For centuries, Britain’s postal service has connected companies and customers, families and friends; spreading word far and wide from remote and rural corners to bustling towns and cities.
The Post Office has become a trusted friend for communities to rely on, its workers always going that extra mile to make keeping in touch a little bit easier.
None more so than Wentworth Post Office which has been an essential part of village life for over 170 years. Today, the post office remains at the heart of the community and is run by sisters, Sophie and Rosie; but these are just two women in a long line of postmistresses that have delivered a first-class service in the village.
It is from this fascinating ‘herstory’ which envelopes Wentworth Post Office that local textile artist, Gemma Nemer, has stitched memories from some of the former postmistresses and their families into her current project, Common Threads.
As part of her artist in residency placement with Great Place Wentworth and Elsecar, Gemma has been working with the community to discover how women in both villages made up the fabric of society, highlighting some of the colourful characters from the past.
And with the postal service most in demand during the festive period, what better time to package together the history of this beloved little Post Office with a message from days gone by.
When the General Post Office was launched in 1660 by Charles II, it opened up a whole new world of correspondence across the nation. However, the service was perhaps a little late to be dispatched to Wentworth, with the small village branch opening almost 200 years later. The Earl Fitzwilliam had initially applied for one to be established in 1831 but the original site, now the Rockingham Arms’ bed and breakfast accommodation, eventually opened in 1845.
This was due in part to Royal Mail’s introduction of the Uniform Penny Post and the first stamp, the Penny Black, a few years previous; the new single rate pre-paid system made the postal service more affordable and accessible to the general public and thus increased its demand.
The first rural messenger to deliver to Wentworth was George Tate who made the journey from Rotherham on horse and cart and was paid 14 shillings a week plus an extra 10/- for his horse. Tate would set off from Rotherham at 6am seven days a week, stopping first in Greasbrough before arriving at Wentworth at 8.15am and then making his way to Harley and Barrow. He returned at 5.30pm.
When the post arrived at Wentworth it was sorted by a receiver before being delivered across the village by a foot messenger, both of whom worked under the County Sub-Postmaster, William Foster.
By 1872, the daily rural round had grown to cover an approximately 20-mile area between Rotherham and Harley, with 1,567 letters delivered each month – more than a quarter of which were hand-posted around the village.
Around this time also saw the first of many postmistresses to take over the address, with female lead operatives far outnumbering men over the subsequent years.
Janet Foster was assigned postmistress in 1870, a role in which she remained for over 20 years. Sevilla Amanda Dobson took over for a few years before the longest serving postmistress, Mary Ann Charlton, began her 36-year stint in 1894.
During Mary Ann’s time, the current post office was built in 1914 across the road from the former, just set back from the road at the top of Main Street. It still has the original letterboxes that bear the royal cypher VR and the later EvIIR.
By 1930, Edith Ogle had taken charge and was assisted by Effie Carr from around 1934; but little did they know that just a few short years later they would be subjected to the first of three armed raids that would happen at the post office.
In May 1937, three youths pulled up in a car around 10.45am and entered the post office, with 21-year-old Effie going to serve them. However, a suspicious Edith told her not to open the cash drawer. One of the young men jumped on the counter to reach the cash till while another, holding a revolver, shouted to the women to ‘stick ‘em up’ before firing two shots – which happened to be blanks.
Edith struggled with one while Effie ran to call for assistance. The men, aged between 17 and 19, fled the scene before being caught by police in Thorpe Hesley.
It wasn’t until over 70 years later that Effie’s two eldest children, Joan Daley and Jeff Robinson, went to one of Gemma’s Common Threads pop-in sessions at the Mechanics’ Institute that they came to know more about their mother’s courageous feat for which she and Edith were commended for.
Effie had left her role at the post office the year after the raid to marry Donald Robinson and the pair moved to Whiston where they went on to have six children in seven years.
Up until 1946 the GPO had a marriage bar in place which restricted employment of women in substantial roles. The belief was that married women were financially supported by their husbands and so jobs were instead given to single women who did need work.
