Monthly Archives: March 2009

Swindon: A new centre for the BPMA

by Jo Sullivan, New Centre Project Assistant

A decision is made
On 16th September 2008, the BPMA’s Board of Trustees chose the former Chain Testing Works at the Churchward Village site in Swindon, Wiltshire, as the intended site of BPMA’s New Centre. This was the culmination of a detailed examination of options and potential sites (of which over 20 were visited) for the BPMA’s plan to provide a new facility for its archive and to restore full physical access to its museum collection.

Why Swindon?
The choice was made after a long and considered site search, including London and other regional centres such as Birmingham and Bristol.  Swindon is a town with a great deal of potential, it has enthusiastic and ambitious leaders who in early 2009 announced a £200 million town centre regeneration scheme.  It is home to a large national and international business community and this is built on excellent transport links.  Swindon is 60 minutes by rail from London Paddington and has regular trains from Bristol, South Wales, the South West and the Midlands.  It is 60 minutes from Heathrow and other airports are easily accessible.

The site
Churchward is just outside the main centre of Swindon and is a 10 minute walk from the station. It is home to the National Trust UK Headquarters, as well as the English Heritage National Monument Record Centre and STEAM (a museum which attracts 100,000 visitors per year). It also houses a designer outlet village (McArthur Glen) which gets close to 3.2 million visitors per year.

Work to the BPMA’s potential home would run alongside the development of residential, business and hotel accommodation nearby, all part of a plan conceived to make the most of an already attractive site.

There would be on-site parking, and greatly improved disabled access, unlike anything we could possibly provide in London. 

The Building
The building offers 43,000 sq ft of ground floor space and there would be a possibly of further increasing the floor space by the use of mezzanine levels.

The building is Grade II Listed and described on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ register as “a rare example of a railway chain testing house built in 1873″.  Some of the machinery in the floor inside is Grade II*, as it is the last complete example in situ, and the BPMA would be keen to make a focal point of this.

Our aspirations
The BPMA’s New Centre promises many exciting features for researchers and visitors both old and new. It will be a combined museum and archive, offering the best in access to all the wonderful material the BPMA has to offer.

The Royal Mail Archive will have its home at Swindon, with state of the art storage facilities and a superb public Search Room for researchers, designed to the highest possible standard.  We will provide the most up-to-date equipment but continue BPMA’s excellent face-to-face user service.

The BPMA’s New Centre will have space to exhibit our museum collection, opening up this part of our holdings fully for the first time since the National Postal Museum in London  closed in 1998.

There will be areas for exhibiting from our philatelic and wider holdings and for temporary exhibitions. We would hope to produce interesting programmes for the local community of Swindon, as well as something appealing to visitors from far and wide.

We aim to offer facilities for events, meetings and school visits, a conservation studio, and to house partners on site as well.  We will provide flexible space for those that need it; space for our Friends to meet or space to host an event for societies and interest groups.

There will also be a dedicated educational area, providing a physical base to add to BPMA’s already proven success in offering first class educational provision.

More Information
For further information, comments or ideas on the project please contact:

Jo Sullivan
The BPMA
Freeling House
Phoenix Place
LONDON
WC1X 0DL 
jo.sullivan@postalheritage.org.uk
020 7239 2306

BPMA Museum Store

The structure of the BPMA often causes confusion. At present the BPMA is split between two locations, Freeling House and the Museum Store. Freeling House (part of the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre complex in Central London) is where we house our publically-accessible Archive Collection and have a small Exhibition space. The Museum Store, in Debden, Essex, is where our Museum Collection is kept.

Each year there are a number of opportunities to visit the Museum Store and view the objects kept there. These include vehicles, sorting desks and machinery, an assortment of letter boxes and telephone kiosks, and even Sir Rowland Hill’s desk.

BPMA Curators will take you around the Store, telling the stories behind some of the objects. If you’re a vehicles enthusiast, interested in the development of the pillar box or just curious, we’d welcome your visit.

