Douglas Norman Gibbs  (1928 – 2016) A real character

25 Minute Oral history discussing his time as a postman, recorded by Murray Rose in 2010.

Doug Gibbs must be one of Beaminster’s  best known characters of the second half of the 20th century. He went to school in East Street and would have left school before he was 16 years old.

He became one of  Beaminster’s postmen. A job which he had for 35 years, in the days when Beaminster had its own sorting office. He was dedicated to the post office and named his Cottage Mount Pleasant in honour of the London headquarters. He left the post office after 35 years under circumstances which upset him.

In his bungalow, he and his wife Jean inherited from a friend a small business making kindergarten smocks for children to wear when they were painting. A simple square of material with a hole for the head and four tapes to tie round the child. Some of these were sold at Harrods and a kindergarten teacher, Diana Spencer, bought some for her class. When she married she bought two more for her children and so Prince William and Harry wore Doug’s smocks – and he proudly has letters from the palace to confirm this.

Since he lived near the school, he and his wife arranged school  hops on a Saturday nights for many years, in the days when schools were more a part of the community. This produced a steady, respectable income for the school.

He was an avid gardener and produced such an interesting garden that he was chosen as one of the few small gardens in the National Garden Scheme, raising money for cancer research. His garden raised over £20,000 for the charity.

Murray  last saw Doug Gibbs on Crewkerne station dressed in a suit, for the first time wearing a tie, with his daughter who was taking him to Buckingham Palace as he had received an invitation to the Queen’s garden party.

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Oral History Transcription below

DOUGLAS GIBBS TALKING ABOUT HIS WORK AS A POSTMAN TO MURRAY ROSE ON 8TH SEPTEMBER, 2010

TRANSCRIBED BY SALLY WAKEFIELD JANUARY 2021

MR Why did you become a Postman?

DG Well, because I had to earn money. I was short of money and the thing is I had given in my job to Mr. Poole as a decorator and then I became a window cleaner and within days I had decorating and within a few months, it was coming up Christmas. I helped the Post Office with the Christmas rush and after that I went back to see the Postmaster. I got my Insurance Stamp, and got my wages for what I had done, and he said that the Post Office were interested in me for part-time. They said it would cover sickness, holidays and they needed somebody to help on this part of it. So I agreed I would do it. I thought it was going to be be part-time and it finished up with I was doing this continually. Helping with the post. They put up the round and I’d deliver it. I did this for many years until 19…………. Oh, by the way, while I was doing this auxilliary there was a bit of a problem from when come Christmas because Christmas Day I was expected to deliver and for me, I wanted to see my children. But I found that I could. They couldn’t stop me going home for half an hour, wake the children up so they had their Christmas presents and go back again. So that was important for me but it was all agreed.

The thing is, 1973 I had the chance to go to Australia for a holiday to see my brothers I hadn’t seen for 30 years and on my return I had a message to say it was urgent I should see the Postmaster in Bridport. I went in and he said, ‘Mr. Gibbs your job has gone. If you’d like to start Monday morning’, he said, ‘it’s a full time, you can drive, you know everything. There are other postmen in Beaminster, your friends, they’ll help you. We’d like you to start Monday morning but, if you do, we’ll give you ten years for your pension’. So I agreed there and then that I would start Monday morning.

One thing I just missed. Before ’73, 1963 was a big problem not just for me but for everybody. There was the worst winter I’ve ever known in my life. All the roads. The snow came down at night, there was freezing hard and it blew into the roads. The road between Beaminster and Bridport was blocked for about two months. You couldn’t get through. As the snow went down it froze solid like concrete and every road in Dorset was blocked. So the only way we could get the mail was to go as far as we could with a van and they came from Bridport and crossed fields, went across fields with it. I had instructions from the Postmaster, not only me but the rest of the postmen. If we turned up and there was no mail we’d get paid. If you didn’t turn up there’s no money. So it helped me because window cleaning, decorating was gone. I mean I couldn’t do that in that weather. It was impossible. So the Post Office helped me.

