At the geographic center of Wales lies the village of Cwmystwyth (pronounced “koom-UST-with”), home to Bronze Age mining sites, beautiful waterfalls, and a fascinating piece of postal history: a small, corrugated iron shed in the village center. It’s an unassuming structure, and in a nation obsessed with garden sheds, this looks pretty much like any other, if a bit worse for wear. Half the roof is now missing, the wood is rotting, and the corrugated iron sides are rusty and battered.
But as Cumbrian historian Alan Cleaver shared earlier this month on Twitter, this shed is actually a hut – a postman’s hut, in fact, and quite possibly the last of its kind in Wales.
Once a common feature of rural postal routes in the UK, the humble postman’s hut served as a shelter from harsh weather and a place to rest and eat lunch between morning deliveries and the last collection. According to Cleaver, though the General Post Office provided the plans for these huts, paying for their construction or for fueling the stoves inside sometimes fell to the posties themselves. This expense on top of staggeringly poor wages meant that many rural carriers had to subsidize their income by moonlighting as a cobbler or farmhand between treks.
In The Postal History of Beaumaris, author J.B. Cowell touches on the phenomenon of the postman’s hut, and though Beaumaris is located about 100 miles north of Cwmystwyth, we can safely assume that the rural Welsh carrier’s lot was much the same across the region.
The letter-carrier was assisted in his duties by three rural auxiliaries, each of whom was allocated a specific walk. Their routes varied but they served the country districts named as Trecastell, Cornelyn, Penmon, Fargen Wen, and Marian Dyrys. They were regarded as part-time postmen, working a split shift of six hours a day, delivering from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 a.m. and walking back to Beaumaris with their collections from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The intervening period during the day was spent off duty in an official shelter hut, unless they could supplement their meagre earnings by helping a local farmer. This was not always possible during the winter months, so the Post Office supplied coal and firewood for their comfort. Two local shelter huts are listed in the official records, one at Fargen Wen and the other near Glasgoed Farm, Llanddona. They were erected in 1906 for £10 each [about £1,560 today], with annual running costs of 2s.6d [£81.79] for ground rent and 18s.0d [£588.89] for 12 cwts [12 hundredweights, or 612 kg] of coal.
According to Cleaver, the Cwmystwyth hut was erected a bit more recently, sometime in the early 1950s, and was in service until the 1960s. The hut once had a small potbelly stove to provide warmth and hot meals in bad weather, and the single window overlooks a nearby well that posties could use.
The hut has deteriorated significantly over the decades, but Cwmystwyth has plans to give it a new life. As of late June, a group of villagers has raised £4,700 to restore the hut, with plans to retain as much of the original structure as possible. Part of the project will include preserving the initials of a past postie, carved directly into the wall of the hut. Though the majority of the rotting wood will have to be replaced, the initials will be extracted and incorporated into the restoration.
In Yorkshire, the residents of Nesfield undertook a similar project to restore their village’s postman’s shelter in 2008. Located at a crossroads in the village just a few feet from the village post box, the small shelter is even simpler than Cwmystwyth’s hut. According to the sign placed at the site, the shelter was built in 1926 to replace an earlier structure “for [the postman’s] use when delivering mail on foot to Nesfield and Langbar twice daily.” Just a few such examples remain in the UK — most huts were not lucky enough to be restored, but rather fell apart, were torn down, or were repurposed as garden sheds.
Nesfield’s postman’s shelter was restored in 2008, preserving a part of Britain’s postal history and providing a rest area for passing villagers and cyclists. Photo via Google Maps.
If you aren’t local to central Wales, take a stroll around Cwmystwyth (or Nesfield) with Streetview on Google Maps and see if you can find the hut for yourself – and admire the countryside while you’re at it. Cwmystwyth is home not only to this relic of postal history but also countless rolling green fields and the now-retired Cwmystwyth Mines. Evidence of mining at the site dates back to the Bronze Age, and peaked in the 18th century, when the mine was a key source of silver, lead, and zinc. The mines have also yielded gold – in 2002, a team of archaeologists unearthed the Banc Ty'nddôl, the earliest gold artifact discovered in Wales, at the site.
As you search, you might consider how the land gives context to the history of these huts. What kind of trek would posties have had when the hut was operational? Would they have carried the mail from nearby Aberystwyth, on the west coast of Wales, or from farther afield? Or perhaps you’re interested in the carriers themselves. Did they engage in other work to supplement their meager incomes while waiting to depart with their collections? What might that work have been? And who is this RDE who so neatly carved their initials into the wall of the hut?
We may soon have answers from the researcher who brought the hut to our attention in the first place – Alan Cleaver is spending 2023 researching postman’s paths throughout Britain and documenting his journeys via Twitter and on his website. We can’t wait to see what else he uncovers.
Have you ever visited a postman’s hut, or encountered a similar structure outside of the UK? What other fascinating bits of postal history are hidden in plain sight? Let us know at [email protected] – we might feature your responses in a future article.