A post office and an abdication

BRADFORD-ON-AVON is a charming old-fashioned town in Wiltshire. It straddles the River Avon, which flows through Bath and Bristol. Its Town Bridge is not only old (construction includes some 14th century structure) but also it has a small building on it. This was originally a chapel but became used as a lock-up in the 17th century. Also of interest is the Roman Catholic church of St Thomas More, which is unusual in that it is housed on the first floor of what had once been the Town Hall (built 1854).

Despite the many old and attractive buildings in the town, what interested me most was the old post office. It stands in the picturesque Shambles, which used to be the part of the town dedicated to slaughtering animals and butchering. Compared to many of its neighbours, it is a relatively modern building; it was built in 1899 (www.bradfordonavonmuseum.co.uk/post). It was designed by William Henry Stanley. Then, in 1935 it was enlarged. By the time the new extension was complete, King Edward VIII had ascended to the Throne. What makes it most interesting and unusual is that it bears the monogram of King Edward VIII and the date 1936.

King Edward VIII, who succeeded King George V, reigned from the 20th of January 1936 until he abdicated on the 11th of December 1936. As is well-known, he gave up the throne to marry the American divorcée Mrs Wallis Simpson. What is less well-known is that few, only of a handful of, new post offices were opened in Edward’s brief reign (http://britishpostofficearchitects.weebly.com/bradford-on-avon.html), and Bradford-on-Avon’s extended branch was one of them.

I first spotted the Edward VIII monogram when we visited the town about 20 years ago. Then the post office in the Shambles was still in use. About 5 years ago, this special post office closed. It now operates from within a Co-Op supermarket in the town. However, the old office is now a protected building. The monogram remains but the building is now home to various shops.

The year Albania proclaimed independence

IN WARWICK, I chanced upon a fascinating book in a charity shop. It is Part 2 of “Stanley Gibbons Priced Catalogue of Stamps of Foreign Countries 1912”. When it was published, it could be purchased for as little as half a crown (2/6, which is 12.5 pence). I paid a lot more for it, but not an excessive amount.

I felt compelled to buy it because of its date and my interest in Albania. For, on the 28th of November 1912, the independence of Albania was proclaimed in the seaside town of Vlorë. Albania’s independence was formally recognised when the Treaty of London was signed in July 1913. The catalogue I bought in Warwick was published some time in 1912 and most likely before independence was proclaimed. As far as the publishers and the compilers were concerned, what is now Albania was still part of the Ottoman Empire.

The index of the catalogue contains an entry for “Albania (Italian P.O.)”.  This needs some explanation. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, there were postal services operated by foreign (i.e., not Ottoman) countries. A website (www.levantineheritage.com/foreign-post-offices.html) reveals:

“In the 18th century, foreign countries maintained courier services through their official missions in the Empire, to permit transportation of mail between those countries and Constantinople [sic] the Empire capital. Nine countries had negotiated Capitulations or treaties with the Ottomans, which granted various extraterritorial rights in exchange for trade opportunities. Such agreements permitted Russia (1720 & 1783), Austria (1739), France (1812), Great Britain (1832) and Greece (1834), as well as Germany, Italy, Poland, and Romania, to maintain post offices in the Ottoman Empire. Some of these developed into public mail services, used to transmit mail to Europe. The Ottoman Empire itself did not maintain a regular public mail service until 1840, when a service was established between Constantinople and other major cities in the country and this was slow to develop and expand. The gap in this capacity was very much filled with the various foreign post offices which continued functioning right till the beginning of WWI in 1914 …”

Left: Ioannina in the 1970s. Right: examples of over-printing texts

Hence, the entry in the catalogue’s table of contents. I turned to the page listed and found the section on Albania. The Italian Post Offices in the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire issued stamps, to quote the catalogue, which:

“…surcharged or over-printed for use in Italian post offices abroad.”

