Armadale Anterior to the Post Office - The First Post Office - Introduction of the Telegraph - The Erratic Career of the Office - Improved Postal Service
Armadale, from the building of the first house in the year 1795 up to the year 1850, had grown very slowly. At the latter date it was a hamlet of a mere handful of straw thatched or red-tiled dwellings around the toll-bar, with Thomas Rankin's provision shop near the Cross as the central attraction and place of business.
Thomas Rankin, who had carried on the business of a blacksmith for a number of years alongside of the first school, had turned over the blacksmith shop to Thomas Forsyth and became the merchant of the hamlet, cultivating a large garden adjoining his house, where he raised all the vegetables necessary for the wants of the inhabitants. The garden, which extended over the whole of the feu occupied by the Crown Hotel, was bounded by a thick hedge on the east side from the toll-bar, and on the south side by a close fir plantation.
The postal service was supplied from Bathgate by the rural system - a letter-carrier delivering letters and picking them up once a day - but the introduction of public works about 1850 gave an impetus to building, by reason of the demand for housing accommodation, and in the course of a few years the correspondence between Armadale and the outer world became so great that a Post Office became necessary.
Thomas Forsyth, who had taken over the blacksmith business of Thomas Rankin, had built himself a workshop a short distance west from the original blacksmith shop, and in connection with his dwelling-house, which he inherited from his father, and here, in 1855, a Sub-Post Office was established by Mrs Forsyth taking over the duties of selling postage stamps and receiving the letters for despatch.
The letter-carrier, who wore a red coat and had a horn slung over his shoulder to warn those who lived off the main road of his approach, continued his usual route, delivering letters on his way from Bathgate to Blackridge, and picking them on his return journey. Letters were then delivered at 10 a.m. only, and on his return to Bathgate from Blackridge at 3 p.m., the letters that were deposited in the Post Office were carried to Bathgate to be despatched to their various destinations.
In 1860 Mrs Forsyth resigned her postal appointment, and William Forrester, who had built a cottage on the next feu to the west of Forsyth, and opened a news agency and stationer's shop, was appointed to keep the Post Office. The population was fast increasing, and a demand was made for an evening delivery, and was granted at this time. The old letter-carrier was unequal for the increased labour of a second journey from Bathgate to Armadale and back again, and resigned, when he was succeeded by a nephew, John Easton. The red coat of the postman was then discarded, and the road was robbed of a picturesque figure, the next uniform of the letter-carrier being a dark steel-grey, with red corded facings.
Two deliveries and two despatches of letters in the day was arranged for. The letter-carrier, who walked from Bathgate, delivered the letters at 10 a.m., and proceeded to Blackridge for the same purpose. The return journey was commenced from Blackridge at 2 p.m., when Armadale letters were lifted on the way at three o'clock. The evening delivery was made at 7 p.m., when the postman again lifted the outgoing letters, and immediately returned to Bathgate, altogether having walked somewhere about twenty miles in his day's journey. Mr. Forrester, who had a monopoly of the news agency and bookseller's business in a rising town, and seemed to have a good connection, did not feel satisfied with the prospects for his rising family, and so gave up business in 1870, and left the village.
John M'Donald, who lived on the opposite side of the street, having had his health greatly impaired in the pits by an overdose of black damp, and who on that account had, through the application of a few influential friends, been appointed to be Registrar of births, deaths, and marriages for the district, on the death of Mr. Donaldson, was appointed, through the same influential agency, to keep the Post Office.
Mr M'Donald, on receiving this appointment, rented a small shop a few doors west of the old Inn, where he had a slot made in the wall of the building, between the door and the window, for receiving letters, and the words, "POST OFFICE, John M'Donald, Registrar," painted above the door.
A year later the business of Armadale had so increased that the authorities felt encouraged to introduce a telegraph service. A wire was duly laid to the Post Office, and an instrument placed there, when John M'Donald, jun., was appointed operator. Great wonder was expressed by the old people when they congregated at the toll to discuss the topics of the day when it became known that a telegram had reached Armadale before the hour at which it had been handed in at the receiving station, but it was generally admitted, when all explanation failed to clear up the matter, that the telegraph was capable of anything, even to beating time. But one old man who was credited with knowing more than the average, feeling that an explanation of this wonderful achievement was looked for from him, sought at the Post Office for the necessary information, and he duly appeared at the accustomed meeting place, and cleared up the mystery by showing that the part of the world where the message had come from was some two hours ahead of them in time. Still it was admitted to be a wonderful arrangement that could travel so fast, and those who had mastered the art of sending and receiving messages by the ticking of a clock were looked upon as something above the common. Many strange beliefs were entertained in those days concerning the telegraph system. Messages by wire were charged one shilling for twenty words, or part of twenty words, and were principally taken advantage of by business people, but on one occasion one working man was made happier than his fellows by being honoured with a telegraphic message from his brother many miles distant. To him the message was a remarkable thing, and in the course of a very short time it was public property, as he went about showing it to everybody, and explaining to them that considering the hills, and rivers, and dykes, and hedges it had to come over on its journey, it had reached him in a remarkably short time, and that he would have known it to be from his brother, even if he had not signed his name, from his hand-write. Such is only a sample, in passing, of how the untaught understood the effects of the electric current.
