by Colin Baker, Bath Postal Museum
On 23rd March the Marquess of Bath, a patron of the Bath Postal Museum, despatched a message by carrier pigeon from outside the Guildhall in the centre of Bath to Tony Benn in London. Lord Bath’s message wished the London 2010: Festival of Stamps every success. Tony Benn was the ideal receiver of this message, being the last Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in Britain. The message was written on an original pigeongramme form as used in World War Two, which is very lightweight paper that weighed only one gram.
It was more than a year ago that the Bath Postal Museum first suggested the idea of using a pigeon to send greetings to the organisers of the Festival of Stamps. The event was organised by the museum to complement their latest exhibition covering some of the major events in the reign of King George V. The exhibition will remain open to the public until the end of 2010.
Watching the release of the pigeons and making sure they were safely in the air were the Mayor and Mayoress of Bath, Councillor and Mrs Colin Barrett, with Trustees, Friends and volunteers of the Bath Postal Museum.
The three pigeons had been received by pigeon trainer Trevor Cocks of Bath who with his son handed them to Lord Bath who launched each pigeon into the air. Three pigeons set off ensuring safe arrival. Lord Bath then waved off a 1930s Morris Minor Post Office vehicle owned and driven by Kevin Saville. There are only two of these period vehicles fully roadworthy and it was a privilege for the Bath Postal Museum to be able to use this one to carry some of its special commemorative envelopes.
The vintage Post Office vehicle was followed by a modern Post Office van provided by Royal Mail, Bath section, both vehicles representing early and modern post office vehicles. After the event all present were entertained by the Mayor and Mayoress in the Guildhall and then given a guided tour of the beautiful Mayor’s Parlour.
The pigeon carrying the message from Lord Bath flew to its home loft in East London from where the message was taken and presented to Tony Benn by Ted Hendrie of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association. Tony Benn then passed the message to Brian Trotter – Chairman of the International Stamp Exhibition. Alan Huggins – Chairman of the Festival Advisory Board and Colin Baker from the Bath Postal Museum was also present to witness the receipt of the message. Colin Baker said “The way this pigeon message has been sent will show people how communication always played an important role in our society. Although there was no internet in King George V’s reign, the techniques used in his day were often faster than some of the methods we currently employ.”
Tony Benn was particularly interested in the pigeon and the message it carried. He told the story of his grandfather who was the first pilot to parachute a spy behind enemy lines during the First World War. Dropping the spy was easy he said, they simply cut a hole in the floor of the plane which he slid through before opening his parachute. The spy took carrier pigeons with him, which he released over the next few days, with messages concerning enemy activities and other important information.
It may seem strange to us today to use a pigeon to send a message, but homing pigeons were used extensively in the past. During the siege of Paris in 1870 they were flown out of the city by hot air balloons and flew back after a suitable rest period carrying strips of microfilm with messages for the besieged Parisians. During the two world wars pigeons were used to carry messages between the front line and headquarters.
All RAF (Royal Air Force) bombers carried homing pigeons in the Second World War. For example a bird called ‘White Vision’ delivered a message bearing latitude and longitude details so that the RAF crew could be rescued. They were flying a Catalina Flying Boat which ditched over the Hebrides. This bird flew 60 miles in atrocious weather over heavy seas. It was awarded one of the 14 ‘Dickin Medals for Gallantry’ awarded to homing pigeons. In all 32 bravery medals were awarded to pigeons in the 2nd World War.