These stamps were the regular issues but, to quote the catalogue:

“… distinguished by the removal of some details of the design, over-printed with Type…”

Different Italian stamps were overprinted with names of places and a Type number. For example, Italian stamps were over-printed with: “ALBANIA.  10 Para 10. 201” (where ‘10 Para’ is a monetary denomination and ‘201’ is the Type number), or “Durazzo. 4 PIASTRE 4. 205”, or “Valona, or other place names. 10 Para 10. 208”. Durazzo and Valona being the Italian for the Albanian names Durres and Vlore.

Within the Albanian section of the catalogue there is also an illustration of the over-printing “JANINA. 4 Piastre 4. 205”. Janina is the name of a town now in Greece, Ioannina (Ιωάννινα).  In 1912, this town was not in what was then Greece, but in the Pashalik of Janina, part of the Turkish Empire. In February 1913, following the battle of Bizani in the First Balkan War, the town was absorbed into Greece. Many Albanians still consider that by rights Ioannina should be a part of a Greater Albania. The large Albanian population in the town was forcibly reduced by population exchanges in the early 1920s and also the pre-WW2 Greek government’s policy of strongly encouraging people of Albanian ethnicity to regard themselves as Greeks. When I visited Ioannina in the 1970s, there were the remains of Turkish buildings but many of them were in a sad condition. I do not know whether they have been restored since then.

My purchase in Warwick has proved to be of interest. It records the state of postage stamps on the eve of great changes that were about to happen in the Balkan peninsular as well as illustrating aspects of European colonialism, both political and economic.

A peculiar post office

WHEN I WORKED AT MAIDENHEAD, I used to travel there by train from London Paddington. Many of the trains terminated at a station called Bedwyn, which serves Great Bedwyn. I visited this small town on the Kennet and Avon Canal for the first time only recently.  While driving through the place, I noticed a building covered with gravestones and other ornamental carving. My curiosity was aroused.

The name ‘Bedwyn’ might have been derived from ‘Biedanheafde’, an Old English word meaning ‘head of the Bieda’, which referred to a stream in the area. In 675 AD, “The Anglo Saxon Chronicle” recorded the battle of ‘Bedanheafeford’ between Aescwine of Wessex and King Wulfhere of Mercia, which is supposed to have been fought near the present Great Bedwyn. The will of King Alfred the Great (c848-899) makes reference to Bedwyn. In short, Bedwyn has been a recognizable settlement for a long time.

Bedwyn’s combined post office and village shop can be found in a long, rectangular brick building on Church Street. The wall at the east end of the edifice carries a depiction of the Last Supper and above it, God on a throne, surrounded by saints and angels. These sculptural panels are in white and blue and somewhat resemble the kind of things produced by the Florentine sculptor Luca della Robia (1400-1482). Three gravestones are attached to the west facing end of the post office. A wooden gate next to this end of the building is labelled ‘Mason’s yard’. The front of the building, facing the street, is adorned with carved funerary monuments including gravestones, some of which bear humorous inscriptions.

The shop is attached to a house with a front door framed by a gothic revival porch. A carved panel in the porch reads: “Lloyd. Mason.” I asked some of the customers queuing up to enter the shop/post office if they knew anything about the curious decoration of the building. I was told that the place had once been the workshop of a stone mason who specialised in funerary items. My informant said that most of the carvings attached to the building were test pieces made by the stonemason’s apprentices; rejected or uncollected items; and offcuts.

Benjamin Lloyd (1765-1839), who died in Bedwyn, started his stonemasonry business in 1790 (www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=2825). He was responsible for some of the work done during the construction of the Kennet and Avon Canal, which began before he was born and was eventually completed in 1810. The company still exists. Now, it is run by John Lloyd, the seventh generation of the family to maintain the business (www.johnlloydofbedwyn.com/about-us). However, his premises have moved away from Bedwyn’s post office.

Benjamin Lloyd is buried alongside his wife Mary (1764-1827) in St Mary’s Church Burial Ground in Great Bedwyn. I do not know, but I would like to imagine, that their gravestone was made in the company Benjamin created.