Gradually the work of the Post Office, combined with the Registrarship, increased, until larger premises became necessary, and the building presently owned and occupied by the Commercial Bank of Scotland, Ltd., which had been built by John Findlay, grocer, becoming vacant, Mr. M'Donald embraced the opportunity of accommodating himself in more commodious quarters, where he afterwards extended his business to that of news agent, stationer, and bookseller. For many years the Post Office remained there, first under John M'Donald, and, on his demise, his son Daniel, who was letter-carrier in Bathgate for many years previously, and well acquainted with the work.
In 1879 the M'Donalds departed from Armadale, and the premises occupied by the Post Office being taken over by Duncan M'Dougal, draper and clothier, the Post Office affairs were also entrusted to him. Mr. M'Dougal, however, in 1882, found himself in financial difficulties, and disappeared, when the Post Office was handed over to James Beveridge, who then occupied the shop where Mr. Forrester conducted the Post Office work in West Main Street. Mr. Beveridge also combined the business of news agent and bookseller with the office.
In 1888 Mr. Beveridge had to forego the loss of the postal appointment, which was then handed over to Miss L. Mair, who attended to the duties in her grocery shop in James Verrier's building at the Cross. Miss Mair's tenure of office was short-lived, as she became bankrupt towards the close of 1889, and John Black, a joiner, residing at Blackridge, who had lost a leg, and unable to follow his trade, was next favoured with the responsibility of the Post Office duties. Mr. Black secured the shop which was a short time previously occupied by the Co-operative Society as a bread shop, and formerly used in succession by Messrs Crossing, Leiper, and Elder as their dwelling-house in connection with their bakery business. Mr. Black did not long survive his appointment, but was succeeded by his widow, who was appointed in May, 1891, and has continued to manage the duties in a business-like fashion. The Post Office business continued to increase with an increasing population, and in 1894 Mrs Black secured more acceptable premises in South Street, where the office is presently situated.
The Post Office has money orders, telegraph, and savings bank departments, which are largely patronised, and the postal service during these years has undergone many changes.
John Easton, who was familiarly known only as "John, the Post," carried the letters between Armadale and Bathgate for a quarter of a century, and on his retiring on a well-earned pension, Armadale was given a service all its own. "John, the Post," was trusted by all, and it was no uncommon thing for him to hand in a letter with the announcement, "Here's a letter from Maggie," or "Mary," as the case might be, so well acquainted was he with nearly every family, and in many cases he was called upon to read the letter he delivered. Scarcely a day passed but John had a private message for someone, and many were the small articles he was requested to purchase and bring from Bathgate, or it may have been a pair of boots to carry to Tam Graham's, at Blackridge, to be mended. All these little messages brought John many pennies in remuneration. It was said that John knew exactly how many steps it was from Armadale to Bathgate, and that his pace was so regular and his step so uniform that he never varied a minute in the time nor a step in the two miles between the two places. One day, however, towards the close of his career, he missed a step on a severe winter day, when the snow was lying heavy on the roads. An open burn that indicated the march of Barbauchlaw, Hopetoun, and Hardhill lands crossed the road under a bridge at the east end of the town, and as John was groping his way among the snow, he got too near the edge of the bridge and disappeared. Some excitement was caused by a report that the "Post" was lost among the snow, and the accident had the effect of bringing to light the danger of the burn being left open, and in a short time the watercourse within the burgh was laid with large pipes and covered over.
On the withdrawal of old John Easton, Armadale received its own letter-bags and despatched them by train. A letter-carrier was appointed to deliver the letters in Armadale alone, and another sub-office was established at the Railway Station, to accommodate the rural district, and the Bathgate rural carrier was withdrawn.
Many alterations have been effected in the postal arrangements, until now Armadale has three deliveries of letters and parcels, one of which has to be called for. The morning delivery begins about 9 a.m., and the evening delivery at 5 p.m. While there are but three deliveries, there are five despatches of letters - 7.30 a.m., 12.25 p.m., 2.10, 3.10, and 8 p.m.. Those desiring or expecting letters at midday can have them delivered to them, if there, by calling at the office. Two wall-boxes for receiving letters have been erected to meet the demands of a growing town - one at Bathville, and one at the head of Mill Road, West Main Street. So great has the pressure become on the resources of the Post Office that three letter-carriers are now attached to it, and two telegraph message boys, while Mrs Black and her able assistant, Miss Prentice, attend to the duties at the counter, endeavouring to do the impossible - please everybody.