Museum Store Opening Times, 2009
Open Afternoon – Wednesday 1st April, 2.00-4.00pm
Open Afternoon – Wednesday 6th May, 2.00-4.00pm
Open Evening – Monday 1st June, 6.00-9.00pm
Open Afternoon – Wednesday 3rd June, 2.00-4.00pm
Open Afternoon – Wednesday 1st July, 2.00-4.00pm
Open Evening – Monday 6th July, 6.00-9.00pm
Open Afternoon – Wednesday 5th August, 2.00-4.00pm
Open Afternoon – Wednesday 2nd September, 2.00-4.00pm
Open Evening – Monday 7th September, 6.00-9.00pm
Open Afternoon – Wednesday 7th October, 2.00-4.00pm
Open Afternoon – Wednesday 4th November, 2.00-4.00pm

Special Events at the Museum Store, 2009
Family Open Day – Saturday 13th June, 10.00am-5.00pm
Discover Session: GPO Street Furniture – Saturday 20th June, 11.00am-3.00pm
Discover Session: Square Pillar Boxes – Saturday 19th September, 11.00am-3.00pm

Group bookings are welcome.

For more information on the Museum Store and directions, please click here.

Posters from the Post Office Publicity Department

by Vanessa Bell, Archivist (Cataloguing)

I have recently started cataloguing some of the posters forming part of POST 110, a class in our archive which consists of printed material designed to publicise Post Office services. Although the posters cover the period from 1934 (when the Post Office Publicity Department was created) to the present day, I am focussing on the earliest ones, with a view to making a listing available via the online catalogue.

I am going to write a bit here about two of the main series of posters: those with publication number IRP (Internal Relations Panel) covering the period from 1950 to 1967, and those with publication number PRD (Public Relations Department), covering the period from 1934 to 1968. This gives a flavour of what we hold; in future blogs I will focus on particular gems of the collection.

The IRP series is formed of posters produced by the JPC (Post Office Joint Production Council) for internal usage. They were designed to promote staff efficiency by reminding them of established procedures and recommending attention to detail. Staff are variously encouraged to focus on productivity, to handle mail correctly, to be aware of the need for security, to work as part of a team and to provide good customer service.

These posters were also used to encourage staff to be thrifty, with messages such as: ‘Save usable lengths of string. Avoid waste!’, ‘Save lead seals. Recovered lead is worth £90 per ton!’ and ‘Do not mis-use mailbags. They cost money’.

Some of the earliest posters in the PRD series were offered free of charge to schools and other educational establishments. They consist of sets of four posters illustrating particular themes.

The first in the series was produced by Harold Sandys Williamson on the theme of Post Office transport; images include ‘Mails for the packet steamers at Falmouth, 1833′ and ‘Loading airmails for the Empire, Croydon 1934′.

Such was the success of this series that it was followed by several other sets of posters, by artists such as Duncan Grant, Eric Fraser and John Armstrong. One key set by John Vickery entitled Outposts of Empire draws to mind a bygone era, featuring scenes from Barbados, Central Australia, Ceylon and Southern Rhodesia.

Other posters in the PRD series formed part of major publicity campaigns including those encouraging people to post early in the day, post early for Christmas, address their letters clearly and, with the introduction of postal coding in the 1960s, to include postcodes when addressing mail.

The BPMA exhibition Designs on Delivery: GPO posters 1930-1960 will open at the London College of Communication on 7th October and run until 4th November. For more information please visit our website.

Pioneers of the Industrial Revolution

Pioneers of the Industrial Revolution

Pioneers of the Industrial Revolution

On 31st March graphic designer Brian Webb will be speaking at the BPMA about Royal Mail’s latest stamp issue Pioneers of the Industrial Revolution. Brian is the Director of Webb and Webb, who have designed these and many other stamps for Royal Mail.

Pioneers of the Industrial Revolution celebrates the work of eight individuals whose innovations and inventions changed society forever:

Brian Webb’s talk ties in with the development of a reconstructed Victorian Post Office at Blists Hill Victorian Village by the BPMA and the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust.

For further information on the talk Pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, and for booking details, please visit the event page.

Mail Coach Attacked by Lioness

 by Freya Folaasen, Cataloguer (Collections)

The BPMA Museum collection consists of a wide range of objects and ephemera including a number of prints and engravings. This small collection of around 200 works is currently being documented and will be added to the online catalogue in the not too distant future.

The prints and engravings are in a number of styles and were produced using a variety of techniques, but all show some aspect of postal history, be it images of Royal Mail coaches unloading at the GPO at St. Martin’s le Grand, portraits of Postmastera General, interior scenes of letter sorting offices or motifs of postmen and postmistresses at work. Through this collection one can learn about the workings and development of the British postal service, and the interesting incidents that happened along the way.

