Nigel Jones

The thankless life of a Post Office mistress

Credit: Getty images

One of the fascinating aspects of the Horizon Post Office scandal is the way that the sub-post masters and mistresses who were victims of the bungling or maybe malevolent Post Office management, are represented as a class. They seem to sum up the qualities that used to be thought of as quintessentially English: honest, respectable, truthful, yet quiet and reluctant to make a fuss – even when they suffered a monstrous mass injustice.

Their suffering in near silence is one reason why it has taken so long for the scandal to break through into public consciousness. Perhaps from a misplaced sense of shame, many of the unjustly accused sub-post masters and mistresses preferred to settle the false claims made against them out of court – often reducing themselves to penury in the process. Some of them even pleaded guilty to thefts they never committed, rather than organise as a pressure group to make their case loud and clear.

It seemed to my infant understanding that the profit margins were as thin as mum’s bacon slices

That is why it took the determined efforts of a single individual – sub-post master Alan Bates, hero of the eponymous ITV series as played by Toby Jones – to start moving the dial. Eventually, like a snowball rolling down a hill, the cause gathered enough momentum and influential supporters to make a difference. Bates’s campaign taps into another well-worn English trope seen in dramas like Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy: that if little people fight long and hard enough for a righteous cause, then justice will eventually prevail.

I know whereof I write because such people are my people. My mother was a sub-post mistress. Although she had long retired before the Horizon scandal broke, I spent my early childhood behind the counters of the two post offices she ran and saw with my own eyes how hard she worked, and the toll it took on her health and that of my father.

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