Walter Robertson Architect

Dunbar Post Office by Walter Robertson

A new Post Office for Dunbar was commissioned by HM Public Works and completed in 1904. The Post Office, now numbers 32 and 32a High Street, Dunbar is attributed to the eminent public works architect Walter Wood Robertson, notable for contributions that include the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. Of Robertson, who was Principal Architect and Surveyor for Scotland for public buildings, Scottish Architects says:

 His … “… most prominent works were the large post offices built at Perth, Greenock and Dundee in 1897-98. Although their free northern European Renaissance manner reflected Sir Henry Tanner’s Birmingham Post Office of a decade earlier and were described as French at the time, the details were more Flemish and seem to have been influenced by the work of the Antwerp City Architect Pieter Jan Auguste Dens in the earlier 1880s.”

Currently number 32 is still used by the Post Office as a sorting office and 32a was most recently a soft play and crafting workshop facility. There is no reference to the building in Canmore, which is curious, as it receives more than a passing mention in the Pevesnr international architecture guide (McWilliam, 1978) [1].

The work of Walter Robertson appears to be reasonably well documented, including his works on Post Offices, which number at least 2 dozen. Two references of note include:

Scottish Architects

British Post Office Architects

which highlight Robertson’s involvement with at least 45 projects over his professional career. The Dunbar Post Office may have been one of Robertson’s smaller projects, and also one of the last ones, as he has the first of a number of strokes in that year forcing early retirement.

The building makes an interesting and understated addition to Dunbar High Street, and may well be one of the last new buildings, if not the last, to have graced it in almost 120 years {Ed: the social housing at Old Kirk’s Close is 20thC and there are at least 2 other tenements that post date the Post Office}. I have witnessed architectural students and historians hover around it over the years, possibly intrigued by McWilliams’ observations on Dunbar’s curious juxtapositions.

Figure 2 This view from the Queens Road shows the Post Office post war

Old photographs and postcards provide useful additional documentary evidence of the changes it has undergone.

It is a unusual building for Dunbar, I think architecturally unique in the town, perhaps East Lothian generally. Compared with its neighbours, it is very modestly proportioned single story building in a light coloured sandstone block, with a number of nicely executed decorative features, e.g. Doric columns, which adorn the feature windows. The site that it occupies previously had 3 humble buildings, so much so that the new building was in proportion with what went before. Then there would have been uninterrupted views of Traprain, and who knows the owners of Templelands may have had some influence on deliberations. I do not recall a minute recorded in the Dunbar Dean of Guild record held at John Gray Centre, but these are now incomplete, and the plans referenced in Canmore for the most part lost.

Figure 3 The Post Office site before its development, which opens up the backlands and a new access road (credit: Dunbar History Soc. Pauline Smeed))

McWilliam (1978), who wrote the Pevesnr guide for the Lothians, describes it in rather coded terms: “… by H.M. Office of Works, as urbanely baroque as its single storey of fine yellow sandstone allows …”, alluding possibly to the tricky brief that had been given, which would have seen a new access road created to what appears to be at that time the principal access to the Priory, The Bield, the Parish Hall and Postmaster’s House.

At some point we know number 32 was remodelled, for there is a 1960s record of a tender[2]. There is also a telltale date on the window above the door of 1962, with the post office’s signature logo of the time, which tells us the remodelling was conceived for their exclusive use. The changes see the austere Doric columns that adorned the curved corner window and the wide posting boxes replaced by a door. There must be a further change to separate off and create 32a. Interestingly, the original entrance looks to have been through a side passage behind a slightly lower wall, with a balustraded parapet, which ran from the main feature window to the New Inn, which at the time was a barracks. The remodelling extended the building all the way to the barracks, while creating a new door, yet shows no obvious signs of a join.

Arguably, the changes work reasonably successfully, even though the join that Robertson created was clearly an intelligent and subtler solution to the juxtaposition with such a dominant building and the loss of the feature window on the corner wilfully takes away from the original and adds nothing much in return.

McWilliam also connects the Post Office building to the  “countrified” house behind, which is referred to as the Postmaster’s House. I had always considered the buildings behind to be part of the development of The Priory.  Indeed is McWilliam referring to Bield House or to what is known today as Priory Cottage?

Figure 4 Dunbar Post Office long before remodelling – note the absence of any motor cars and the coherent lighting scheme

The Post Office building is surrounded by a suite of other listed buildings in a variety of styles mainly late C18 and some C19, but which all compete for attention such as the Swanston and Legge building opposite, which McWilliam either overlooks (or is this what he is dismissing as a ‘too tall contemporary’?). The roof detailing is accomplished too with large box gutters, flat roof elements and well executed lead finishings on the flat roof sections. Today the frontmost chimney is gone, as are the very unusual decorative vents.

The aforementioned websites all give useful information about Walter Robertson’s work for numerous Scottish Post Offices, the majority of which appear to have been listed. From a cursory initial assessment mostly are graded as B; 4 are A listed; 16 B listed; with 1 is C listed and in 3 cases it is not known or not clear. Some have had their listing status upgraded in recent years, perhaps as a result of an appreciation of the importance of Robertson’s contributions to public buildings across Scotland.

Apart from historic postcards and photographs, and a few newspaper articles, I found little or no recorded history through a cursory internet search, though my enquiries have been limited due to the closure of various venues at the time of writing and information being held behind paywalled websites.

We know that the Barclay family that ran the Dunbar post offices up to 1904, for 120 years, did not take the new one on as Jane Barclay Post Mistress retires that year. Mr Patrick McGregor is the Postmaster until 1918 when he takes up a post at Peterhead Post Office. After that we don’t yet know, except that Captain Patrick Riach gets a mention in the Aberdeen Press & Journal in 1931 on his appointment as “supervisor” in Dunbar.

Figures 11, 12 13, 14 Google Street View shows the building as it was in 2008 to 2018 without major modifications (aside from the childish signage). In that short period the cul de sac has changed quite dramatically, with demolition of the Hughes garage which revealed the Priory for the first time in half a century, only to disappear again shortly after the planting of a Leylandii hedge. A new car park makes a rather more mundane contribution to the streetscape, with chainlink and barbed wire, relict of the demolition site, which had planning approval for social housing. Time Series Images Courtesy of Google Street View.

Is this building important architecturally and historically? It is the only building in East Lothian by Walter Robertson, who is clearly a notable architect of the period, whose work across Scotland received a royal flush of accolades for his major public works. Is it an outstanding building for Dunbar? Definitely, and it remains, even after modification, a most unusual and positive addition to the Dunbar Conservation area. Moreover Post Offices are important public buildings [3]. Will it be recognised? We shall find out very soon, well by 15 December 2020. Hopefully Dunbar will grab itself an early Christmas present and collect another accolade for the town.

[1] Lothian (Pevsner Architectural Guides: Buildings of Scotland) by C Mcwilliam (1978-01-01)

[2] 15 April 1960 Proposed reconstruction; contract placed week ended 1 April with R. Banks & Son, 133 Inveresk Road, Musselburgh by London (MoW) per Builder p767

[3] Historic England has more to say than HES. “Post Offices are often of considerable architectural quality externally and, although generally modest inside, the principal ones may contain a large, elaborate public room similar to a banking hall. Survival of early fixtures is exceptional, however. Other rooms and offices are usually utilitarian, as are associated sorting offices. Main post offices are inevitably on a grander scale than rural or suburban branches, and assessment should bear this in mind … Between the wars, design favoured traditionalist styles … which contrasts with the exuberance of Victorian and Edwardian examples. …”

By dunbarheritage

an eye on built and natural heritage in and around dunbar