The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach

The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach (2009-0010)

One of the more dramatic stories told through the prints and engravings appears in two separate prints Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, At Winterslow Hut near Salisbury, on the Night of Sunday 20th October, 1816 and The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach. Their subject is, as the titles might reveal, an event that took place in 1816 where the ‘Quicksilver’ Royal Mail coach, on its way from Exeter to London, was attacked by a lioness outside the Pheasant Inn.

A lioness is not what one might expect to see in the English countryside, but not far from the Inn a travelling menagerie had stopped for the night and it was from here the lioness had managed to escape from its keepers. As the coach stopped to deliver the mail bags the lioness attacked the lead horse of the ‘Quicksilver’, setting its talons in the horse’s neck and chest. The two passengers of the coach fled into the Pheasant Inn and locked themselves inside, blocking the door for anyone else, while the mail guard attempted to shoot at the animal with his blunderbuss. A large mastiff dog from the menagerie set on the lioness “with such pluck and fierceness”[1] and grabbed one of its hind legs, which made the lioness release the horse and attack the dog, chasing and finally killing the dog some 40 yards from the coach. During this time the keepers where alerted to the situation and managed to trap the lioness under the straddle of a granary. The menagerie proprietor and his men then crawled in after the lioness, tied her legs and mouth, and then lifted her out and back to her den in the menagerie caravan, while the locals of Winterslow Hut watched on.

Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, At Winterslow Hut near Salisbury, on the Night of Sunday the 20th of October, 1816

Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, At Winterslow Hut near Salisbury, on the Night of Sunday the 20th of October, 1816 (2009-0024)

This incident became known all over the country, and at a time without telephones, telegraphs or railways it is amazing to find that a mention of the Sunday night attack was made the very next day in the London Courier, and in further publications in the following days. It also became the subject of artistic work, among them paintings by A. Sauerweid and James Pollard, which the prints in the BPMA’s collection are based on.

Another noteworthy fact about the incident, and a testimony to the efficiency of the postal service at the time, is that the attack only delayed the mail coach 45 minutes before it obtained a new post horse and continued on its route to London.


[1] ‘Mail Coach Attacked by a Lioness. Remarkable and Exciting Adventure’ by R C Tombs I S O (Ex-Controller Of HM London Postal Service) in ‘The Observer, 1911, Sep 30′ (POST 111/43).

Proposed stamp issues for Jersey during Nazi occupation

by Adam Reynolds, Project Archivist (Stamp Artwork)

Proposed penny stamp for Jersey during Nazi occupation

In undertaking my work for the Stamp Artwork Project, I came across two items of interest in connection to the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War. On 27th July 1940, just weeks into the occupation, the German commandant, Hauptmann Gussek, instructed that all British postage stamps be overprinted in black with a swastika design and the inscription ”Jersey 1940”.

On the same day, penny stamps to be overprinted with the swastika were approved by Gussek, and a sheet of 30 stamps was submitted on 2nd August.

Proposed swastika overprint design for Jersey stamps

Proposed swastika overprint design for Jersey stamps

The stamps were never issued, and of the four sheets printed only two have survived. In the recollection of the Bailiff of Jersey, Sir Alexander Coutanche, the German Commandant could not sanction the use of the stamps “because they contained a reproduction of the Imperial Crown”.

Following protests from Coutanche, the decision to overprint stamps with the swastika was abandoned, reputedly so as not to antagonise the local population.

For further information on this in BPMA archive, the following files may be of interest;

Post 102/10: Channel Islands stamp issues during the German occupation

Post 33/5790: Channel Islands: stamp issue during occupation

Post 33/5586: Channel Islands: occupation and liberation, restoration of postal services, Parts 1 – 2

Post 56/32: Report regarding Post Office services during and immediately following the German Army’s occupation of the Channel Islands

We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume Two

The second of three deluxe double-disc box sets presenting all the key films of the GPO Film Unit on DVD for the first time was released on 23rd February 2009. It includes the much loved Night Mail and the experimental animations of Len Lye and Norman McLaren.

Created in 1933 out of the ashes of the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, the GPO Film Unit was one of the most remarkable creative institutions that Britain has produced. A hotbed of creative energy and talent, it provided a springboard to many of the best-known and critically acclaimed figures in the British Documentary Movement, including John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Wright and Harry Watt. Their work embraced public information films, drama-documentary, social reportage, animation, advertising and many points in between.

The British Postal Museum & Archive, in partnership with The BFI National Archive, Royal Mail and BT Heritage, has been working for several years to curate and preserve the work of the GPO Film Unit. Volume One, Addressing the Nation was released last September. Volume Three, If War Should Come, will be released on 13th July 2009.