A post office in a church

WEST HAMPSTEAD, FORMERLY known as ‘West End’ in the time, before the 20th century, that Hampstead was a small town separated from London. Now, yet another of London’s numerous suburbs, West Hampstead has several churches as well as a synagogue. One of these places of worship, St James Church, is worth entering because it is not what it seems from its external appearance.

The large Parish Church of St James, built mainly with red bricks, was erected in about 1887 (www.lwmfhs.org.uk/parishes/6-middlesex/28-hampstead). It was designed by Sir Arthur William Blomfield (1829-1899), the fourth son of CJ Blomfield, Anglican Bishop of London between 1828 and 1856, who encouraged much new church building during the 19th century. This large church could seat 1000 people (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp145-152#h3-0007) and has some fine 19th century stained-glass windows.

On entering the church through its electrically operated glass sliding doors, you will be surprised by what you find beneath its fine hammer beam timber ceiling. The west end of the nave is occupied by a post office, the first main-branch of a UK post office ever to be housed within a church. The north aisle of the church contains a children’s ‘soft play’ area, appropriately named ‘Hullabaloo’. The floor of the nave is filled with tables and chairs occupied by people of all ages, some enjoying refreshments from the church’s Sanctuary Café. All these things that you would not normally expect to find inside a church are part of The Sherriff Centre, a community organisation that began operating in 2014 (https://thesherriffcentre.co.uk/). The Centre’s activities also include a stationery store, a free food bank, live music as well as other events, free wi-fi, debt advice, and more.

Jesus is said to have thrown the moneychangers and others involved in commercial activity from the Temple in Jerusalem (“The Holy Bible”, John, Ch 2, v 13-16). However, he might have approved of the commercial activities within St James because profits from the sales outlets in the Centre are used to help finance charitable work. In addition to everything that I have already described about what goes on within St James, there is one more thing to mention. Despite the activities that you might not expect to find inside a church, regular religious Church of England services are held there. It is wonderful that St James, instead of becoming yet one more barely used Victorian church in London, has become a vibrant and beneficial part of a local community, catering to more than only just its by now small congregation.

Postage stamps in Albania

TIRANA Skand Sq with House of Culture and mosque

 

Recently, I read a blog (Click here) written by an Australian, who has visited North Korea twice. On one of his trips, he visited a museum or exhibition of postage stamps, many of which depict important leaders of the country. Given that it is against the law to deface pictures of these people, he wondered how careful postal officials would have to be when they cancel the stamps with the rubber stamps used for franking. One false move and the great leder’s face might become defaced. In that case, the postal official would risk punishment. This story reminded me of something that I observed in an Albanian post office when I was visting Albania in 1984. In those days, Albania was even more isolated from the outside world than North Korea and it was governed by a stern, repressive regime led by the dictator Enver Hoxha.

This excerpt from my book  Albania on my Mind describes what I saw:

I wrapped my books into a number of parcels, addressed them, and then began leaving the hotel to visit Tirana’s main post office. The Australian, who was travelling with us, spotted me in the lobby and asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he askedwhether he could accompany me to the post office, as he,working as he did for the Australian postal service, was curious to see how things were done by the Albanian post…

… The clerk behind the counter in the Tirana post office offered no objection to the way that I had packed my parcels. He weighed them and then gave me numerous stamps to stick on them. I stuck them on and returned the parcels one by one. The clerk examined each of them to make sure that I had stuck the right combination of stamps on each packet.

Suddenly, he stopped, looked up at me, then at the parcel, before pointing at one of the stamps. In my haste, I had stuck it on upside down. He tore the stamp off the
parcel, and then replaced it the right way up, pointing at the portrait on it whilst saying:
Enver Hoxha.”
The Australian, who was watching this with wide-open eyes,
turned to me and said:
You know, it’s completely illegal to remove stamps from postage. It’s against all international postal rules.”

I did not know what to say, but admired the respect that even a humble postage stamp could inspire in one of Enver’s subjects.”

 

ALBANIA ON MY MIND 

is available

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Picture shows Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, Albania, in 1984