Emily Ann Bettesworth (1846-1908), Postmistress

by Gwyneth Wilkie

This research was undertaken as part of a mini-project on Postmistresses run by the Family and Community Historical Research Society and the article on which it is based first appeared in the FACHRS Newsletter in February 2016 (Vol 17, Issue 1).

The key document for understanding Emily’s life was the 1871 census entry [RG 10/1395/11/13].  Aged 25 she is already postmistress and apparently the only wage-earner in a household of four. Her younger siblings Amelia Matilda, 11, and John Robinson, 4, are still years away from being self-supporting.  It is likely, though, that her widowed mother, aged 45, would have lent a helping hand with both the post office and the family.

How did this situation come about?  Emily’s father, John Robinson Bettesworth, had become postmaster at Amersham in succession to his father, John Bettesworth, after the older man’s death in December 1854.

For both men this was a career change as both had started out as schoolmasters.  Emily’s grandfather John had taught at schools in Great Marlow and Aylesbury before moving to Amersham, where Pigot’s Directory of Buckinghamshire for 1842 lists him at the National School.

Michael Brooks, whose very informative article on Postal Services in Amersham states that:

 ‘John had been the first schoolmaster of the National School in Great Marlow in 1813.  Trained in the Madras system, under which older pupils were used to help to teach the younger pupils, he went on to open another school in Aylesbury in 1822.  He came to Amersham in 1842….He gave up teaching in 1845 when he was appointed postmaster and his son took over the teaching post.’

Prior to 1845, the post had been held by the Priest family, initially Francis Priest.  In addition to being parish clerk and a cordwainer, he also ran a grocer’s shop. In 1839 his daughter Ellen took over as postmistress. His son George succeeded him as parish clerk and ran a pub and a butcher’s shop and served on four occasions (1841-1871) as a census enumerator.  As a family must they have been very well informed on local happenings.

The British Postal Services Appointment Book[1] shows that John Bettesworth took up his appointment on 12 August 1845 in succession to ‘Priest’ and had to put up a bond of £300.  For ‘profession’ it reads ‘none’. The 1847 Post Office Directory gives some idea of what he had taken on:

‘POST OFFICE. — Postmaster, Mr John Bettsworth, High street.  Money orders are granted and paid at this office.  Letters from London, all parts of south of England, arrive every morning, per mail cart from Oxford, at ½ past 5, & are dispatched every evening at 8.  Letters from Berkhempstead, bringing north of England, Scotch & Irish letters, arrive every morn. per foot post at 7, and are dispatched every evening at 15 min. past 6.  Box for London closes at ½ past 7 in the evening, but letters may be posted up to 15 min. past 7 by payment of 1d. [one penny] extra.  Box for Berkhempstead closes at 6 in the evening, but letters may be posted up to ¼ past 6 by payment of 1d. extra.’

Clearly the hours worked were long.  The Post Office was open from 8am to 8pm from Mondays to Saturdays and even on Sundays from 9am to 10am, though services were restricted to the sale of stamps.[2]   Whether or not the postmaster had to be up to receive deliveries, the arrival of the first mail-cart at 5.30 in the morning must have been a noisy affair, with metal horse-shoes and iron-rimmed wheels clattering on the cobbles.  The long days made reliance on other family members a boon if not an absolute necessity. Sunday afternoons must have been extremely precious.

It was the early demise of her father which gave rise to Emily’s appointment.  He died on 5 August 1870, aged only 45, while away in the Lowestoft area, but was brought back to Amersham to be buried on 9 August.  No family Wills have been discovered which might have allowed us to gauge how profitable the Post Office business might be, but the National Probate Calendar reveals that Letters of Administration were drawn up in 1870 for an estate of under £300.

Her appointment as postmistress was not recorded until 1872, although she is clearly already fulfilling the role in 1871; her nomination paper was numbered 99687.  There is no mention of a bond.

She got her appointment in the days before Henry Fawcett (whose wife was Millicent Fawcett) became Postmaster General. His appointment in 1880 began a long process of modernising the Post Office and its services. This included appointing women to posts not previously open to them.[3]  Like many women Emily had proved her capabilities in a role by acting initially as a dutiful helpmeet to the man who held the post, in her case a father rather than a husband. A comparison could be made with Ann Ford, appointed Registrar of Births and Deaths for the Chesham District in succession to her father William Ford in 1892. Her father’s letter of resignation made it plain that she had been already acting as his deputy ‘with the approval of the Registrar-General’.[4]

