Sunday, 13 August 2017

Of letters, and postmasters in the Eltham of the 19th century

Eltham in the 1830s
I am back with the post office in Eltham and in particular two men who straddle the history of letters, parcels and other odd things sent by the postal service.

James Pike and James Lawrence were the postal service in Eltham for a big part of the 19th century and their stories have been unearthed by Jean Gammons and so I shall hand over to her.

“James Pike was Eltham’s postmaster for perhaps forty years.  He was a clockmaker and his house was in the High Street.  

Very little is known of him and the earliest reference is a record of the death of his first wife in the parish records in 1798.  I could find no record of his birth or his marriage to Elizabeth so he may not have been an Eltham man.

He remarried in 1809 when he was 49 to a young woman from Eltham called Ruth Patterson.*

She was some twenty years younger than him and the records show they ran the post office together.

This was on the High Street just up from the old Chequers inn.  They would have conducted the business of the postal service from a room in their house and people waited outside in the street to be served through a window.”
Burial entry of James Pike, June 1837

James died in the June of 1837, and was buried in the parish churchyard.  

His wife Ruth survived him by twenty years, but the business was taken over by James Lawrence whom the Pike’s had taken on as their apprentice in their clock making business.2

He had been born in Eltham in 1819 and we can follow him from the 1841 census when he was listed as watch maker through the next four decades.  By 1871 while he may still have had a connection with the clock business he lists himself simply as postmaster.

This was an important time in the development of the Post Office.

Looking towards the parish church
The year before “the post office had taken over the private telegraph companies and James Lawrence must have been very proud when his eldest son, then a lad of just 13 became one of the Post Office’s first Telegraph messengers.  

In 1876 Eltham’s little post office was upgraded to a Head Post Office and Lawrence was placed in charge of all the smaller post offices in the Eltham district with an overnight salary rise from £31 to £60 a year.

But his office was still at no 54 High Street in the old shop where it had been since the 18th century, roughly where the milkman’s cart is seen in the picture."

The Post Office is roughly where the milkman's cart stands
All of which takes us into a new and bold period in the history of Eltham and its postmasters.

Pictures, of the High Street in the 1830s, and in 1909 courtesy of Jean Gammons and Mr Pike’s burial entry from St John’s parish records, courtesy of, and the City of London Corporation Libraries, Archives and Guildhall Art Gallery Department

*Another Eltham life brought out of the shadows, the story of Ruth Pike, nee Patterson, 1782-1857

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