History of the Amersham Area

Postal Services in Amersham

This article was written by Michael Brooks for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.

The Postal System was first introduced into this country by the Romans who set up a sophisticated system, whereby horses were kept at ‘posts’ at 8 to 10 mile intervals, with rest houses for the message-carriers every 20 to 30 miles along the military roads radiating from London.  Messages on thin bark or waxed wooden tablets could be sent up to 50 miles a day, depending on weather and terrain. Such letters are still being excavated at the Roman Fort at Vindolanda to the South of Hadrian’s Wall.

During the middle ages this Roman system was to some extent adopted for use by Royal Messengers, though because the roads were not maintained, in many places foot messengers were often able to travel more quickly than those on horseback.  No private letters could officially be sent by this service.  As Amersham was not on one of the main postal routes and had a very small literate population, the town was not involved at this time.

In 1635, by the terms of the Proclamation of Bagshot, the Royal Messenger Service, or King’s Mail, was gradually opened up for use by the general public.  Charges for conveyance of letters depended on the mileage and the number of sheets of paper. The King needed the money and it also gave him an opportunity to access the contents of the letters in troubled times.  The first Postage Act of 1656/7 confirmed the rights of the Postmaster General to carry letters, establish postal rates and supply horses for the post roads.  Separate letter-carrying services provided by monarchy, the Church, the towns, the carriers and the merchants were replaced by a national postal service with great social benefit.  Postal receiving houses were set up in inns, coffee houses and other premises where letters could be handed in or collected. The proprietors of the premises were often appointed as the postmaster.

The Crown Inn was chosen to be the postal receiving house and excise office in Amersham, though I have been unable to discover from Post Office Records the exact date when this was established.  During the 17th and 18th centuries mail to and from London travelled via Tatling End by post boy on foot or horseback or local carrier.  Cross Posts linking one main postal route to another and By-Posts to places off the main routes were not to affect Amersham until the end of the 18th century.

The cost to the Exchequer of running the system was such that ‘Farming the Post’ began.  The ‘farmer’ paid a rental to run a part of the system taking the income for so-doing;  this privatisation initially saved the Postmaster General money.  In 1693 Richard and Stephen Bigg of Winslow farmed the Buckinghamshire area based on the London-Banbury-Chester-Holyhead route.  It covered ‘Edgework (Edgeware), Stanmore, Watford, King’s Henley (King’s Langley?), Hempstead, Barkhamstead, Buckingham, Chesham, Agmondisham, Gt Marlow, Wendover & Warwick’.  They paid £300 in 1693 and £900 in 1694.  It was difficult to make a profit from the farm but by 1706-1707 Richard Bigg paid £1,100 and in 1710-1711 £1,180.  The system was then altered and in 1712-13 he was paid a salary of £821 plus 10% of the revenue.  By 1715 he seems to have been on a salary only and was described as ‘Clerk of the Road’.

Agmondesham (Amersham) is shown on the 1720 Brittania Depicta Map by Emanuel Bowen on the post road from London via Uxbridge, Chalfont, (where it is shown crossing a River that Horses & Carriages go through), then on to Great Missenden, Aylesbury and Banbury.  The map bears a description of Agmondesham as ‘An Ancient Borough, Govern’d by Burgeffes.  The Reprefentatives in Parliament of this Town are chofen by Homage in the Lords Court Baron. The houfes in the Town that are in the Borough situate in the middle of ye Borough being excluded that Priviledge. Market on Tuefdays. Vigil on Whitfun Monday & Michaelmas Day.  In this Town is a Free School founded by Dr Robt Chaloner, Cannon of Windfor’.