1962 also, it helped me because I’d taken out a mortgage to build this house. Because I had a little job I could get the mortgage. I couldn’t have got it self-employed. So again the Post Office helped me. The thing is now that I’m a postman and things started to happen. I had to go out on a particular round and I knew there was something………….. We were all friends. We got on well with each other; they had a bit of fun with me and I knew something was up but I didn’t know what. I was on this round and when I got back they asked me and I said ‘yes, a jackdaw did come down from off a guttering and pitched on my shoulder and pecked my neck’. They laughed like anything because they knew this was going to happen. And then, one of the postmen said, ‘well you know, when I was up there the jackdaw came out of the kennel, the dog kennel, and come along and bit me on the legs’. When I went on that week the dog came between me and the bird. Eventually he killed it but it was a nuisance.

Another day there was Reg Hawker, he was on the Seaborough round and he got to a farm and asked Mr. White, shouted out for Mr. White, because he had to get a signature, he had a Recorded Delivery and Mr. White answered but he never appeared. He went on calling Mr. White because he wanted a signature. Finished up he said it was a Mynah Bird! So these things happened.

Another thing, is dogs. It was another Mr. White. I don’t think they were a relation. It was up on Beaminster Down and he had a dog there and I said to him one day ‘your dog looks dangerous’. He said ‘why?’ I said ‘well, he shows his teeth’. ‘Don’t you know’, he said, ‘he’s smiling at you. He’s so pleased to see you’. ‘No’, I said ‘I’ve never heard of such a thing’.

Now in Beaminster, we had five postmen. We rotated, so five weeks later I was back there again. But this time he didn’t smile at me or nothing so I didn’t do nothing about that on the Monday. Tuesday I saw Mr. White. He called me and I answered and the dog heard me, couldn’t have seen me. It was going blind. It came over so pleased to see me. So dogs can be two things.

There was another dog at Drimpton. Black and white Dalmation, also smiled at me. I got used to this. Just because they showed their teeth, didn’t mean they were dangerous.

But there is the other side. Alsations. Up Mapperton I delivered the mail, got half way back to the van and two Alsations came round from the back of the house and I froze. I couldn’t move. I shouted and shouted. The lady come round and called them off me. They never touched me but it was very frightening But, in Beaminster there’s Higher Meerhay, where Martin Clunes live, and there was a lady there called Miss Cotton. She had five Alsations and I had to manoeuvre the van so that I only had about two steps because they’d come quickly. It’s very dangerous. It would frighten me so I had to be prepared for that.

But then there’s other problems on the round. People. There was a lady in No. 1 Riverside in Beaminster. She was watching me. At No. 28 Riverside also it’s on the lane, she could see me up the road. And this lady is a great friend of mine and I used to go in there and have a cup of tea and used to go to the toilet. A postman can’t just drop…….. in some places you can’t even go to the toilet. Broadwindsor, there’s no toilets. In any case, she timed me and she was in Beaminster Post Office and she said ‘Oh, I wrote to the Postmaster General in London about Mr. Gibbs spending half an hour in this house every day’. But what she didn’t know was that also the Postmaster in Beaminster heard her say it but he never said nothing. But we are entitled to stop for half an hour on the round. And one of these times when I’ve stopped, it was at Seaborough, and I went to have my sandwich and it was frozen. Inside the van, it was frozen. I couldn’t eat it, it was so cold. Even inside the van there was icicles.

There was another lady on the round, this time – the highest point in Dorset is Pilsden Pen – and this lane, I can’t think of the name of it now, the first farm on that lane is Mrs. Bailey and it’s quite a drop down to her place. The Post Office said we had to deliver all First Class mail but we mustn’t go anywhere where we’d going to be over time because they weren’t going to pay us overtime. So we were in a dilemna what to do. So with her, I didn’t go there for two days because I thought I may get down there but I’m not sure if I’m going to get back. No chains. So on the Wednesday, I decided to go. I went down and she was furious with me because I hadn’t been down with the mail. And I said, ‘well look, I’ve got no chains, I’ve got nobody to help me. If I get stuck here, I said, what am I going to do?’ And with the same I tried to get away and I couldn’t. The van wouldn’t move. There was so much ice it just wouldn’t move. I had to wait there about ten minutes before her husband turned up and he had to have a tractor and pull me out. When we got up the top, come to like a crossroad, it’s a lane, Specket Lane it’s called. The thing was, as it happens it was lucky there was a gate opposite his entrance to his farm and he finished up he had to go up there to get me right up on the road because I couldn’t move. And I said to him, ‘look I can’t go down again. Is there anywhere I can leave the mail so that you can have it but, somebody you can trust’. So we made arrangements.
[00:09:27]

