14 New Street, Wellington
14 New Street was the home of the family business where Hesba Stretton (real name Sarah Smith) spent the first thirty years of her life. Thrust into the world of a busy town centre post office and booksellers from a young age, it was here she honed the literary skills that would make her an international best-selling author, gaining the life experience that would shape her work.
A Provincial Post Office
New Street, Wellington’s main shopping thoroughfare, was laid out sometime after 1244 in the wake of the town receiving its first Royal charter. Many of its properties still bear the imprint of their medieval origins as burgage tenements — long, narrow plots of land with a shop and living quarters combined. So it was for Benjamin Smith, who established his bookselling, publishing and printing business at number 14 in 1821, having learnt the print trade a few hundred yards away in Market Square at F Houlston and Son. He established a post office on the premises in 1827, which he ran with his wife Ann and their growing family. It lay at the centre of a postal district around forty miles in circuit, handling around 500 letters a day and employing two letter-carriers.
The third of eight children, Sarah Smith was born in July 1832, and entered into the family business early. She recalled her childhood experiences, and the daily routine of office work at 14 New Street, in the article A Provincial Post Office (1863). It revealed, at first, an embryonic service conducted from a room partly used as the children’s nursery, which compromised little more than,
“a counter on which to sort and stamp the letters, a letter box, with a slide opening into the street, and a wooden pane in the window, with a door in it through which enquiries could be made.”
For the young Sarah, sitting on the counter glimpsing the “marvellous panorama and procession of the outside world” proved to be an enduring and influential memory. In later life, the regular aspects of her duties encompassed listening to the everyday tales of customers from this diverse community, where muck and brass went very much side-by-side. This included reading and writing the letters of the local poor (many of whom lived in slum alleys leading directly off New Street), and conducting their correspondence — work that almost certainly informed her attitude to the lives of the destitute throughout her literary career. Equally important in her development, however, was the bookselling and printing side of the business. She was encouraged by her father (whom she described as “a real bookworm”) to read widely of the books in the shop — which provided a unique education for a child who was regularly unable to attend school through ill-health. Many periodicals and newspapers were also available on its shelves, and these would eventually provide Sarah with expert knowledge of the publications likely to accept her work.
A Story of Manchester Life
The death of Sarah’s mother in 1842, and three of her brothers, thrust even greater responsibility onto the shoulders of the five surviving siblings (who she referred to as ‘the crew’). This pattern of working continued until 1862, when Benjamin Smith took the decision to retire as postmaster. By that point, the number of letters passing through had ballooned from 500 to 15, 000 a day, not to mention the daily delivery of 2500 newspapers and 250 book parcels. As Sarah observed, what had once occupied one person for two hours daily was now the work of three clerks — who were no longer children! Meeting the General Post Office’s demand that the facilities at 14 New Street be enlarged proved impossible and when a new postmaster was finally installed he quickly looked to relocate the business. While bookselling and printing continued, it was evident it could no longer support all the family (Benjamin Smith, who died in 1878, was still trading at number 14 in 1870) and Sarah began to write more vigorously. Her sister, and lifelong companion, Lizzie had already left to become a governess in the northwest of England and on 13th October 1863 she “started to Manchester”, as her logbook confirms. By that point, Hesba Stretton was beginning to make waves in literary circles and those life lessons learned at 14 New Street would soon help to elevate her name to even greater heights.