William Child, a brewer, owned the Crown Inn in 1637 and James Child in 1695.  Montague Garrard Drake purchased it in 1728, his wife Isabella, inheriting when he died from gout in Bath that year.  From about 1740 the Fowler family were tenants and innkeepers at the Crown. The family had lived in Amersham for many generations and a Thomas Fowler had a life tenancy of the Manor of Amersham in 1483.  In 1774 Charles Fowler is recorded as Postmaster and Proprietor.  His Deputy Postmaster was William Harvey, the Landlord of the Griffin Inn, who robbed the mail in that year. The Postmaster General advertised a Reward of £50 for his apprehension and conviction:

The following advertisement appeared in The London  Gazette in 1774:

William Harvey, of Amersham in the County of Bucks, Inn-holder and Deputy-Postmaster of that place, stands charged upon Oath, on a violent Suspicion of having feloniously stolen out of the Post-Office there, several Bank Notes and Bills contained in Letters sent by the Post.  The said William Harvey absconded from his dwelling-house at Amersham aforesaid, on Sunday last the 9th Instant. He is about forty years of Age, five Feet six Inches high, very fat, short Neck, and carries his Head very upright; is remarkably full chested, rather a black Complexion, short thick Nose, very full Eyes, wears a black curled Wig with a Tyburn Top, and is supposed to have had on a brown Coat and red Waistcoat when he absconded. Whosoever shall apprehend and convict, or cause to be apprehended and convicted, the said William Harvey, will be intitled to a Reward of FIFTY POUNDS.   By Command of the Postmaster General, Anth.Todd, Secretary

This advertisement appeared in the Gazette a further 31 times up to the 31st May 1774.  It is at present unknown whether he was apprehended or convicted of the offence. He does not seem to have been a very attractive character. 

The Tyburn Top was a style of wig with the foretop projecting forward over the eyes and with a large knot of artificial hair at the nape of the neck.  This style had been promoted by a group of dandies, fops and aesthetes called ‘The Macaronis’  fashionable from 1770 to 1775, so William was in the height of fashion in 1774 He had become the Landlord of the Griffin Inn in 1773.  As the Deputy- Postmaster he would have had access to the mail in the Post Receiving House which was at the Crown Inn in 1773/4, where Charles Fowler was the proprietor and Postmaster.

The Macaronis began as a group of young men who had been on the Grand Tour and who, on their return in around 1760, formed the   Macaroni Club where the new-fangled Italian food of that name was served. They were fond of gambling, drinking and duelling, often rude and insolent and sometimes vicious. They became a curse in the then fashionable Vauxhall Gardens. They were regarded as a  degenerate group following the previously fashionable Beaux and Wits.

“Five pounds of hair they wear behind, the ladies to delight-O,
Their senses give unto the wind, to make themselves a fright-O.
This fashion, who does e’er pursue, I think a simple-tony:
For he’s a fool, say what you will, who is a Macaroni.” 

They frequently sported an umbrella or parasol to protect their wigs from rain or sun as they minced along the streets.  A well-known nursery rhyme – “Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony; He stuck a feather in his cap, and called it Macaroni.” was a popular song with British troops in North America during the Anglo-French War which ended in 1763.  Later an American Regiment raised in Maryland during the War of Independence came to be called ‘The Macaronis’  because of their showy uniforms.  The rhyme was first published in England in 1778 and later in the United States where it soon became a national song. The name Macaroni was also given to a type of  Penguin, which breeds in the Falkland Islands Dependency of South Georgia, on account of its flamboyant yellow head crest feathers.

In 1784 a London to Oxford Mail Coach service began via Beaconsfield which, as the roads were so improved, speeded mail transmission; so much so that in 1790 a post-boy link was set up from the Crown to link with that coach service in Beaconsfield and a horse was provided for this.  Amersham was one of the first towns to have a Crown Post office in 1790, though John Fowler – now the Proprietor and Postmaster at the Crown, was dismissed as Postmaster for lack of care of his duties.  He had been using the post office horse on his farm instead of concentrating on meeting the Mail Coach in Beaconsfield. (PMG’s Report No.69L, 1796)   The Inland Revenue office however remained at the Crown.  John and Thomas Marshall became joint postmasters working probably from the house to the east of the Crown in Market Square.

From 1810 to 1839 Francis Priest, a grocer, cordwainer and Parish Clerk, was appointed postmaster.  In 1820 he complained to the PMG at the high cost of provender for the post office horse.  During his time in office, Cross Posts were set up linking Amersham to Rickmansworth and St. Albans in 1829. His daughter Eleanor, also described as grocer and cordwainer, succeeded as postmistress in 1839.  In 1840 Postal orders & Money Orders became available and in 1842 a Cross Post to High Wycombe was established.

