Postmasters at the Centre of the Community

postmastersFor 27 years the Patel family have been the owners of one of Oundle’s most important institutions, the post office. With Rashik behind the till at the front, and his sons Kam and Mick at the post office counter, they know everyone who comes into town, greeting customers by name with cheerful efficiency.
Kam and Mick moved to Britain in 1972 when they were seven and ten years old, following the expulsion of all Asians from Uganda ordered by the dictator Idi Amin.

The safety for Asians had deteriorated rapidly from the time Amin assumed control of the country in 1971, and all the Patel’s assets had been frozen. Rashik Patel fled Uganda with £50 in his suitcase; had he been caught with a larger amount amongst his possessions he would have been removed from the plane and shot dead on the spot.

Kam and Mick’s grandfather, Chaturbhaji R. Patel had left India for Uganda in 1918 where he established a thriving business that dealt with coffee and maize imports and exports. From a small network consisting of two shops, he built a booming business of five factories that employed 400 Ugandans. The financial security of the extended family at this point was secure and they enjoyed a prosperous and harmonious existence alongside the African community in Uganda.

The true gravity of the racist policies Amin was to introduce to Uganda did not manifest itself immediately. When Idi Amin first came into power, Rashik personally presented him with a present to congratulate him. Understandably, over the course of the following year, Amin fell out of favour with the Patel family.

Kam and Mick were on holiday in India when the situation in Uganda deteriorated dramatically, forcing Rashik to abandon their home and business. When he landed at Heathrow with only £50 in his pocket, he was lucky to be offered a place to stay with a British family he had met on the plane.

Unfortunately, the taxi journey to their home in Blackburn cost £45, and so he started his new life in Britain with no assets to his name and £5 in hand. The rest of the Patel family found themselves stranded in India.

In the UK, Rashik was part of a diaspora of over 27,000 Asian refugees who had been evicted from Uganda. Initially he was supported by a member of his extended family who had moved to the UK to study.

Ugandan contacts told him about job opportunities in Northamptonshire where Rashik was able to get a job as a labourer for Weetabix.

Once he knew he could support his family, they joined him and settled in Wellingborough. At the time, Mick and Kam were the only Asians in their classes at school and found themselves at the end of racist behavior by the older boys.

‘They were trying to intimidate us. They weren’t used to people from different ethnic backgrounds,’ Mick shrugged.

When the Oundle post office came on the market in 1987, Rashik gave Kam and Mick a deposit to buy it, and the sons took over the management of the business. When they started, the mail would arrive in Oundle at 4am from Peterborough and be sorted by a staff of 14 at the post office. Mic and Kam have fond memories of all the people they have worked with over the years, and an undimmed gratitude for the constant support and unrivalled efficiency of their colleagues in the post office.

Change has been inevitable, however. The global electronic era has proved to be challenging for post offices across the country. Online banking and shopping mean people no longer travel to Oundle to deposit money, contributing to a decline in retail trade in the market place.

Twenty-seven years ago, a post office could be found in every single village in the PE8 area, although now only four remain in the area. Local post offices are now limited in the types of transactions that can be carried out, a major contributing factor to the decline in service.

It is not only Northamptonshire that has faced a decline in postal services. Over the past 30 years the number of post offices in the UK has almost halved. In 1981 there were over 22,000, whereas now a mere 11,000 remain. More and more governing business is being taken away from post offices, a prime example being the pension and allowance services, which were discontinued.

“Many postmasters have used their own savings to keep the post office open, but there comes a time when there are no more savings to use. We tell the customers, like many businesses in Oundle, use it or lose it,” said Mick.

Kam and Mick hope Oundle residents will keep using the post office for regular services as well as for tasks such as cash withdrawals. Every transaction allows the business to continue to serve the community.
Like a school or church, the post office is part of a community’s core. It is one of the features that people most appreciate when moving to a new town. Despite the changes and upheaval to the post office business, the Patel family has provided a trusted, continuous service that few could do without.

By Isabella Bradstock