Monthly Archives: June 2009

Famous Philatelists

An unusual item in the collection of the BPMA is the stamp album of the late, great Freddie Mercury. The talented Queen star collected stamps as a boy and his album is one of the few of his personal belongings that still exists in the public domain. 

A page from Freddie Mercurys childhood stamp album

A page from Freddie Mercury's childhood stamp album

Freddie Mercury’s collection includes stamps from a wide range of countries across the world. Many are from the British Empire and those of particular philatelic interest are from Zanzibar, Mercury’s birthplace. The album also incorporates a wide selection of stamps from Eastern Europe and Commonwealth countries. As pop memorabilia and for cultural reference, Freddie Mercury’s collection is priceless.

A stamp from Zanzibar which appears in Freddie Mercurys album

A stamp from Zanzibar which appears in Freddie Mercury's album

Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on 5 September 1946 in Zanzibar. Bomi – his father – originally inspired his stamp collecting and it’s believed that Freddie built up his own collection between the ages of nine and twelve.

Following Freddie Mercury’s death on 24 November 1991, the majority of his belongings were burnt in line with his family’s Zoroastrian religious beliefs but Bomi decided to keep the stamp album.

Bomi eventually decided to auction his, and Mercury’s stamp collections and the BPMA, then the National Postal Museum, purchased the album on 17 December 1993. The amount paid was donated to the Mercury Phoenix Trust which is the AIDS charity that was set-up by Queen band members John Deacon, Brian May and Roger Taylor, along with Mercury’s friend Mary Austin.

In 1999 Freddie Mercury appeared on the 19p stamp in the Millennium Series: The Entertainers’ Tale commemoratives, alongside 1966 England World Cup captain Bobby Moore, a dalek from Doctor Who and silent film star Charlie Chaplain.

Freddie Mercury isn’t the only famous pop star to have collected stamps. John Lennon’s stamp album (from circa 1950), which features over 550 stamps from several countries including New Zealand, India and the United States, is currently held by the National Postal Museum (part of the Smithsonian Museum) in Washington D.C.

A stamp from the UK-Australia Joint Issue of 1988, featuring John Lennon

A stamp from the UK-Australia Joint Issue of 1988, featuring John Lennon

John Lennon has appeared on postage stamps in many countries including the UK-Australia Joint Issue of 1988 celebrating the Bicentenary of Australian Settlement (where Lennon is pictured with William Shakespeare, the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge) and The Beatles stamps of 2007. Fans in the United States have set up an online petition to get the US Postal Service to release a stamp commemorating John Lennon’s 70th birthday in 2010.

Postal History Collection online

by Gavin McGuffie, Catalogue Manager

In March the BPMA started adding comprehensive listings of its Postal History Collection to its website for the first time and we’ve recently added some more. This Collection consists of more than 200 albums of postal markings dating from before and after the introduction of the first adhesive postage stamp in 1840.

Dec.1830. Entire letter sent from Sydney to London showing two strikes in black of a framed ‘DOVER / INDIA LETTER’ handstamp – Robertson type IN3. One of the India Letter stamps has been overstruck with a stepped ‘SHIP LETTER / DOVER’ stamp – Robertson type S11 also in black.

Dec.1830. Entire letter sent from Sydney to London showing two strikes in black of a framed ‘DOVER / INDIA LETTER’ handstamp – Robertson type IN3. One of the India Letter stamps has been overstruck with a stepped ‘SHIP LETTER / DOVER’ stamp – Robertson type S11 also in black.

Postal markings include datestamps, rate markings and indications of the origin, route and arrival of mail. With more modern mail they also show evidence of automatic cancelling and sorting.

The collection has prompted significant amounts of research and this has been compiled into detailed lists which have been made into downloadable pdfs. The lists are being loaded onto the website in batches; currently we have listings for provincial penny post/5th clause, mileage marks and missent and misdirected mail marks, ship letters, India letters and ‘Paid at’ stamps. All of the listings have introductions illustrated with specific types. These can be found by either following the hyperlinks on the catalogue record for the Postal History Collection or on the postal markings webpage.

