A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

The Post Office’s Home Depot was crucial to the British war effort. Jamie Merrill explains how

By December 1914, the battered remnants of the British Expeditionary Force – bolstered by members of the Territorial Army and soldiers hastily recalled from Empire – were dug into their trenches, where, it soon became clear, the reading and writing of letters could be crucial to morale. The evening mail call, with its promise of news from home and sweethearts, became a highlight of each day. Letters were delivered with the evening meal and devoured as eagerly as bully beef and biscuits.

What the average Tommy might not have known was that his post reached him via a spectacular wooden structure, thrown up over a few weeks in December 1914 in the centre of London’s Regent’s Park.

A forward Post Office base had been established by the military at Le Havre within days of war’s outbreak, but by December the volume of post had become unmanageable. So the General Post Office (GPO) erected what it called the Home Depot. Covering five acres, this was thought to be the largest wooden structure in the world. It was soon handling millions of items every week – 12 million at its peak in 1918.

It also changed the Royal Mail – and even, to a lesser extent, society. Prior to the war, the GPO had been the world’s single largest employer, with 250,000 staff. But 75,000 were released to join the war effort (it formed its own 12,000-man regiment, the Post Office Rifles, which suffered 6,300 casualties at the Somme and Passchendaele). They were replaced with women in unprecedented numbers (which by some estimates reached 100,000). By 1918, most of the 2,500 workers on the site were women. Altogether, the Home Depot dispatched around two billion letters and 114 million parcels during the war. Most reached the Western Front within two days, via forward post rooms close to the front line. The operation was so efficient that post occasionally arrived at locations before the Army did. Officers also used the service to order luxury hampers from Fortnum & Mason.

 

Ex-postman and former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, a self-taught expert on the subject, describes it as a “system of immense ingenuity and courage”.

He points out, however, that the GPO was well-prepared for war. “By the outbreak of the First World War the General Post Office already had a very sophisticated structure in place. The Royal Engineers Postal Section was a military unit, but in reality it was operated by the managers of the Post Office. And the idea of keeping up the morale of the troops goes as far back as the Boer War and the introduction of Penny Post rate,” says Johnson.

The GPO was even able to dispatch mail to sailors at sea, and (under a reciprocal agreement) to British prisoners of war languishing in Germany.

But there was a price to be paid. In 1913, a medium-sized rural town could expect anything up to 12 deliveries per day. The outbreak of war cut this to just one or two. And in June 1918 the Penny Post, which had heralded the age of mass communication, was ended – causing one observer to lament that “one of the great triumphs of peace, had succumbed to the demands of war”.

Five months later, the war ended. The Home Depot was dismantled. Few records – or even images – of it remain.

Its echoes can be heard in the language of today’s Royal Mail: postmen and women still go “on duty” (not “to work”) and take “leave” (not “holiday”). Otherwise, says Johnson: “Nothing of it survived. Its contribution to the war effort was totally forgotten.”

Tomorrow: The war reaches the Falklands

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at independent.co.uk/greatwar

Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week