But she is a person with…………………..all postmen. There was one postman went there and she gave him a number of letters to take and a few days later she’s complaining bitterly to the Postmaster at Dorchester because one letter she gave him and she thought he was going to deliver. He didn’t look at it to see if it was stamped. She was trying to find trouble. That’s the kind of people there are.

But then there’s other problems with the post. I was asked to go out, well somebody had to go out every afternoon to, we had to take it in rota when we were on a certain round we had to do the afternoon and do the collections. And this one was quite memorable because it was snow again and I got out to Seaborough to empty their box which I did but I couldn’t move. The van was skidding and that and I was stationary. But there’s only one building near that box and the gentleman inside saw me and he come out to give me a hand and he was a Major General. And I couldn’t believe he would come out and give me a hand to get going. That’s the kind of things can happen. People are very kind and very friendly.

But the thing is, things can go wrong as well as go right. I had told you about this that I had to deliver Registered. At the beginning when I started with the Post Office anybody working for the council had their money, real money, it wasn’t Registered or anything, it was just an envelope, their wages. And I got to an estate in Beaminster, got out of the van and had to go round, I had to go round in a circle and come back to the van and I had this Registered half way round and there was nobody in. I put on the envelope NA for “no attention”, and the time, and I put it at the back of the bundle of mail I had with me. I went on delivering but when I got back to the last house I was distracted and I didn’t realise what I’d done. I’d put all the mail into the house including the Registered. And it was about ten minutes or so later when I was up there getting finished up with this estate and I realised what I’d done and I was so worried because I couldn’t believe I’d done such a thing. So I got back to the office eventually and I mentioned it to a friend, well it was a postman who retired, well not entirely, he finished up in London and he was working down here, he’s been a postman for a long time and I said to him what happened and he said ‘whatever you do you’ve got to tell Mr. Tibbles what’s happened. Exactly what’s happened’, he said, ‘otherwise you’re in trouble’. So I went and told him and, to my surprise, I never heard from that day to this anything more about it. I just couldn’t believe it so I mentioned to one of the more senior postmen and he said ‘didn’t you know that the Post Office is insured for that, so they didn’t worry because they were covered for insurance’. I said that no-one had told me so it just shows you how you can be worried about things that happened.

The other thing is when you’re driving there’s a chance you’ll have an accident. Well in all the time I was with the Post Office I had two accidents. One, the first one, was out Chedington. There’s Wynyards Gap Hotel there. It’s like a four cross road, if you go straight across from the village it leads out to farms out round there somewhere but there was a fairly sharp corner on the way and naturally I went round there slowly. You wouldn’t go very fast round and as I was going round, a van, a vehicle, come from the other way, hit me and went on for some distance before it stopped. He got out and come back and talked to me and he said it was my fault. I said, ‘look, where I stopped there’s the dirt from my bumper you hit, there’s the dirt on the floor. I haven’t moved. You went on’, I said, ‘you hit me’. And so I made…………….. The one thing I don’t like about this is that when you get back it would take you about half an hour to fill out a form. You’ve got to do all the details and that and I did mention, I said that in my opinion his brakes weren’t efficient. Something was wrong that he couldn’t stop correctly. Again I never heard a word from it.