In 1845 John Bettesworth, a grocer and local schoolmaster gave up the latter to become postmaster.  His son, John Robinson Bettesworth took over as schoolmaster.  John senior died on 15 December 1854 and John junior took over as postmaster.  In 1859 the post office horse dropped dead taking the mail cart near the Old Lodge as it entered Wycombe Heath.  In the same year a telegram service began from the post office.   Around 1860 John R. Bettesworth wrote to the PMG to suggest a change in the design of the postage stamp to prevent fraudulent mis-use and a new design was issued in 1864; he died on 5 August 1870. In 1869 his daughter Emily Ann Bettesworth became postmistress which position she held until her retirement in 1905 (see photo below).  Her uncle Edwin moved to Staines where he and his sons also became postal officials.

In 1871 the driver of the mail cart bearing Christmas mail from Maidenhead arrived at Amersham post office drunk and he had to go before the Petty Sessions.    Emily and a neighbour, Rebeccah Elburn, gave evidence and he was fined 2/6d.  In January 1875 the mail cart from Chesham was descending Rectory Hill when the horse shied at some snow and bolted down the hill running into a Weller’s dray, breaking the cart.  The badly injured horse had to be put down but the driver escaped unhurt.  A replacement cart was provided by the Crown Inn;  the cart had been hired from Mr. Bachelor of Maidenhead but in 1889 the post office provided a horse and cart for the Berkhampstead run.

A parcel post service began from Amersham post office in 1883.  A second post box was provided in Chesham Bois in 1890;  previously that in the Market Square post office was the only one.  By 1890 it became obvious to the postal authorities that the Market Square Post office could no longer cope with increasing business due to a rising population, the parcel service and the popularity of postcards and Christmas cards.  It was decided to rent from Miss Day’s Charity a large house in the High Street, previously J.C. King’s Drapers Shop, at the entrance to Hatches Yard (now 67- 69 High Street).   Day’s Charity had pulled down a row of workmen’s cottages in the yard in 1875 and erected a row of Alms Houses on the site. The rental was an important part of the charity income.  George Darlington, builder and Captain of the Volunteer Fire Brigade, converted the building to provide a public office, a sorting office, a private office for the Postmistress, Emily Bettesworth, and a rest room for the post office staff.  The new Post Office opened on 12th February 1891 and the yard behind became known thereafter as Post Office Yard.  New letter boxes were installed at Whielden Corner and Bury End.  Mail carts transported mail from the High Street to Berkhampstead or Taplow for onward transmission by rail, and this arrangement continued for some years even though the Metropolitan Railway station opened in Amersham in 1892.  A letter box was installed by the railway bridge in 1895.

On 5th June 1897, four Sub-Post Offices opened – in Station Road in Amersham New Town, in White Lion Road on Amersham Common, in Little Chalfont and in Chesham Bois.  On the 14th June that same year a severe thunderstorm flooded the High Street Post Office to a depth of 6 inches.  Benjamin Smith, one of the staff in the High Street office, died suddenly at the age of 30 and was buried in Amersham Cemetery.   He had made insufficient contributions to his Odd Fellow Lodge and had been supporting two aged parents so the townsfolk rallied round.  The Odd Fellows contributed to his funeral expenses and Emily Bettesworth launched an appeal which raised a further £12.  A Guard of Honour of nine postmen in full uniform with white gloves and two telegraph boys attended the funeral on 5th January 1899.  The balance of the fund made a significant relief for his grieving family.

9045TThe same postal staff may be seen in one of George Ward’s photographs taken outside the High Street office.  This well-known picture appears in several books about Amersham, often incorrectly titled as showing a Commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1887.  The glass slide has recently been digitised and the resulting prints show amazing details.  It is almost certainly a group assembled to celebrate the Relief of  Mafeking in 1900. It shows Emily Ann Bettesworth, her younger sister Amelia Matilda Bettesworth and their cousin, Julia Lydia Cole with the male staff and a small boy in fancy dress wearing a Boer-style hat.  A member of the Bettesworth family agrees with this interpretation. (See below for a fuller history of the Bettesworth family.)

