Runners paved way for Falkirk’s mail

Falkirk's mechanised mail team in the 1920s
Falkirk's mechanised mail team in the 1920s

A friend recently complained about the price of a first class stamp. “It’ll soon cost a pound to post a letter – shocking!”.

My first reaction was to agree until I thought about it. I can post a letter round the corner from my home after 5 p.m. and the following morning a postman will deliver it to a house several hundred miles away in London, or Aberdeen or wherever ... all for less that a pound.

Given that it costs £1.40 to park for 10 minutes outside the post office then that stamp seems a bit of a bargain.

It is all a long way from the early days of the posts when ‘runners’ carried letters on foot from the major cities and the vast majority of the population would neither send nor receive a letter in their lives.

In the 17th century, wealthy individuals and businessmen were served by these runners who would leave Edinburgh for Glasgow stopping overnight in Falkirk and taking two days to cover the 48 miles of rough and dangerous roads.

If they made it safely to the town the local post would be left with an agent who would be a local lawyer or bank manager. It was then up to the addressee to come and collect his mail. More than a few times the runner would be attacked and robbed of the mail on his hazardous journey and sometimes the runner ‘did a runner’ himself, especially if there was cash in the bag.

One account in 1737 talks about “James Johnston, the post betwixt Glasgow and Falkirk who was robbed and wounded by which wound he died .. .to his wife for burying him, etc - £9 9 shillings”.

Falkirk’s first official ‘post office’ opened in 1689, probably in Bank Street, and by the mid-1700s it was on the south side of High Street opposite the steeple.

Thereafter it moved to Baxter’s Wynd, entered from what was called ‘Post Office Close’ and later to King’s Court where the postmaster was none other than Henry Salmon, the bank manager and former Provost whose fall from grace I described a few weeks ago.

By the middle of the 19th century it was in Lower Newmarket Street and things had improved with regular stage coaches and horse posts from Edinburgh to both Glasgow and Stirling.

Once the mail reached Falkirk it was still carried by foot runners to a number of Receiving Houses (the future sub Post Offices) in Camelon, Carron, Grahamston, Larbert, Laurieston and Polmont.

Companies picked up and dropped their mail once a day except for the mighty Carron Company which was allowed to collect and deliver four times a day. Later on the runners began to call in at mansion houses and big companies on their way from head office and the modern system began to emerge.

The arrival of the railways and later motor cycles and vans helped the service cope with a massive increase in business and by the end of the 19th century the authorities in Falkirk decided that they needed a grand new head Post Office.

The result was the fantastic building in Vicar Street which opened on October 30, 1893. With its amazing concoction of styles and features, as well as the menagerie of lions and unicorns on the roof, it remains one of the town’s landmark buildings.

It served until the present rather more mundane 1960s-style building in Garrison Place opened in 1971.