From the very beginning of the postal service in 1635, letters were charged according to the distance they were carried. To assist the Post Office in determining the correct postal rate, mileage marks were used from 1784. This principle continued until December 1839 when Rowland Hill’s reforms introduced a uniform rate of postage throughout the kingdom based upon weight.

S35 missent mark

S35 missent mark

The earliest known ‘missent’ handstamp is dated 1787 on a letter addressed to Newark in Nottinghamshire. From then on, a variety of ‘missent’ and ‘misdirected’ handstamps were used. They are known in several designs, both framed and unframed, and in various colours.

Before the advent of airmail all British mail going abroad, and coming from abroad, had to travel by sea. The earliest known handstamps were not recorded until early in the eighteenth century when the first handstruck stamps were issued by the General Post Office indicating that mail had arrived by sea.

For the great majority of Inland letters in the early days of the postal system the postage was usually paid on delivery by the recipient. Accordingly, “pre-paid” or “paid” handstamps were few and far between and did not exist, except for the Chief Offices in London, Edinburgh and Dublin and a few major cities like Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow.

The listings have been compiled by volunteers over a period of 15 years. For these sections, most listings and descriptions have been compiled by Mike Bament, the well-known postal historian and BPMA volunteer.

Over time more material will be made available online. Subsequent listings will include London markings and railway letters. Look out for updates on our website.

Walking Tours of GPO London

Anyone walking through the City of London will note weird and wonderful street names such as Cheapside, Poultry and Undershaft, or the more mundane Milk Street, Bread Street and Oat Lane, and get a sense of the Square Mile’s past history as part over-crowded slum, part burgeoning centre of trade. But the history of postal communication can also be seen in the City, with Postman’s Park and Post Office Court being merely the most obvious examples. These and other sites will be explored as part of the BPMA’s programme of GPO London walking tours.

In 1643 the first General Post Office was established in the City, with the site most likely to have been in Cloak Lane, near Dowgate Hill. This came just eight years after Charles I made the Royal Mail available to his subjects, although it was Oliver Cromwell who formally established the Post Office in 1657.

At this time Coffee Houses were considered more reliable mail providers than the newly formalised Post Office. Many Coffee House owners collected letters and made arrangements with ship masters for their delivery overseas. This practice was illegal for it infringed the Post Office monopoly, but the service continued to be popular. It is not coincidental that so many early Post Offices were also established in the City of London.

The site of the Garraways Coffee House (rebuilt 1874) and Lloyds Coffee House (1691-1785) will be visited on the tour, along with the sites of the former GPO Headquarters at Lombard Street and St Martin’s-le-Grand.

Other notable sites visited on the tour are King Edward Building (the former Chief Post Office now occupied by Merrill Lynch), and GPO North. Also in the vicinity was the Central Telegraph Office where Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated wireless telegraphy to William Preece, Engineer to the GPO.

There will also be an opportunity to explore a range of operational GPO street furniture from many eras, including manhole covers, telephone kiosks and letter boxes.

The tours last around 3 hours and are conducted by BPMA Curators. For more information and booking details please see our website.

BPMA Walking Tours, 2009
GPO London – Tuesday 30th June 2009, 1.00-4.00pm
GPO London – Saturday 19th July 2009, 2.00-5.00pm
GPO London – Tuesday 26th September 2009, 1.00-4.00pm

The British Forces Post Office

Recently a small group of BPMA staff and Friends visited the British Forces Post Office (BFPO). Based in an impressive purpose-built building at RAF Northolt, the BFPO provides a mail service to members of the British armed services, as well as a number of government departments and corporate clients.

The BFPO can trace its history back to 1799 when the office of Army Postmaster was established. Over time the service has formalised and expanded to become an important part of military life. From its initial beginnings as part of the Army it now ensures letters and parcels reach serving Navy and Air Force personnel too.

One reason for the longevity of the service is its value as a morale booster. During the Second World War (WW2) General Montgomery was heard to say that his soldiers could march for three or four days without food on the strength of one letter from home. These sentiments were echoed by Lieutenant Colonel J.A. Field, the present Commander of Defence Postal Services.