But the other one was a major accident. And it was my fault. But things happened. I will explain. It was Christmas, it was the end of a day’s work. The very last thing I had to do I used to come into Beaminster down White Sheet, I had to empty the box there, came down through Woodswater, down East Street and I stopped on the junction to empty the box and I looked up the road – there was nothing, I looked down the road – nothing and, with my driving I don’t hang about on a junction I go out to get clear of it. And with the same, one great bang I hit a vehicle really hard on the side. The driver he went unconscious. He blacked out and I, well, the noise was so great that people all round must have heard me. And within two to three minutes I couldn’t believe it, a policeman turned up on his motorbike. On the bottom of East Street at that time was a doctor’s surgery – Dr.Horner and his surgery was there so that was all right – but the first thing he did, he came over and he checked whether I’d been drinking. And I’m teetotal. I don’t drink at all, ever. So that was all right. So he said to me, ‘well, where did you start’. I went and showed him and he said, ‘well, as far as I’m concerned you’re exempt from your accident’. He said, ‘you couldn’t have seen that vehicle if you’d wanted to. The sun was just over the wall, right in my face and he was passing that point. Up the road was clear, down the road was clear. If he’d gone straight on he’d have been all right but he turned to go up East Street right across my path. And I never had word from that again. There was nothing. So in the end they gave me a qualification for such a good driver.

MR So you got this certificate…………..

DG Yes, but the Post Office do more than that. You get a badge, you get diplomas, you get letters which you will read. One says how good a driver I was. So that’s saying something isn’t it. But when we started, there was problems. The van I had to start off with was a real worry for me because I had to have a key to take to put in the engine. Because I’m not mechanical minded. The starter motor would jam and I had to have a key for that and one thing happened to me which was very embarrassing. This was right at the beginning when I started because I wasn’t used to the van, the security and all the rest of it so I got up Langdon and I got out and took the mail in and the door shut and I couldn’t open it again. And the keys was in the ignition. So they had to ring down Mr. Tibbles to come up and get the van open because it was self locking. I didn’t expect that to happen. Things like this, but it’s all part of the job.
[00:16:44]

I did say at the beginning that I had ten years for me pension. Well, the thing was, things at the Post Office started to change when I was about 58. I had about two years to go. First of all, they brought in…… they were going to change. No more overtime. They were going to bring in a cardboard box which held about 200 letters and they had to measure up these letters every morning and if they got over a certain number we’d have overtime and if not we didn’t get the overtime. Well, at this point most of my friends had retired. Only about one left so they were all youngsters come on and there was no overtime so some of them had a job to do in the afternoon and they started rushing. They wouldn’t stop for tea, they wouldn’t stop to anybody and the problem was for me that I couldn’t speed up. I couldn’t go no faster. That I couldn’t do. In fact one person said one of these young lads was in such a hurry that he hit a bank and turned the vehicle over because he was in such a race but with me I couldn’t do that. So there was a problem with my delivery because when I’m on the Hooke round which was up here I used to have to go up Whitcombe Road and the last person up there was some well to do person and I was half an hour after all the other postmen. And he thought that I’d stayed here and had my breakfast but I never. I just couldn’t keep that speed up. But then things started to go wrong for me because I started getting nightmares because I just couldn’t keep up with the speed. I felt I was a burden on them I just couldn’t do it.

So I decided to retire at 60 and I had a letter at this time saying that Beaminster Sorting Office was going to close and that they hoped I would go into Bridport and carry on as a postman and they said that (I had a letter saying that) it come from Cirencester, the Post Office put all their knowledge into a computer and they worked out that I only should have had four years for my pension and they said that’s what they were going to give me. Instead of ten years they were going to give me four years. So I got into Bridport. It was difficult for me because we had pigeonholes where we put a street in and then we sorted out. Well in there you didn’t have to do that. Once you got your frame filled you just pulled it down and carried it away with you. Because we had slots like for records, left and right and we had to put our…… so I had to get used to this as well as everything else and so I had problems.

