George Hayes was born in 1904 in Church Street. He once gave me this nostalgic recollection of his youth. “That’s one of the things we miss today. If you was laid in bed, or you’d been asleep and you woke up, ‘cause we used to go to bed very early, you woke up it was the mail van.
Ten o’clock at night coming from Braintree to Witham. Every night ten o’clock, Saturday night Sunday night as well. Ten o’clock.
You would hear the horses feet going down on the hard. There was no other sound, there was no motor cars about, and farm carts were in bed that time of night. That’s one of the sounds, you know, that you’ll never hear again, you miss that”.
The memories of Flo Pavelin, also born in 1904, were less peaceful. She talked about the night mail from Colchester. As a girl she lived in Newland Street, and she told me “When I can first sort of remember, sometimes my mother used to let me stop up and see. The mail coach used to come through from Colchester, gallop through with two horses. It was just like a big bread van thing. Or sometimes they’d stop them – in the summertime, they had to stop them at the horse trough for a drink, and then go on” The horse trough was near the Grove cottages.
She continued “And when the First World War finished, they had a bonfire in the town, right in the middle of the town. Oh! And that was a bonfire that night! They rolled barrels of tar up the town from the gasworks and put them on that bonfire. And then all of a sudden everybody shouted ‘The Royal Mail! The Royal Mail!’ And the firemen blindfolded the horses and led them past the fire. They had the Fire Brigade standing there and damping down”
Gerald Palmer was a bit younger, born in 1910. Perhaps the
mail train was taking over from the horse van when he was growi
ng up, I’m not sure. He and his parents lived in Newland Street above his father’s saddler and harness maker’s shop, not very far from the Post Office, which was at 84 Newland Street.
He said “and when I was in bed, I could – every night just after nine o’clock, I could hear the postman with a rather squeaky little barrow, taking the bags of letters up to the railway station to catch the mail train, which ran
at about twenty past nine every night.
And I could hear him – I could tell the time! He would go up and then after an interval, he would come back, still squeaking! I can certainly remember that mail train. I spent the whole of my life in this street, really.”
At one time, when the mail reached the mail train, it was
red to the moving train by the ingenious “mail catcher”. Mrs Lily Pease once kindly let me copy
three fascinating small photos of the Witham one in use in the late 1950s. The men were her late husband Harold, and his colleague Bill Oliver. To watch an American version in action go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lVSC4jt2R8 There you can see a man in the train throwing out the old mail, and skilfully grabbing the new.