For this reason the BFPO and its predecessors have always been keen to use the technology of the day to deliver mail quickly and efficiently. Trials of airmail were conducted by the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) in 1918 and these proved so successful that a regular service between Folkestone and Cologne was established the following year. During WW2, Postal Section personnel were regularly detached with forward troops, often establishing postal services within hours of their arrival. In recent times the BFPO has used cutting-edge OCR technology to sort mail, and has established an innovative hybrid mail system called the e-bluey.

The BFPO uses OCR technology (foreground) to read addresses on mail. Once an address has been read the item of mail is dispatched down a chute (background) and bagged for dispatch.

The BFPO uses OCR technology (foreground) to read addresses on mail. Once an address has been read the item of mail is dispatched down a chute (background) and bagged for dispatch.

Families of British service personnel have long been able to send letters on special blue stationery (known as a blueys), as well as packages weighing up to 2kg, free of charge, but e-blueys enable them to send a message electronically – which will usually arrive within 24 hours. E-blueys can be hand-written and faxed, or sent through the BFPO website. Drawings and colour photographs can also be included, a feature particularly popular with personnel with young families.

Once sent, the e-blueys are delivered via an encrypted computer system to Field Post Offices, where they are printed out using a special printer which seals each message as it is printed. The messages are then distributed to troops with regular mail, having been seen by no one apart from sender and recipient. The e-bluey system is extremely popular, and photographs and drawings which have been sent in this way are said to adorn the walls of many a barracks.

In addition to its sorting, delivery and logistics activities, the BFPO has a Philatelic Bureau which issues a number of First Day Covers each year. The BPMA group was lucky enough to receive one of these to commemorate our visit. As part of an initiative to collect items from postal services other than Royal Mail, the BPMA’s curatorial team collected BFPO bag labels, e-bluey samples and a range of other material.

The BFPOs First Day Cover to commemorate our visit

The BFPO's First Day Cover to commemorate our visit

The BPMA would like to thank BFPO for allowing us to visit, and is particularly grateful to the Officers and staff who provided us with information and assistance.

The BPMA does Swinpex

by Jo Sullivan, New Centre Project Assistant

Jennifer and Jo man the BPMA stall at Swinpex

Jennifer and Jo man the BPMA stall at Swinpex

On Saturday 13th June, Jennifer Flippance (BPMA’s London 2010 Project Officer) and myself attended Swinpex, a philatelic show hosted by the Swindon Philatelic Society.  Although there primarily to promote the joint aims of the BPMA‘s New Centre Project and the 2010 Festival of Stamps and not to sell (or buy) anything we were given an exceptionally warm welcome by all those involved.  In fact, we received star billing in the programme, our presence described as “a great coup for Swindon philately!”

The crowds at Swinpex

The crowds at Swinpex

Swinpex is one of the largest and best attended philatelic shows in the country and gets around 400 to 500 visitors on the day.  This year organisers reported over 500 people attended and, if the crowds in the main hall were anything to go by, we could well believe it.

The BPMA’s stand was right by the front door and we had a steady stream of people coming over to talk to us throughout the day, lured in no doubt by the promise of free 2010 postcards and free newsletters (free gifts at stamp shows it would appear is manna from heaven).  Here we have to give thanks to the BPMA’s continued communication and PR effort as everyone we spoke to not only knew about the proposed move to Swindon but were enthusiastic and supportive.  In fact, the only complaint people had was that we can’t be open sooner.  

Some of the BPMA leaflets and postcards available on the day

Some of the BPMA leaflets and postcards available on the day

It is not just philatelic societies that can’t wait for us to arrive in Swindon as I also spoke to local history and family history group members and a teacher who was interested in the BPMA’s wealth of Key Stage educational resources.  Those looking forward to next year’s Festival of Stamps were able to see facsimiles of some of the King George V stamp artwork and essays that will be on display as part of the Empire Mail exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery.