PHO2875

Miss Bettesworth in 1915 in retirement (PHO2875)

In 1902 Amersham’s first Telephone Exchange was installed in Post Office Yard at the rear of the High Street Office. There were 13 subscribers initially.  In 1902 Emily Bettesworth retired as postmistress. Her family had served the post office for 60 years in total;  a presentation was given in her honour.  She died in 1908 and a Mr. Harris became postmaster in succession.

The opening hours in the High Street main post office were in 1907: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Sundays. All mail was delivered by 7.30 a.m. on seven days a week.  Even in the small town of Amersham, with a population of 2-3,000, the position of postmaster was much valued in the community as means of communication became increasingly important.  Amersham was fortunate in having two families who held the post for almost 100 years – the Priests and the Bettesworths.  Francis Priest, a grocer, cordwainer and parish Clerk, served as postmaster from 1910 to 1839 and was followed by his daughter, Eleanor Priest, as postmistress.  John Bettesworth (b.1783) succeeded in 1845.  John had been the first schoolmaster of the National School in Great Marlow in 1813.  Trained in the Madras system, under which older pupils were used to help to teach the younger pupils, he went on to open another school in Aylesbury in 1822.  He came to Amersham in 1842 as schoolmaster in the British School, which included workhouse children as pupils.  He gave up teaching in 1845 when he was appointed postmaster and his son took over the teaching post.  John Robinson Bettesworth (b.1826) became postmaster in 1854 when his father died at the age of 72 years.  He died young in 1870 and his daughter, Emily Ann Bettesworth succeeded as Postmistress at the age of 23 years.  Emily was a popular figure in the town, being assisted by her younger sisters, Amelia Matilda (b. 1859) and Maria (b. 1861) and also by their cousin, Julia Lydia Cole and by members of the Elbourn family. Emily’s Aunt, Anne Maria Bettesworth (b.1821) who had two sons by Henry Elbourn, a tailor in the High Street – Edwin (b.1842 out of wedlock) who retained his Mother’s name of Bettesworth, and Frederick (b.1850).  Henry married Anna during this second pregnancy.  Edwin moved to Richmond where he later had several sons who also served in the Post Office.

Emily never married.  She supervised the move of Amersham Post Office from Market Square to the High Street in 1891 and retired after 36 years as postmistress in 1905.   A presentation was made in her honour and she retired to one of the Almshouses in Post Office Yard.  She died in 1908 from cancer in Stone Lunatic Asylum, Aylesbury.  John Bettesworth and John Robinson Bettesworth are buried in the cemetery behind St. Mary’s Church, together with other family members – their names being recorded on both sides of a common grave stone.

A report by the Postmaster General for the Year 1906/7 gives some idea of the huge volume of business carried out by the Post Office nationally by that date.  2,804,400,000 letters and 831,400,000 postcards had been handled, as well as 4,862,920,000 postal packages and 104,820,000 parcels delivered; 89,493,999 telegrams had been delivered and 19,803,300 telephone trunk calls made.  Over 200,000 people were employed throughout the country.  Amersham, though a relative backwater, had a much busier Post Office in the High Street and by then four sub-post offices in the rapidly growing New town, in Amersham Common, in Little Chalfont and in Chesham Bois;  together these served a huge area from Bury End to Shardeloes, Woodrow and Winchmore Hill, Coleshill, Hyron’s Farm, Amersham Common, Little Chalfont, Little Missenden and Penn Street.   There were eight letter boxes in the area.  The High Street Office sorted all the mail from the area.   The opening hours were 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday and also 10.0 a.m. on Sundays for stamps only.  All mail was delivered in the town by 7.30 a.m. seven days a week.  Incoming mail from London came via Slough at 5.37 a.m., 9.50 a.m. and 6 p.m.  Mail to London was despatched at 10.0 a.m., 11.40 a.m., 4.10 p.m. and 7.50 p.m.   Mail from the North of England came from Berkhamsted at 5.10 a.m. and returned there at 6.40 p.m.  The inhabitants of Miss Day’s Almshouses in Post Office Yard must have had very little rest!

