Shirley Harding, Colsterworth Post Office - Occupations

My name is Shirley Harding and I was born in Edmonton in London. I moved around the country for many years doing various jobs. When I had my three children, Rebecca, Duncan and Rosie I stayed at home for some years looking after them. When they went to school I did voluntary work for the school. I was the main fund-raiser, Chairman of the Parent-Teacher Association, helped with the toddler group and I organised all the Summer fetes. I also ended up going into school one or two days a week hearing the children read and so on.

At last I needed something that I could do for me and we thought what job could I go for. I had done secretarial work and I am not one for sitting down at a typewriter so we decided that a post office would be a good thing to try. That way we could get a business on our own terms and be what we wanted to. We looked around in different areas and eventually decided on Colsterworth. We wanted to move further up-country and it just appealed to us. The living accommodation was what we were after and you know when you walk into a place you know somehow that it is right. So that is why we came here.

It was the first time we had done any post office work. The first couple of days when I took over were hectic to say the least. We took over the shop on the 30th of November in 1997 and then on the Wednesday, because that was the end of the Post Office week, we took over the Post Office itself. They had told me originally that if I wished to take over the Post Office it would be in November or January but we actually took over the Post Office on December 3rd. I had a trainer with me for two weeks just helping me but I did a lot of my training over the counter. For the first few days I was a nervous wreck, it was horrendous. People kept asking me questions and I didn`t know the answers. I dreaded the first time when my trainer left me on my own. it was a Saturday morning. But I coped somehow, I had to. I was very much afraid of making a mistake because as a person I am a perfectionist which does put pressure on myself. Did I make many mistakes? Oh boy! did I make mistakes! These were unfortunately to my detriment because any problems that crop up are down to me. For instance if the money is short I have to put it in. Then again if it is over I take it out, well I did at that time. Somehow it never seemed to be on my side though.

Obviously over the years the system has changed. I have learned so much since I came and I continue to learn every day. I follow a set routine every day, but apart from that every day is different. You just don`t know what will happen. I know generally who will be coming in each day but there are a lot of strangers who come in. It is amazing the questions we are asked.

My day starts at a quarter to six when I get up. I have a set routine in the house. I try to get my ironing done and do certain other jobs and see the children off to school before I go to work at 9 a.m. when I open the Post office. The first thing is to put the kettle on. Then we are off. Sally comes in to help in the Post Office. George and I do Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings on our own and Sally comes in the rest of the week. I try to make a list of which jobs need to be done at work and I cross them off when they are done but of course there is always the phone to answer and customers to attend to so some of the jobs take longer to do. I like to give the customers time, I don`t like to rush them especially the older people who need that bit more care and attention. I do feel that I like to treat my Post Office like my sitting room because I spend more time there than I am at home. It makes me feel more comfortable. The people that come in I treat them as I would like to be treated. We get very busy at some times of the day, but we can never guarantee when. At one point in the day there could be nobody and then six could come in all at once. So it is unpredictable how things will go.

The Post Office does many things. Apart from selling postage stamps we do postal orders ( some people think we don`t do postal orders any more but we do), car tax where we get all sorts of queries, different types of savings and postage which takes up quite a bit of time. We ask them if they want proof of postage and work out the price of how much is it to send and things like that. We also show care as to what they are posting. We ask questions which may seem silly to the customers but we need to know. For instance if you are sending your grandson fifty pounds and you have put it in an envelope we would advise you to send it the secure way which would be by special delivery because it is guaranteed to reach its destination the next day. It is a little more expensive but well worth it. We also pay the pensioners their pensions and we will continue to do so until hey stop us in 2010 when we will see what will happen to Post Offices then.

Sometimes we get a lunch hour and we close at 5.30 pm. During the afternoons we have to prepare the paper work containing a list of all the transactions we have done during the day ready for the post man to collect at 4.30. We have to keep a record of what he takes away with him by filling it all in on a board. Obviously he has to take all the mail as well. We have a cut-off time after which any transactions go onto the next day`s list unless the customer wants it to go urgently and if the postman has not yet arrived we might be able to include it for that day. After he has gone, we try to finish off anything else so that we can get away on time.

I like to be organised. In fact the few people who came to check on me as they do were quite amazed how untidy we were the first time but the second time he came I had got it all worked out. Everything has to have its place. We keep trying to work out systems that work so that when we want something we know where it is. I have been here nearly nine years and I am still trying to get it to perfection but that is hard work in itself.

A rural shop like this is the ideal place for a child to be sent t to the counter by its mummy with the money to ask for something. You couldn`t get that in a supermarket where the people haven`t got the time or the patience. Here, the children can buy a stamp or take their time buying some sweets or a comic. It just gives them that experience of conducting a transaction by themselves. Only in a corner shop, or a Post Office like ours, can they get that experience. To the question as to which of the two sides of the business brings in the greater return, it is the Post Office side rather than the shop.

