Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Alvey and daughters ... the power of the post-mistress!

Copyright E Brown 2011 Creative Commons 
If you are a fan of Lark Rise to Candleford you will remember that Dorcas Lane establishes herself as a woman of independence and influence in late 19th Century Candleford through her role as the village post-mistress.  Flora Thompson's stories were based on her own experience as a post-mistress and appear to accurately reflect the curious authority of the role at a time when women didn't have the vote and faced significant restrictions on employment and property ownership.

Having enjoyed the TV dramatisation of the novels I was interested to explore the experiences of my 4x great grandmother Elizabeth Alvey who was post-mistress of the village of Burton Joyce in Nottinghamshire.   Although, this is not strictly a blog post about Gedling - the focus of my one place study - Burton Joyce is the neighbouring village and the story that I have unravelled about the changing role of the 19th Century post office is as relevant to Gedling as it is to Burton Joyce.   It is a story that put the large number of post-mistresses right at the heart of dramatic technological, financial and commercial change.

The early role of women in Britain's Post Office is highlighted in the earliest available Nottinghamshire trade directory - the Nottingham Directory of 1815 - which refers to a Post Office on the High-street in Nottingham that was run by a Mrs Rayner.  Pigot & Co's Directory still has Mrs Rayner in place 13 years later in 1828-9.  Mrs Rayner must have been a prominent figure in Nottingham at a time when women were almost completely absent from any kind of clerical work.
Burton Joyce 1951 Copyright Archmage01 2011 Creative Commons Licence

At this point in time there were no established post offices in the Nottinghamshire villages and the distribution of letters and parcels was largely the responsibility of various private "carrier" services.  Burton Joyce is less than 6 miles north east of Nottingham but in 1832 Whites directory recorded that the village carrier service run by a John Swinscoe ran just twice a week.

By 1847 Slaters directory records some competition between carriers with "Goodwin" offering a daily service from the Lord Nelson and Martin a Saturday service from the Dove and Railway.  This competition appears to have been temporary as by 1858 Wrights reports again just a twice weekly service by Goodwin departing from the Lord Nelson.  But in the late 1840s and early 50s other changes had taken place to undermine the carrier service.  A train station had opened at Carlton just a few miles away and by 1851 a post office of some form must have opened because in the census of that year my widowed 4 x great grandmother Elizabeth Jackson (nee Alvey) was recorded as "post mistress".

Copyright Steenbergs 2011 Creative Commons
The Post Office itself seems to have been less forthcoming with the title of "Post Mistress" for in its own directory of 1855, men in the role are described as "Post Masters" whilst women such as Elizabeth are just described as "Receivers".  It may indeed have been a simple service that Elizabeth was providing at this time.   The village had only 600 residents and the post arrived by foot from Nottingham just once a day at 10am.  Anyone in the village wanting anything more complicated such as Money Orders still had to go into Nottingham.

Elizabeth continued in her post - that she repeatedly recorded in the census as Post Mistress - right into her 80s.  In her final years she was supported by her unmarried daughter Patty, who had previously left Nottinghamshire to work as a domestic servant, and on Elizabeths's death in 1875 Patty took over the role of Post Mistress or as the 1876 Post Office Directory still insisted on calling it "Receiver".  By 1876 the post was delivered twice a day from Nottingham but the villagers had to go to Carlton to get Money Orders or make use of the new Telegraph Services and Government Annuity & Insurance Schemes.

By 1885 this had all changed.  Burton Joyce now had its own station and Patty was presiding over a Post and Money Order Office and a Savings Bank (Whites 1885).  And by 1891 Kellys Directory records that she had added the government Annuity & Insurance Scheme to the services that she offered.  Patty herself seems to have made use of the Savings Bank as when she died in 1903 she had saved enough money to leave her niece Ellen Sophia Johnson (nee Kirkham) the equivalent of £35,000 in her will.  Not an enormous amount but a significant achievement for a woman from fairly humble origins whose only previous employment had been as a domestic servant.

Ellen assisted Patty  in the Post Office before her Aunt's death and subsequently took over as Post Mistress and continued to run the service after the birth of her two children.  Just a year after Patty's death Ellen had added Parcel Post, Express Delivery and Telegraphic Money Orders to the services that she offered. (Kelly's 1904).  The instant transfer of money that Ellen's Telegraphic Money Orders allowed would have been quite unimaginable to her grandmother Elizabeth who just 50 years before had to wait for the post to arrive on foot once a day from Nottingham.

The final record I have found so far of Ellen's work as a Post Mistress is a rather sad one - it being a bankruptcy order against her son Herbert in the Edinburgh Gazette in November 1929.   I don't know how much longer Ellen continued to work at the Post Office after 1929 but between them Elizabeth, Patty and Ellen - a widow, a spinster and a married mother - continuously ran the Post Office in Burton Joyce for over 80 years during which communication between their little village of Burton Joyce and the rest of the world was transformed.


  1. Very cool article. Women played such an important role in our history, the history of mankind, with little to no education. Thank you for sharing this bit of history. Women Rock!

    1. So glad you like it. There are so many great untold women's stories out there. Really fascinating to uncover them.