We Live in Two Worlds covers 1936-1938 and represents the Unit at its creative height. The films included on the disc are:

Disc One
Rainbow Dance (1936)
The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1936)
Calendar of the Year (1936)
The Fairy of the Phone (1936)
Night Mail (1936)
Roadways (1937)
Trade Tattoo (1937)
Big Money (1937)
We Live in Two Worlds (1937)
N or NW (1937)

Disc Two
A Job in a Million (1937)
Book Bargain (1937)
What’s On Today (1938)
Love on the Wing (1938)
The Horsey Mail (1938)
The H.P.O. (1938)
News for the Navy (1938)
Mony a Pickle (1938)
North Sea (1938)
Penny Journey (1938)
The Tocher (1938)
God’s Chillun (1938)

The discs are presented in a deluxe box with a 100-page bound book containing introductory essays, film notes and selected biographies.

We Live in Two Worlds is not just important in cinematic terms, but provides a valuable and fascinating insight into 1930s Britain. It is now available from the BPMA Shop.

For more information on the GPO Film Unit please see the Screenonline/BT Archive Interactive Derek Jacobi on the GPO Film Unit.

The Postal Service and the Blind Community

2009 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Louis Braille, inventor of the Braille system of reading and writing. To celebrate, guest blogger Philip Jeffs of Royal National Institute of the Blind writes on the long connection between the Postal service in Britain and the Blind Community.

A little girl receives a copy of a Braille book through the post from the National Library for the Blind, now part of RNIB. Very few places in the country offer, or ever have offered Braille books to be borrowed by the public. This has meant that charities such as RNIB have from our earliest days offered books for loan through the post.

The postal service and blind charities felt that blind people were put at a disadvantage within the postal system because Braille items were particularly large, heavy and expensive to send. In 1906 the Post Office (Literature for the Blind) Act was passed stating that books in raised text could be sent through the post at reduced costs. This meant that correspondence and parcel post were now accessible to the blind.

The latest legislation covering postage for the blind is the Postal Services Act 2000, which includes large print material and talking books, and now covers any material for use by the blind. This Act ensures that postage is provided entirely free of charge.

The first two images show a little girl receiving a copy of a Braille book through the post from the National Library for the Blind, now part of RNIB, and then reading the book out loud to her younger brothers.

The second two show Henry Fawcett, a blind man who was made Postmaster General in 1880, one being a photograph from the official biography written on his death and one taken from Punch magazine showing, as you would expect, a slightly less respectful and more satirical view.

Henry Fawcett was born in Salisbury in 1833. At the age of 25 he was accidentally blinded by a shot from his father’s gun whilst the two were out hunting. When told that his blindness would be permanent Fawcett told his father “Well, it shan’t make any difference in my plans of life!”. That certainly seems to have been the case as despite his blindness Fawcett continued to study at Cambridge and in 1863 was appointed Professor of Political Economy at the University. Two years later he was elected Liberal MP for Brighton. As a Liberal, Fawcett campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage in the House of Commons.

In 1880 prime-minister William Gladstone appointed Fawcett as his Postmaster General. Whilst at the Post Office Fawcett introduced the parcel post, postal orders and the sixpenny telegram, he also worked actively to employ more women in the service.

In the summer of 1882 Fawcett was taken seriously ill with diphtheria and although he gradually recovered, his political career had come to an end. Henry Fawcett, severely weakened by his illness, died of pleurisy in 1884.

The images in this post are provided courtesy of the RNIB Archive and may not to be reproduced without permission. Contact the RNIB Archive.

The Post Office (Literature for Blind) Act 1906 on the BPMA’s online catalogue.

Henry Fawcett on the BPMA’s online catalogue.

The Wilkinson Collection

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

In 1989 the National Postal Museum (a predecessor of the BPMA) received a collection which has since been known as the Wilkinson Collection, named after the original collector, Ian Wilkinson. Since the Collection entered the Museum it has been somewhat sidelined, until now. Over the next few weeks and months I will be cataloguing the Wilkinson Collection, but due to the large number of objects in the Collection (estimated at 3,000!) this could take some time. In the meantime I will be writing a series of these blogs, highlighting different aspects of the collection and keeping you up-to-date on progress. When the project is completed the entire Collection will be available on the BPMA’s online catalogue for all to see.

A photograph of some of the Wilkinson Collection as displayed in Ian Wilkinsons home.

A photograph of some of the Wilkinson Collection as displayed in Ian Wilkinson's home.