Then we get all sorts of people coming in. It never ceases to amaze us what they come in for. I have a book that I keep on the funny things that have happened and when Sally comes in I update her. I could write a book about them. Once someone came in and asked us where he could get bait from to go fishing and another stranger came in and showed me a picture of someone and asked me if I knew who it was. It appeared that they thought the person had died but they wanted to make sure before they followed it through. I said that I thought I did and to leave it with me. Anyway, I found this person who was alive and kicking and living in Colsterworth. So then he was contacted by this old Army colleague who was looking for him, and they have met up ever since.

Another thing is that after time you get to know people and their backgrounds. We do get a few awkward customers. People are always willing to complain but not very many compliment you. They complain when they have brought it the wrong form for instance; they put the blame on me and they can be quite horribly sometimes. I had a regular customer in this week He had brought a catalogue parcel to return and as soon as I saw the catalogue name I knew that there would not be an address on it because the firm had stopped dealing with the Post Office. Anyway he put it in the hatch and I looked at it and I said that I couldn`t take it because there was not address on it. He snarled, `That`s crap!`, and took it out of the hatch and stormed out. I haven`t seen him since. I was angry after he had gone out because of his attitude. I am a caring sort of person but sometimes I think that I am not hard enough. One lady who used to work for me and had seen many incidents said, ` Shirley, I cannot believe how you keep your temper`. A woman came in one day and she absolutely tore me off a strip saying things about me. I turned to another customer, and I said,` But I am not like that am I ?` and she said, ` Well Shirley, yes`. You could have knocked me down with a feather, I just couldn`t believe it. It really upset me. I thought what do customers want of me?

Then on the other hand some people do come in and say that they come here even if it is once a year to tax their car, and others say they come back here because we are so friendly and helpful. We try to know as much as we can but we can`t know everything and we can`t remember everything. If we don`t know, we find out from someone who does. You could say we do social work. You just wouldn`t believe what we do. We do quite a bit to help various charities. We had a collection for someone who ran in the London Marathon and we used to do charity events every other year in our garden. We have raised money for Asthma and Eczema, and of course we do `Children in Need` every year when we get dressed up and have lots of fun. Customers come in just to have a laugh at us. Even if they don`t buy anything it is an enjoyable time and if we can send a person out smiling it is worth it. We try to come up with new ideas for dressing up in advance, but we usually decide the day before. Today we decided that some cleaning needed to be done. We do all the cleaning ourselves, we don`t have a cleaner. So we came in trousers instead of a skirt and blouse. We both ended up in pinnies with scarves tied round our heads. We looked like the nineteen-forties. People coming in said, `Okay, what are you dressing up for today?` We have collection boxes in the shop. We`ve had one for the Air Ambulance and at present we have one for the National Association for Colitis and (something I couldn`t hear, Shirley). We have some second-hand books that people have brought in that sell to the customers. Then I shall be sending that money off to the charity.

We have been here nearly nine years and the worst thing that has happened to us was the robbery that we had. We have robbed once in the shop and burgled twice. It still affects me, I haven`t been able to put it behind me. They smashed in the door and got into the shop. It was a Saturday afternoon. We had made a last minute decision to go out, so they must have been watching. Within half an hour the Police were here but they thought that the banging was George doing some work. The robbers were trying to smash the glass to get into the Post Office part but they wouldn`t have got anything anyway because all the money goes away and away at the end of every day.

Another time they tried to get into the Post Office through the roof. They made a hole in the roof but it was behind the shelf and they still couldn`t get in so they made another hole. The annoying thing was that it cost us money to repair the damage because you can`t claim on the insurance. The police never got anybody for any of these jobs. I`m not sure what I expected of the Police but it appeared that there had been a group going round doing various Post Offices since the October. But if we had known beforehand to be aware you can`t stop them because it is an instant thing.. It took me a long time to get over it, I didn`t realise how long it did. I often wondered where they had been before they came in and where did they go afterwards. They had balaclavas on which was unnerving. Carol who worked for us at the time couldn`t come back into the Post Office, it upset her too much. But because it was my business we had to carry on, you can`t just close. But it has left me with a fear of faces being covered. We have a notice up saying ` No helmets` and I put on the bottom ` This is not a joke!` because people joke about it. Even now people come in with a helmet on sometimes and that is the only time that I get assertive. I say, `Helmet!` They wouldn`t do it in a bank, they wouldn`t be allowed in. It is the same with a Post Office. That does upset me and I end up in tears sometimes. The Post Office Authorities dealt with the insurance but we did have to claim ourselves for certain things. It was horrible when they got into the house because that was personal, it affected all of the family. After our burglary I put a letter in In Touch because it was very heartening to see that people cared about us. We were grateful for the reaction that we got.