The 1881 census [RG 11/1453/9/12] finds her now aged 35, still postmistress.  While in 1871 she was carrying the main burden, now two of her sisters, Amelia Matilda, 21, and Anne Maria, 19, are both listed as assistants.  John, 14, is still at school, where he apparently did very well.  On 4 August 1883 the Bucks Herald reported that at Amersham Grammar School, (Dr Challoner’s), Bettesworth had been awarded the first prize in the Upper Division.  He was also chosen to recite some of the King’s speeches from Henry V.  As education at that date was compulsory only up to the age of 10, it seems that Emily was keen for her brother to be well educated.  The family’s prosperity from early in the century had depended on high standards of literacy and numeracy, so her support in this area is very much in tune with family traditions. The family member missing from this census is her mother, who did not die until 1884.  On 31 March she had been admitted to the County Lunatic Asylum at Stone, where she would remain until 20 October.  At the time of the census there were about 420 in-patients. The following year she would again be a patient, staying from 27 May to 15 December. Each time she was discharged as recovered.[5]  These episodes must have caused Emily considerable anxiety.

The services provided at Amersham Post Office continued to expand.  From 4 February 1870 the Post Office took over responsibility for the ‘electric telegraph’ and the parcel post began in 1883. On 15 October 1888 Emily’s sister Anna Maria married Frederick George Studds, a postal clerk. The loss of Anna Maria, who went to live with her husband at 131 Peel Street, Birmingham, seems to have been made up by recruiting a cousin, Julia Lydia Cole, aged 32, as assistant.

It is hardly surprising that the old post office premises were now found to be inadequate.  The decision was taken to move from the Market Square to the High Street, renting a building previously occupied by JC King’s draper’s shop, which is now 67-69 High Street.  On 12 February 1891 the new office opened for business.

The space had been rearranged so as to provide a room 18 x 23 feet for the public area and a sorting office of 15 x 19 feet.  In addition Emily had her own private office of 12 x 14 feet and there was a storeroom and a retiring room for the clerks.  The Herald’s reporter remarked that the same family had run the post office for 45 years.[6]  

A few weeks later the census [RG 12/1130/27/8] shows that Amelia Matilda was now working as Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, as had been noted in the Postal Services Appointments Book in August 1886.  In addition to Julia Cole, Frank Foxwell Williams, aged 17, is part of the household and also working as Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist.

The increasing complexity of working behind the post office counter is confirmed by a glance at the Kelly’s Directory of 1899:

‘Post, M.O. [Main Office]  & T.O. [Telegragh Office], T.M.O &, [Telegraph Money Orders(?)], Express Delivery, Parcel Post, S.B. [Savings Bank] & Annuity & Insurance & Stamp Office, High Street. —Miss Emily Ann Bettesworth, postmistress.  Letters arrive from London and all parts of the South of England per mail cart from Slough at 5.22 a.m.; delivery commences at 7 a.m.; London 9 a.m. & 6 p.m.; dispatched at 9.45 & 11.40 a.m. & 4.20 & 7.15 p.m.  Letters from Berkhampstead, including North of England, Scotch & Irish letters, arrive at 5.10 a.m.; dispatched at 7.15 p.m.  Box for London closes at 7.15 p.m.’

Perhaps the most impressive feature of this entry is the confidently predicted arrival of the horse-drawn mail-cart from Slough, expected at 5.22 precisely, whatever the weather and despite the locomotive power being provided by a creature notoriously prone to casting shoes or going lame.  Drivers carried a post-horn so that they could claim priority over other road-users. The hours remain long, with the action starting soon after 5am and little let-up during the day with mail arriving, leaving or being distributed.  From a notice in the Bucks Herald of 2 August 1890 we learn that from then on the second delivery of letters would start at 9.15 am and the third at 5.15 pm, so the letter-carriers were also well occupied.  The first delivery was supposed to be completed by 7am.

By the late 1890s details of salaries are being made publicly available.  The overall cost for Amersham in the estimate for 1897/8 is given as £1906 for postal and £274 for telegraph services.  For 1904 the overall figures are conveniently broken down to show that at Amersham, which by now has 18 sub post offices, the postmaster earns £141[presumably per annum]; the sorting clerk gets 36 shilings [presumably per week], three female clerks and telegraphists 27 shillings a learner 6 shillings, the town postman 22 shillings and the 8 rural postmen (who probably have further to walk) 20 shillings [£1].[7]  In 1901 Frederick Elbourn, a cousin of Emily’s, was the town postman.