I found out that Swinpex 2010 is being held at one of the BPMA’s neighbours on the Churchward Village site, Steam. Society members were looking forward to having a new venue for Swinpex and being able to see the BPMA’s new home for themselves (although I perhaps should mention to the organisers they will need to provide 500 hard hats and high vis jackets if they want the tour inside the building).  Whilst some were excited that the proximity of the McArthur Glenn Designer Outlet meant they could combine two of their favourite hobbies: shopping and philately!

The GPO Photograph Library

by Martin Devereux, Deputy Catalogue Manager

Cataloguing the General Post Office’s Photographic Library at The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) is a fascinating experience. There are an estimated 100,000 photographs in the collection, from the late nineteenth century to the late 1990s.

At the end of April we added 199 newly catalogued records and their images to the catalogue bringing the total now available to approximately 1900. These are from a collection of photographs dating from 1934 to the 1970s, known as the ‘P’ series. The ‘P’ stands for publicity and many of these images were produced to promote the work of the GPO in magazines, posters and newspapers. In particular, the creation of the library was specifically intended to provide the Post Office Magazine with photographs to accompany the articles written within. We also know that, in the early days, photographers belonged to the Engineer-in-Chief’s department and they frequently accompanied the magazine’s journalists as they went out and about. These photographs, alongside its posters, films and other media, helped establish ‘public relations’ as a vital aspect of GPO operations.

Hildenbourgh Sub-Post Office, 1935.

Hildenbourgh Sub-Post Office, 1935.

Due to the wide range of occupations and activities within the Post Office during this period, the photographs in the ‘P’ series show a great variety of subjects: sorting clerks busy at work, fleets of motor vehicles, historic letterboxes, notable GPO buildings, sorting machines, cable operators, engineers, counter clerks, travelling post offices and, of course, smiling postmen and women delivering letters across Britain.

In addition to the Photograph Library, there is also an expanding collection of photographs of postal subjects that have been submitted to the BPMA and its predecessor organisations from sources outside Royal Mail. These are often given to us by people who’ve discovered photographs depicting family members who were former Post Office employees. We also receive material from enthusiastic postal historians.

Work to catalogue and digitise the collection is ongoing and we hope to have the remaining photographs in the ‘P’ series available by this summer. We will then turn our attention to another of the main series of the Photograph Library.

During the cataloguing, we have relied on the dedication and hard work of two volunteers, Kathryn and Anne to re-house the photographs into suitable storage boxes, list the photographs, scan them and finally to create catalogue descriptions. Anne has now finished, but Kathryn continues to work hard on the project.

To find out more about Volunteering at the BPMA please visit our website.

GPO Street Furniture Discover Session

This Saturday our Curators will be throwing open the doors of our Museum Store, where some of the larger items in our collection are housed, and helping people view and explore some of the classic items of street furniture which shape our urban and rural landscape.

Few of us take notice of the humble pillar box at the end of our street, yet it is an essential part of our lives. Such everyday items have a fascinating history and have been through many changes in their history. From the size and design of the aperture, to the colour, shape and internal workings of the box itself, each evolution reflects both changing technologies and changing needs.

A Scottish lamp box bearing the Scottish Crown instead of the EIIR cypher

A Scottish lamp box bearing the Scottish Crown instead of the EIIR cypher

Lamp boxes were first trialled in 1896 for residents in fashionable London Squares who required a nearby posting facility so their letters written late at night could catch the midnight or early morning collections.

There have also been regional differences in street furniture design. In Scotland Royal Mail street furniture, vehicles and buildings bear the Scottish Crown rather than the cypher of Queen Elizabeth – EIIR. This is due to complaints that Her Majesty is not the second Queen Elizabeth of Scotland, but the first.

Street furniture produced for Royal Mail and the Post Office has often been innovative. A telephone kiosk in the BPMA’s collection includes a stamp vending machine, perhaps a pioneering example of the current trend in technology for convergence.

Other topics to be covered on the day include wall boxes, Stamp Vending Machines, sub-stations, manhole covers, milestones, signage, pouch boxes and PODS. So, if you’ve ever wondered what’s inside a pillar box, why telephone kiosks have sloping floors or how ‘posties’ manage to deliver to so many homes from such a small mail bag, join us at the Museum Store this Saturday.