Effie never once spoke about her previous job to her children before she died in 1996. Joan and Jeff knew she had grown up in the village and that she lived at Street near Hoober Stand with her father, Thomas, a blacksmith, and stepmother Isabella whom he married after the death of his first wife during Effie’s birth.
Neither of her children are sure why or when Effie joined the Post Office; she had wanted to be a nurse but her father wouldn’t let her move away to train.
Thomas and Isabella went on to have a daughter together, Isla, and it is her daughter, Devina, who first sparked the family history curiosity while visiting Wentworth from Australia last Christmas.
While working for the Estate, Thomas was untimely killed in a motorbike collision with an army truck while going down to Wentworth Woodhouse aged 52. After his death, and with Effie now married, Isabella and Isla moved into Octagon Lodge at the top of the drive at the Estate’s bequest.
After visiting last year’s Christmas Market at Wentworth Woodhouse, Devina was taking photos of her children outside their grandmother Isla’s childhood home when she was greeted by the current owners who offered to show her round after hearing her story.
Jeff couldn’t believe he’d missed the chance to step back inside the lodge where he’d spent much of his childhood. But from this, it was suggested he and Joan call in at the Common Threads drop-in to find out more about their family’s history in the village.
Here they met villager, Marceline Rogan, with whom they shared a common thread – she had also been Wentworth’s postmistress, albeit almost 60 years after their mother had. Marceline and her husband Jim bought the business from Jayne and David Kearnes in 1994 and stayed for just over ten years before retiring due to Jim’s poor health.
When she heard of Joan and Jeff’s story, Marceline vaguely remembered the name Effie Carr from her research into the history of the Post Office to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the building in 2004. She had archive material and press cuttings about the armed robbery which the siblings had never seen before.
Along with being in charge of the keys and the safe, Effie and Marceline also shared another common thread. Marceline had also had experience dealing with criminality during her time at the post office.
One time, they had received a tip-off from police that they were the possible target of a planned raid and were not allowed any out-of-hours visitors for three months. Unlike Effie’s time, the post office raiders had moved on to keeping workers hostage until the early hours when the safe alarm deactivated.
“One morning, I opened the curtains to armed police surrounding the building. Every day we were to turn the alarm off and check in with police which my husband had forgotten to do this one day. The police assumed we were being held hostage but my only thought was what if I was made to lie on the floor in my flannelette nightie,” Marceline says.
They also prevented an estimated £1million fraud where Marceline showed the same courage as Effie and Edith. As a close-knit community, Marceline knew most, if not all, of the faces in the village. Which is why she was suspicious when a woman came in one day to cash her GIRO and gave her address as Main Street. Not recognising her, she questioned the woman who said she was in a relationship with a man from the village.
After refusing to serve her, Marceline followed the woman up Cortworth Lane and hailed a lift off the postman who was passing by. She went on to make a citizen’s arrest where the woman then pulled out a knife.
It transpired that a local DWP branch had moved offices and lots of blank GIROs had been stolen to print. The woman turned Queen’s Evidence in court and testified her fellow accomplices to save her own skin.
Jim suffered a stroke during their time at the post office and so the pair sold the business to Peter Beadham in 2004, after which they remained a part of village life by living in Paradise Square and becoming treasurers at the village Treat Fund.
“It was sad to leave but even sadder that over those ten years we lost 69 customers due to old age. But it was an experience I’ll never forget. Nobody really knows or understands what goes into running a post office. You’re responsible for all the cash you take in and any shortages must be accounted for personally. With the amount of hours you put in each day it wouldn’t even equate to the minimum wage,” Marceline says.
And of course, we can’t write about Wentworth Post Office without mentioning the well-loved Betty Sharp.
Betty spent 32 years as the village postmistress, having moved to Wentworth from Tinsley in 1959 where she had previously been a telegram girl and worked at the post office there since being 14.
During her time, the post office was known as an Aladdin’s Cave that sold anything and everything. Like
Effie 50 years previous, Betty also prevented an armed robbery and received an award commending her for her bravery.
She was also a formidable force within the village, being a parish councillor for almost 30 years and
launching the village’s WI branch. She was invited to Buckingham Palace’s garden party as thanks for her dedication to the village after being nominated by Lord Peter Hardy, Baron of Wath.