The Great War of 1914 -1918 must have been very difficult for the Post Office with manpower shortage due to the call-up;  more female staff were therefore employed.   Mr. A.F. Matthews came from Amersham Common Post Office to take over as Postmaster in 1917.  All was not doom and gloom, however, as in February 1917, he inaugurated an annual Social Evening which was held that year in the main sorting room in the High Street Post Office, which was reported as having been tastefully decorated by the female staff.  Eighteen employees sat down to an excellent meal, presided over by Mr. Matthews.  After the meal several talented members of the staff entertained their colleagues with songs and ‘the party broke up about midnight with mutual congratulations on having taken part in so enjoyable a gathering’.   In following years, this annual event transferred to the Saracen’s Head;  26 members of the Post Office staff sat down to dinner there in 1921.

Business continued to build up during the 1920s.  A new post box was erected on Oakfield Corner in 1923, and a new telephone exchange was installed in Post Office Yard in September 1927, by which time there were over 400 subscribers.  During the Christmas rush in December 1928, the old Pavilion Picture House had to be used as a temporary Post Office because of the volume of parcels.  Because Amersham on the Hill generated so much of the mail and business, the Post Office started to make plans for a new purpose-built Post Office and telephone Exchange on Chesham Road.

The new main Crown Office designed by Mr. A.C Dean of High Wycombe, opened for business on 28th July, 1930 with Mr. S.G. Neal as Postmaster;  Amersham’s first telephone kiosk was incorporated in the development.  The old High Street office was down-graded to become a sub-office with Mrs. Elsie Pratt as postmistress.  She ran a tobacconist business from that address.

By December 1930, three more telephone kiosks had been erected at the Railway station, at the Fire Station and at the Sycamore Road crossing. In 1931 it was decided that the new Amersham Post Office in Chesham Road should be designated the Crown Office for Amersham and Chesham; the two names were incorporated in a new postmark.

Following the downgrade and removal of the telephone exchange, much of the space in the old High Street Post Office was redundant.  In 1932, a new sub-office was established a few doors away at 51 High Street, next door to what is now Amersham Museum.  The Office incorporated a telephone call facility and an external wall stamp dispenser.   Elsie Pratt continued as Sub-Postmistress and to run her tobacconist business there, until her retirement in August 1970, having served for 40 years;  she was a much respected member of the Amersham community.

In 1933 the old 67/69 High Street premises were up for sale.  The Brazil family purchased them and created two shops on the ground floor with flats above.  One shop was used for their Butchery business and the other leased to a Gents’ Outfitter.

On 4th January 1935, Mr. Neal, the head Post Master of Chesham and Amersham, reported that on Christmas morning no mail was delivered later than 8.30 a.m.  The new postal and telephone services were coping well with a rapidly expanding town.  Later that year, Mrs. Philomena Drake inaugurated a new ‘nine words for sixpence’ telegram rate, by sending a wire to the Prince of Wales.  However, the Post Office realised that, with a rising population and demand for better communications especially by telephone, further Post Office development would be necessary, and as early as 1936 a large plot was purchased on Hill Avenue. The Amersham R.D.C. expressed unhappiness about the proposed Sunday closure of the Post Office public counter in 1958.  Over the next 50 years weekend services were gradually to deteriorate nationwide.

By 1961, the telephone exchange in Chesham Road had 31 switchboards, 100 lines and 13 operatives and needed to expand its capacity.  Plans were drawn up to build a new Post Office and sorting office on the Hill Avenue site to which the postal services would move, releasing the Chesham Road premises for telephonic expansion.  Constructions began in 1962, the contractors being E.S. Gates Limited of Little Chalfont, at a cost of £65,000.   The new Post Office was opened on the 10th August, 1964, by Earl Clement Attlee, the ex-Postmaster General, but two weeks later than scheduled due to a strike of postal workers!   He was the first customer, purchasing a set of Shakespearian Festival Memorial stamps, issued in April that year.  At Christmas 1964, 824,500 Christmas cards passed through the new Post Office and over 880,000 cards the following year.

Contracts to switch Amersham’s telephone system to a new automatic exchange with STD dialling in Sycamore Road were signed in 1966, but due to delays this was not completed until 1969 at a cost of £200,000.   It catered for 5,000 subscribers and Councillor Arthur Rodgers made the first call with the new system on the 19th June 1969.  From January 1973, the main Post Office closed on Saturday afternoons and postcodes were introduced.