The GPO Street Furniture Discover Session will take place at the BPMA’s Museum Store on Saturday 20th June from 11am-3pm. For further information, and to book, please see our website. A Discover Session on Square Pillar Boxes will take place on Saturday 19 September.

TV detector vans – an urban myth?

by Jenny Karlsson, PR & Communications Officer

Since they were introduced in the 1950s, a lot of controversy has surrounded TV detector vans. Many people were (and still are) convinced that they didn’t work or never even existed. A new BBC Radio 4 programme on Saturday 13th June will set out to investigate this urban myth, drawing upon files from The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA).

An annual licence fee of 10 shillings was first introduced under the Wireless Telegraphy Act in November 1923 to cover radio sets. The first combined Radio and TV licence was introduced in 1946, costing £2 (the equivalent of £57 in 2006) and covering the monochrome-only single channel BBC television service, and the licences were initially issued and administered by the General Post Office (GPO).

As part of the Post Office campaign to track down users of unlicenced sets, the first TV detector van was constructed in 1952. The detection equipment in the van had been developed at the radio experimental laboratories of the Post Office in Dollis Hill, London. The van was then demonstrated in front of then Postmaster General, Lord De La Warr and Assistant Postmaster General Mr Gammans. In articles covering the demonstration, the Postmaster General was quoted as saying: “The equipment, which is suitable for fitting in a standard Post Office Radio Interference van, enables the majority of working television receivers on both sides of the road to be detected, and the houses containing the receivers to be located, as the vans move along the road”.

In May this year BBC Radio 4 visited the BPMA Search Room in London to conduct research and do recordings for a show about TV detector vans. The aim of the show is to expose the myths about TV detector vans, and is part of a series of programmes in which the comedian Steve Punt (famous from the sketch duo Punt & Dennis and shows like The Mary Whitehouse Experience) investigates urban myths. When the TV detector vans were introduced, many people were convinced that they were empty inside or that the equipment didn’t really work. The BBC team also went out to the BPMA’s Museum Store in Debden, Essex, to have a look at the TV detector van that is on show there. Chris Taft, BPMA Curator and Helen Dafter, BPMA Archivist were both interviewed for the programme.

The BPMA holds a range of records relating to TV licensing and detector vans, such as press cuttings, memos referring to difficulties caused by iron railings and iron girdles, and details of experimental combs, including number of TV sets detected, number of calls made and the results of these calls.

TV licensing was also promoted by poster campaigns. The earliest of these posters held in the archive is from 1951 and states: ‘Don’t be a pirate – A Television and Sound Licence costs £2 for a year’. In reference to this, the prototype detector van was known to some members of the press as “The Jolly Roger”.

Dont Be A Pirate! A Television and Sound Licence costs £2 for a year

Don't Be A Pirate! A Television and Sound Licence costs £2 for a year

Why not listen to the show and make your own mind up about TV detector vans?

BBC Radio 4: Punt Pl
Saturday 13th June 10:30am – 11.00am
The show will be available for one week after the broadcast on the BBC’s iPlayer service.

Different uses of objects in the Wilkinson Collection

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

I mentioned in my last blog that a large number of objects in the Wilkinson Collection, whilst collected because they had a letter box on them, also had a particular use or function. It is this wide ranging group that I thought I would focus on in this blog.

Mickey Mouse money box

Mickey Mouse money box

The most common functional item that Ian Wilkinson collected is the money box in the shape and design of a letter box. These are as varied in their design as letter boxes themselves, and probably deserve an entire blog post. Some have characters such as Mickey Mouse on them, others are traditional reproductions. Most have a small plastic plug in the base to retrieve the money. However, some designers seemed to have forgotten this important item, resulting in a few of the money boxes having scratch marks around the apertures from attempts to rescue the money.

