewarded for his labors. He died in 1879 at Hampstead.
In those earlier times with which this sketch began to deal, there was a stamp duty on each newspaper of 4d. on advertisments of 3s. 6d. each, and on paper itself of 3d. per lb. In 1830 James Guest, the well-known Birmingham bookseller, began to work for the removal of these fetters upon the freedom of the Press. Every Saturday he went round the Black Country, where the few who could read eagerly bought his cheap unstamped newspapers. For this contraband trade in literature he suffered imprisonment in 1834, but it was not till 1861 that these taxes on knowledge were repealed.As regards Wednesbury itself, he sold many of his illicit publications here ; while another man used to come from Birmingham with the legally stamped London papers,and with a cart delivered the few which came into the town, chiefly to the more important residents and the principal public-houses ; this was done on the Sunday in order to gain a day, as the Post Office system would not at that time have permitted an earlier delivery than Monday. Things are altered now,and with three deliveries a day to all parts of the town, and seven despatches in various directions, our forwarding facilities are next to perfect. In addition to these, however, a new despatch from Wednesbury to the North at three o'clock in the afternoon was inaugurated in March, 1883, whereby our letters are delivered on the same evening in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, &c. Together with all this must be considered the cheap rates of postage which now prevail, with Post-cards, Newspaper-wrappers, and adhesive stamps, all at the half-penny rate ; and it may be mentioned as a matter of fact that there are now distributed at the office about 150 different sorts and varieties of stamps. The number of letters &c., per week now passing through Wednesbury Post Office is over 50,000, or about 26,000 each way, in and out. The Telegraphic business was taken over in February, 1870 ; previous to that date there was an office at the local Telephone Exchange, at 24A, Walsall Street, but it has not been put into use at present ; when in operation, communication may well be kept up with Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall, and the surrounding district. There are several private telephonic wires in the town, and have been for some time.
Besides all these branches of Post Office work, many others have been foisted upon the department of late years. In addition to the Money Orders, Postal Orders for fixed amounts have now to be issued and cashed. Then there is a large amount of work done in connection with the Savings Bank, especially now money may be saved in single penny stamps, sheets of twelve being honoured as a shilling for the purposes of a deposit. Then there are the Post Office Annuities and Insurances, and the facilities for purchasing small fractional parts of the Governmental Funds. In another direction there has been a tendency to make the Post Office a collecting and receiving station for the Inland Revenue, and no doubt in time this will be developed to a greater extent. At present the Post Office issue licenses for using carriages, for keeping male servants and gamekeepers, for keeping dogs and carrying guns, and for private brewing.
In the work proper of the department the Wednesbury Office covers a wide postal area, extending in one direction from Willenhall Bridge to Newton, and in the other from Stone Cross and Fullbrook to Ocker Hill. A Mail Cart runs between Wednesbury and Walsall, and a heavy night collection and delivery is made by the Birmingham and Wolverhampton Mail Cart ; trains have also to be frequently met during the course of the day.
Consequent upon the representation of the town to the Post Office authorities, it has been deemed expedient to erect the new set of Offices on the opposite side of Holyhead Road, which were opened last year, 1883. It is a stone-fronted building of one storey, and has cost about £3,000. The Public Office is 25 feet by 19 feet, and at the rear of this is the Sorting Room, a lofty apartment with lantern roof, and measuring 25 by 40 feet. The fittings comprise three sorting tables with a united length of 30 feet, a large stamping table, with india-rubber bed, a sealing lamp and stand ; and there are inumerable hooks for mail-bags, pigeon holes for letters, and lock-up cases for registered letters. The entire length of one wall is reversed for the work in connection with the new Parcels Post. It will be noticed that the front entrance is very wide ; this is also for the admittance of the handcarts used in connection with this Parcels Department. Behind the counter of the Public Office two doors open respectively into the Postmaster's Private office, and into the Instrument Room of the telegraph operators. The basement contains apartments for a Caretaker, separate Retiring Rooms for Male Clerks, Female Clerks, and for the Letter-carriers and Messengers : and there is also a Battery Room fitted with all the requisite appliances. The whole of this establishment is under the control of the Postmaster, Mr. Robert H. Smith, who with an adequate staff of officials has so long served the town efficiently and satisfactorily in this public capacity.
[From the Red Lion Inn a Coach named The Royal Mail left for London at 6.0pm., while the return Royal Mail left for Holyhead each morning at 9.0a.m. Another Royal Mail left for Liverpool at 9.0p.m., and yet another Royal Mail left for Shrewsbury at 3.45p.m. From the same Inn the Wonder left for London, via Daventry, 1t 8.45 a.m. ; and the Nimrod at the same time went via Warwick and Aylesbury. Other famous Coaches were the Emerald, the Union, and the Salopian from Shrewsbury to the South ; and the Erin-go-Bragh, which left every morning at 9.0 a.m. for Liverpool. To Wolverhampton there was a Coach every hour. A Bloxwich Coach used the Green Dragon Inn. Several Birmingham Coaches stopped at the Turk's Head, and one at the King's Head (now the George) in High Street.]