Technology and the Internet is having an effect on the Post Office. It is taking our business away. The customer`s point of view I can understand because if it easier to do some business without leaving the house they will do it, but it is no use to me because such transactions keep the Post Office going. There are lots of adverts for taxing cars online now or by phone and people come in and say ` Oh I tried to do it online but I couldn`t because of this and this and this,` and I turn round to them and say ` I`m glad you couldn`t do it because we were shut!` That is my response now. The B.B.C. have just taken the sale of television licences away from the Post Offices now. Customers can get them online, over the phone or by direct debit through the banks. It might seem a small proportion of what we do but every bit counts. Gradually over the years, things have been trickling away that haven`t been obvious to the customer. In 2010 the pensions will be paid out differently. At the moment people on pension and people on Child Benefit can come in a collect their cash over the counter with a card but this is going to be stopped. It has yet to be decided how people will get their money after 2010. I think that lots of Post Offices will close if they keep losing services like these. When they stopped the pension Books, I took a drop in wages.

We get a lot of passing trade which is good and we still sell newspapers but we can`t deliver now. The young people don`t seem to want to get up in the morning to do the job. I suppose they get enough pocket money for what they need. Children are much more affluent than they used to be. Newspapers bring their own problems. We open the shop at 6 o`clock in the morning and if the newspapers are delivered late to us we have customers wanting their papers and they are now here yet. We have to count the papers in to make sure we have got what we ordered because if they send too many we are charged for them even if we hadn`t ordered all that many. If we order too many, the ones that are left over are returned but if we return too many they cut down our delivery the next day. Then we have to sort the papers out and name them for people who have a standing order and who come in for them. This is George`s job. It is doesn`t take him that long now because he knows it off by heart. George, my partner, deals with the newspapers and magazines whereas I do the Post Office. I choose the greetings cards that we sell and I am very proud to say that people are still complimenting me on them. When we took over there were about 500 cards all pastelly and pinky that I couldn`t even sell at a penny each. So I gave them away to the Heart Foundation. I do enjoy choosing the cards and I think that makes a difference. If you came in and said that you wanted a card for a certain occasion I would ask a few questions and then direct you to a card that would be suitable. The photocopier is an extra service that wasn`t here when we first came either.

We have a good relationship with Wendy at the Co-op. We phone each other if necessary when something arises. If we get someone in who looks a bit suspicious, we give her a call. We would help each other ought if the need arose. We does not have an agreement over the sale of goods. Actually the Co-op can do what they like whereas we have some restrictions. The Post Office is a focal point in the village. Hopefully, people seem to like coming and stopping for a chat with their friends. We take care of people as well as conducting the business. People come in with their enquiries, such as where is the nearest florist and stuff like that, and they expect you to know. The hardest thing was that when we first came here people used to stop and ask directions. We didn`t know!

After all this time I am still not very good at giving directions! We try to help with any problems and also people like that little bit of confidentiality. For instance, if someone has a problem and they don`t know where to go, they come along to me and I will help them as much as I can. When a PIN number has to be given, some of the old people shout it out and I am trying to hush them up because it is supposed to be kept secret. It happens lots of times but you just have to smile and nine times out of ten people just turn a deaf ear. Then the fragile and mentally disabled like Barney, we had to keep an eye out for her, helping her back across the road and try to sort her out and make things clear to her. We do lots of things like that that go unnoticed on the whole. I do find that older people get left on their own because their partners die and they are a bit unsure what to do and you begin to realise that they are not so well as they used to be and so we have to help them that little bit more. I am trying to help one elderly lady at the moment who has no relatives, and we have got to the point where I might even take her to the doctor`s! But there will come a point when I have to take a step backwards.

As for the children, I think that living at a Post Office has probably put them off for life. I would do it again because I would know a lot more. When we came here, our predecessors were of no help whatsoever. I am sure that I would help any newcomer. I would give them my phone number and say `Ring if you have any problems`. We had about two hours practice with the newspapers when we first came and when you think that originally when we took over there were two vans going out on delivery almost to Grantham and I don`t know how many delivery children we had! Now people have to fetch their newspapers either by car or walking. A good bit of exercise, and they can take the dog for a walk at the same time. Rosie doesn`t know what she wants to do, something in design perhaps. She is taking her G.C.S.E`s (General Certificate of Secondary Education) this year. Duncan is keen on sport, especially rugby. My other daughter, Rebecca works in a care home.