Sammy the Stamp Bug stamp wetter

Sammy the Stamp Bug stamp wetter

Some of the functions of the model letter boxes are postally relevant. For example, there are a couple of models that also act as letter racks as well as some letter openers with models of the Penfold letter box at the end of the handle. Perhaps the most postally relevant and unusual item is the model letter box that is a portable stamp wetter. This consists of a plastic container in the shape of a letter box in red and black. On one side is inscribed the instruction ‘Fill capsule with water and use to wet your stamps’. This ingenious device also features ‘Sammy the Stamp bug’ who was a promotional feature of the Royal Mail Stamp Bug Club, founded in 1980 to encourage young people to collect stamps. After the first six months the club already had 25,000 members; the cost of joining was just 50 pence.

Postman Pat pencil case

Postman Pat pencil case

Other model letter boxes have uses across many different areas. For example, in the kitchen you might find a letter box teapot, jug, or salt and pepper shakers. In the office you could keep your letters in a letter box letter rack and keep your papers tidy with a letter box paperweight. Brush your hair with a letter box comb; keep your place in your favourite book with a letter box bookmark. Kids can keep their pens and pencils in a letter box pencil case with Postman Pat on the front, and finally, when you leave the house, you can lock the door with your keys firmly attached to a letter box key ring!

All of these items and more can be found in the Wilkinson Collection. This not only shows the wide ranging influence of the letter box but also shows the many different directions that collecting can take you in. I’m sure Ian Wilkinson had little concept of the diverse range of objects that portrayed letter boxes when he started to collect them, yet the collection is all the more interesting for it.

A group of novelty items in the Wilkinson Collection

A group of novelty items in the Wilkinson Collection

Mail Rail back to life for family fun at the BPMA Museum Store

by Laura Dixon, Learning Officer

On Saturday 13th June 2009 the BPMA will be opening the doors of the Museum Store for family visitors to enjoy a day of storytelling fun linked to London’s history, in particular the now defunct driverless underground post train, Mail Rail. 

The Family Day is part of the Story of London festival, which celebrates London throughout June at various venues across the city. Our event is using the StoryRoots team to help families find out more about our collections, London and Mail Rail.

What’s Mail Rail?

Unknown to most, the Post Office Underground Railway operated from 1927 to 2003, 70 feet below the congested streets of London. It delivered post from Whitechapel to Paddington, with nine stations in between, and crossed the city in 20 minutes. Mail Rail (renamed for its 60th birthday in 1987) covered the 6.5 miles using 23 miles of 2 foot gauge track.

Mail Rail was an environmental boon for Royal Mail as it relieved about 80 van loads of mail a day – around 12 million items – from the streets. London had been suffering congestion problems for years and in 1855 Rowland Hill suggested using underground transport to speed the post.

The tunnels for Mail Rail were completed between 1914 and 1917 but work was then put on hold while the First World War continued. Mail Rail opened for business on 5th December 1927.

Loading carriages on the Post Office London Railway

Loading carriages on the Post Office London Railway

Mail Rail tunnels were used during the War to preserve artworks from the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate. In later years Mail Rail diversified again when Bruce Willis stowed away in one of the carriages for a scene in the 1991 box office bomb, Hudson Hawk.

Goodbye Mail Rail

Mail Rail was closed in 2003 due to the expense involved in running it. (Read Mail Rail controller Amanda Smith’s’ thoughts on the closure.) Various suggestions for the use of Mail Rail and its tunnels were suggested but none of these have been taken up and the tunnels are now used for storage and emergency access.

Storytelling

Families coming to the free Family Day can book to attend at either 10.30am or 2.30pm and will be treated to a viewing of the short 1987 Mail Rail film which shows the route of the driverless trains speeding beneath the busy streets.

StoryRoots will then tell stories linked to Mail Rail and encourage visitors to get involved and create some of their own. There will then be a chance to turn stories into short films for use in a zoetrope!

Throughout the day there will also be the chance to take a tour around the Store with our Curator, complete quizzes and trails to help explore the space and take part in more craft activities, such as making your own letter box themed headwear!

We will also find a quieter corner to show the iconic GPO film, Night Mail.

Mail Rail is an important part of London’s transport and cultural heritage. Come along to the Museum Store on 13th June to find out more about it with our staff and storytellers.

For more information on this event please see our website.