The arrival of the telegraph provided local lads with a new sport to test their skills — smashing insulators with their catapults.  When Emily caused  George Gladman, aged 12, to be taken to court the telegraph engineer Alfred Eames said that in his district, which had 150 miles of wire, about 2,000 insulators were being broken every year.  Amersham’s share of the total was 200-250 and the cost of replacing them was very heavy.  George promised never to do it again and the magistrates threatened to deal severely with future offenders, who could be liable to the maximum penalty of £10 or three months in prison.[8]

The 1901 census [RG 13 /1335/ 26/11] is the last in which Emily appears. While she continued as postmistress and Julia, aged 42, is a Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, it is difficult to decipher Amelia’s role.  It may be Post Office pensioner.  If so the Post Office Archives may be able to confirm that.

A further innovation was the telephone exchange constructed behind the post office, which started with 13 local telephone subscribers in 1902.

Emily’s retirement in November of that year meant that details of her service (31 years 10 months are recorded.[9]  Her salary averaged £134-13-8 over the previous 10 years.  Before being appointed postmistress she was an assistant for 8½ years.  Her Civil Service Certificate was gained on 28 Feb 1873 and this may mark her gaining Established status with the added job security and pension entitlement that came with it.[10] Her pension was calculated at £69-11-8 and she was given a testimonial which read:

‘Miss EA Bettesworth has discharged her duties with diligence and fidelity to the satisfaction of her superior officers.’

She ceased work on 1 June 1902. In 1899 she had had 134 days sick leave in addition to 31 days normal leave and the following year had had 186 days off and only 1 day’s holiday, so it is possible that her health was breaking down.  According to Brooks, she retired to one of the almshouses in Post Office Yard which, like the new post office premises, belonged to Day’s Charity.  One wonders whether she was still tempted to supervise operations from that vantage point?

After such a busy life serving others it would have been fitting if she had been able to enjoy a long and happy retirement, but such hopes were not to be realised. In November 1904 she fell and broke her leg in Rectory Wood while out on her usual afternoon walk and was carried home for the fracture to be reduced.[11]  On 17 September 1907 she followed in her mother’s footsteps and was admitted to the County Asylum at Stone (admission no 57443). Sadly she was never discharged and died there of cancer on 28 May 1908.

Amersham Post Office, probably in 1900, photographed by George Ward
Amersham Post Office, probably in 1900, photographed by George Ward

It is impossible to know whether Emily might have chosen an independent career or whether she simply responded to the needs of her family by taking on the role of breadwinner, a role which later allowed her to help her relatives into steady employment.  Either way, she held down a very demanding job and did so for at least twice as long as her father and over three times as long as her grandfather.  She must have had an organised and meticulous approach to her work, which demanded accuracy and integrity, and she successfully helped to bring in major changes in the services provided.





[1] POST 58, held by the Postal Museum, Mount Pleasant, London, and searchable on Ancestry.

[2] LE Pike and C Birch, The Book of Amersham, 1976, p43.  The delivery area, served on foot or, later, by bicycle, covered Little Missenden, Penn Street, Coleshill, Hyde Heath and out to Sheephouses, just beyond the little Chalfont tube station.  The authors also relate that, although challenged on a number of occasions by Chesham, Amersham could always prove it had a higher volume of post and retained its status as the main GPO Crown Office for the area.

[3] For more detail see Duncan Campbell-Smith, Masters of the Post, the Authorised History of the Royal Mail, 2012, pp 185-189. The advantage of employing women was that they were paid less and might not need a pension as they were apt to marry.

[4] Bucks Herald, 4 June 1892, p 7

[5] Admission numbers 71658 and 86677, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, TNA MH 94/42, searchable on Ancestry.

[6] Bucks Herald, 21 Feb 1891.

[7] Bucks Herald, 9 April 1898 & 2 May 1903. MJ Daunton comments that rural letter-carriers were treated very differently from their counterparts in large cities: they continued to be appointed by patronage until 1892 and their wages were fixed, not incremental.  In 1883 they were walking an average 16 miles a day, carrying 30-35lb loads.  Some had an allowance to provide themselves with horse and cart, but finding money for the initial outlay was onerous, Royal Mail: The Post Office since 1840, 1985, pp212-213.

[8] Bucks Herald, 3 Sept 1898.

[9] POST 1/342.  Warm thanks are due to the staff at the Post Office Archives who went to great lengths to discover this.

[10] ‘To belong to the Post Office establishment in late-Victorian Britain was to enjoy a range of privileges scarcely available to the working man anywhere else in the economy’, Duncan Campbell-Smith, Masters of the Post, The Authorized History of the Royal Mail, 2012, p171.  If this was true for the working man, how much more so for the working woman?

[11] Bucks Herald, 12 Nov 1904.

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