In any case, it coming up to Christmas and when we’re near, about a day or so before Christmas, we generally get some senior person come in talk to us and thank us for what we’ve done, you know because it is a lot of hard work. And the thing is that this Head Postmaster from Dorchester come down and I did something out of the ordinary. Because I’m a placid person I don’t say much really and after talking to everybody he came across to me and said ‘you’re the last senior postman?’ I said ‘yes, from Beaminster.’ He said ‘how are you getting on here’ and this, that and the other, and he started walking away and I said ‘can I have a word with you?’ ‘Certainly’, he said. I said ‘I’m disgusted with the Post Office.’ ‘Pardon?’ I said ‘I’m disgusted with the Post Office, the way you’ve treated me. I was promised ten years for my pension. I’ve got nothing in writing. The Postmaster in Bridport is retired but I want to ask you one question. Can you tell me that at Dorchester they didn’t authorise him to give me the ten years. If so, is it in writing and are you going to take away that time from me which I’m due to?’ He never said another word. He walked away and I never heard from that day to this but I spoke to the …….

Another year went by. My last Christmas and I was in Bridport and when I got home I gave my wife all the mail because when you handle all these thousands of letters you’re not really interested and she found that Ii had a letter from the Post Office. And she read it and she said they are going to give you over 3,000 points. I said what for? Well, she said that’s what it’s got here. Well I was due for 25 years but they gave me 26. They authorised this that I should get what I’m entitled to but what happened was that we had a lump sum as well. So I knew I could have my proper……… I felt so lucky I can get the pension now, I get this lump sum and I said to the wife, just not thinking, we can go round the world for a holiday. She kept me up to it. The thing was with the holiday it was going to cost £1,600 and we decided we wouldn’t rush into it and then a few weeks later she saw in the paper an advert from Ashby de la Zouche there was a firm offering to go round the world and their price was about a £1,000. Not exactly to the penny but ……. and we were going to save £600 and what happened was that when we looked into what they gave us, all the particulars if, when we got to America, if we went from L.A. to Grand Canyon, (? unclear) Canyon, San Francisco where all the gambling is that was £600 including going in the Hiltons. And we decided we would do it. We went in style. That’s how I finished with the Post Office.
[00:22:25]

MR And then you got a good holiday out of it?

DG
Well, we got a good holiday. If I hadn’t got that pension I would have worried because it would have made a difference to my life. Even now I’ve still got the two pensions.

MR Why do you call this place Mount Pleasant?

DG Well, for two reasons. One is, without the Post Office, without earning £3 a week which is what I was getting from the post, about £3, not to the penny but that’s about what it was, I wouldn’t have been able to raise a mortgage. So that was one. The other thing is, Mount Pleasant is, this is half way between the town and the hilll, top of the hill, in this lovely situation. It’s a beautiful situation. From the bedrooms you can see all the hills round. It’s beautiful. So it’s Mount Pleasant. That is my life.

MR OK. Fine, right. And one thing, they used to sort in Beaminster didn’t they? There was a big change made. Before it became just a shop. How did the sorting go in Beaminster?

DG How did the sorting go? Well, the thing is we had a vehicle come through about 5.30 a.m. from Taunton bringing the mail from that place to Beaminster, and we had mail brought in from Britport and the postman who came over stayed and delivered. So we had six people delivering but it all came in and we had to sort in Beaminster. Back of the Post Office. In fact there was two rooms back there. We had two rooms. Oh there was other things happened. I did tell you about Christmas with Mr. Tibbles but this particular time we had to deliver Christmas Day. Christmas Day was very light mail because it was people locally mostly wanted to give a letter to somebody else, you know. And it was a time of relaxing and ……………… My children had grown up now so I wasn’t worried about seeing them open their presents and that, but he used to come down and bring down a breakfast for us. We all had a breakfast, we had the music. and when we come back off the rounds any money we’d got, envelopes and money, was all put in the middle on the table and it was sorted out and divided up equally so nobody had more than the other. We had Christmas presents, you know. But there was one thing which made me shudder and that was that, I’m a teetotaller so I didn’t have no problems but the others went out Christmas Day and they had their drinks and how they got back safely I’ve no idea because they were all merry. They were all very happy. It was Christmas Day they had the drinks given them and that’s how it go. But we were a very happy group. We all pulled together and we helped each other. That’s life.

MR Well, thank you very much indeed. [00:25:12]