The Wilkinson Collection could be surmised as ‘any object with a letterbox on it’, but it is so much more than this. It covers such a range of material and events that, whatever your interest, there is probably something that will prompt a smile or a memory; whether it is a model china letter box celebrating the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, the Dinky Toys you played with as a child and now treasure as an adult, or, as in my case, the Postman Pat stories and games that still prompt a rendition of the theme tune. The Wilkinson Collection is also possibly one of the largest collections of letter box material in the country.

Ian Wilkinson began collecting when he was a small boy, being attracted by anything from stamps to Dinky Toys. Unfortunately, his childhood collection was destroyed during a bombing raid in World War Two and he did not resume serious collecting until the 1960s, when a shop proprietor agreed to look out for any items related to Chesham (where Wilkinson lived). The first item purchased as a result of this agreement was a small tin money box shaped like a letter box, similar to one Wilkinson had had as a boy.[1] From this object an entire collection spread and grew and, in 1976, Wilkinson and fellow collectors formed The Letter Box Study Group, which is still going strong with around 800 members.

The Wilkinson Collection shows how collecting can be an exciting and strange experience. It can lead in many different directions, both for the collection and the collector. Maybe it will encourage others to start their own collections. In future blogs I shall be focussing on how once a collection enters a museum, another phase of its life begins.

To find out more about The Letter Box Study Group visit their website at www.lbsg.org.


[1] ‘The Wilkinson Collection’ in National Postal Museum’s The Philatelic Year 1989, ed. Douglas Muir, p.11.

Lions, Leopards, Unicorns & Dragons: The first “Regional” stamps

The current exhibition in the BPMA’s Search Room, Lions, Leopards, Unicorns & Dragons: The first “Regional” stamps, closes on 4th April. The exhibition follows the creation and development – from original artwork and unadopted designs, through to the final issues – of Britain’s first regional stamps.

The stamps were issued in August and September 1958 although the idea for regional stamps had first been discussed shortly after the end of the Second World War. Although the main feature on the stamps was still the portrait of the Queen by Dorothy Wilding, heraldic and floral emblems were used to distinguish stamps for the different regions:

The stamps for Guernsey (including Alderney and Sark) show the Guernsey Lily and William the Conqueror’s crown.

Guernsey 2.5d stamp  Guernsey 3d stamp

Jersey’s stamp features the Island Mace and the Arms of Jersey.

Jersey 2.5d stamp Jersey 3d stamp

The Isle of Man stamp shows the Three Legs on a Shield (the Arms of the Kingdom of Man), and the ring-chain pattern characteristic of the Manx runic crosses.

Isle of Man 2.5d stamp Isle of Man 3d stamp

The Welsh design principally featured the Welsh dragon (passant), but the “Leek in flower” was also incorporated into the design.

Welsh 3d stamp Welsh 6d stamp Welsh 1s3d stamp

There were problems creating the Northern Ireland definitives because of a lack of symbols representative of Ulster that weren’t undesirable features of political significance. Five symbols were eventually chosen:

  • the Red (right) Hand of Ulster
  • the Arms of Northern Ireland (without supporters)
  • the six-pointed Crowned Star with the Red Hand
  • the Flax Plant (with or without leaves)
  • a Field Gate with typical Ulster pillars

Northern Ireland 3d stamp Northern Ireland 6d stamp Northern Ireland 1s3d stamp

For Scotland, it was suggested that heraldic symbols should be used in the designs. These were:

  • Crowned Thistle (Scottish Crown)
  • Saltire (may be environed of an open crown)
  • Lion Rampant (in a tressured shield)
  • Sejeant lion (on or off a crown or part of him holding both sword & sceptre)
  • Unicorn (Crowned, may be collared and chained)
  • Any or all of the Honours of Scotland (Regalia with crown, sword, sceptre and cushion if desired)

Also suggested were Pictish or Celtic symbols and designs, and the national floral emblem of the thistle. The issued designs contained a mix of these suggestions.

Scotland 3d stamp Scotland 6d stamp

For further information on the first regional British stamps, including unadopted artwork, please see the Lions, Leopards, Unicorns & Dragons online exhibition.

You can view the Lions, Leopards, Unicorns & Dragons exhibition by visiting the BPMA Search Room. The Search Room is open weekdays from 10.00am – 5.00pm, and until 7.00pm on a Thursday. A special Saturday opening of the Search Room will take place on 4th April 2009, from 10.00am – 5.00pm.