Monthly Archives: November 2010

Grandpa England podcast

We are pleased to announce that our latest podcast is now available to download. The speaker is Matthew Glencross, a PhD student working in the Royal Archives on the role of the monarchy in the early 20th Century. He spoke at the BPMA in October on the public and private life of King George V.

This year we have been focusing on the era of George V as part of our programme of events for London 2010: Festival of Stamps, but for much of the time we have looked at the stamps and postal history of the period. Matthew Glencross’ talk comes from a different perspective, drawing extensively on rarely seen material from the Royal Archives, including George V’s personal diary. The diary proves to be a fascinating document, charting George’s life from his childhood as a naval cadet, to his 26 year reign as King.

And where does the title “Grandpa England” come from? You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out!

To download this and other podcasts, go to www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast.

BPMA Open Day 2010

We are pleased to announce our programme for this year’s Open Day, which takes place on Tuesday 7th December.

Highlights include staff talks on key BPMA projects, a display of items from our collection presented by Douglas Muir, Curator of Philately and Krystyna Koscia, Conservator, and a talk on buildings on British stamps from our Chairman, Professor Brian Goodey.

The Open Day and Evening Talk are both free, but you will need to book in order to attend.

Programme of events
12.00pm – Friends of the BPMA AGM (Friends members only)
1.00pm – Lunch break
2.00pm – Formal staff talks (a recap of the last year)
3.30pm – Tea break
3.50pm – Informal staff talks (looking at projects from the past year)
4.30pm – Display of items from the philatelic collection and the preservation studio
5.30pm – Day ends
7.00pm – Evening Talk: Architecture as Public Art – Buildings on British Stamps (until 8.00pm)

Booking details can be found on our website.

Return to Sender

Each month we present an item from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) have been working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

This month, Bettina Trabant, the curator who worked on Bruce Castle’s postal history collection, chooses one of her favourite items…

As a qualified Curator I have worked in a variety of national, independent and specialist museums before coming to Bruce Castle. Prior to starting as Postal Heritage Officer, I wasn’t very aware of postal history at all. I had collected stamps as a child, but that hobby didn’t last very long as I only knew one other stamp collector, a boy from my school whom I didn’t like at all.

Since working at Bruce Castle I have developed a fascination for postal history and discovered the wide variety of topics that fall under its banner. Roads and travelling, art and design, labour history, military history, telephones, letter writing and Christmas are only some of the many themes.

Over the years the postal service has served as inspiration to artist, poets and musicians. Most notably Elvis Presley’s: ‘Return to Sender’ which became an instant hit.

A misaddressed airmail letter from 1941

A misaddressed airmail letter from 1941

Here at Bruce Castle we hold a large number of wrongly or strangely addressed envelopes and many bearing the ‘Return to Sender’ stamp. We have several envelopes that show a picture rather than a written address, including one of a large bull. Letters addressed solely to a town without a street are also very common.

The Post Office had a special section called ‘Dead Letter Office’ where it dealt with post that could not be delivered. Postal workers had to be very resourceful at times which caused the Post Office to produce a poster campaign advertising clear and correct addressing.

Picture Post in Swindon

The Picture Post project has moved to Swindon! On Saturday 6th November, Andy from the BPMA travelled west to introduce the project to participating families from the Swindon area.

The Platform Youth Centre was the venue for the morning, and our base was an old First Class train carriage. The building used to house the railway museum, prior to their move across the tracks to become STEAM.

An old First Class train carriage, now the Platform Youth Centre

An old First Class train carriage, now the Platform Youth Centre

Seats were very nearly fully-booked for the session, as around 15 people crammed into the carriage, and listened to Andy talk about the BPMA, our collections, and the photographs from the Royal Mail Archive that are the focus of the Picture Post project.

First up, Andy asked some eager volunteers to dress up as post people from the past, using a variety of uniforms from the BPMA Handling Collection.

Imogen, sporting a peaked postman’s cap from the GPO era

Imogen, sporting a peaked postman’s cap from the GPO era

Andy went on to talk about some of the more unexpected items we have in the BPMA collection, including blunderbusses and cutlasses, and then handed out just a few examples of the thousands of photos we have that show the work of the Post Office during the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

Each person picked a favourite photo and thought about why they liked it. Esina was taken by this image of Chailey Post Office, particularly the familiar logo of Cadburys in the window.

Exterior view of Chailey Post Office, with a telephone box situated alongside, 1937

Exterior view of Chailey Post Office, with a telephone box situated alongside, 1937

Sheena, Sally and (the other) Andy from Artsite then took over the session, and asked the group to make collages using photocopies of the Archive images and a pile of other materials, including old stamps, elegant ink-pen script, stickers, patterned paper, and feathers.

Inside the train carriage, the group cutting and pasting.

Inside the train carriage, the group cutting and pasting.

Girls working on collages.

Girls working on collages.

Some of the marvellous works produced by the Picture Post-ers can be seen below, and the rest can be seen on Flickr.

Carinae's collage

Carinae's collage

Moesha's collage

Moesha's collage

Simone's collage

Simone's collage

Last Saturday, the group took a guided tour of the Swindon Mail Centre, and were taught to think like a photographer by the guys from Artsite. Some of the photos they took, of sorting machines, vehicles and postal workers, are now on Flickr. They will also be turned into postcards.

For more information about the work that Sheena, Sally and Andy do in providing a hub for the Swindon community to engage in, understand and appreciate contemporary art and culture, please visit the Artsite website, or visit the Post Modern Gallery (a converted Post Office) in Theatre Square, Swindon.

BPMA in the Lord Mayor’s Show

Those of us who participated in the Lord Mayor’s Show on Saturday had a fantastic time. It was the first time our 1930s Mobile Post Office, GPO2, had been on the road in 30 years and its journey was undertaken without incident.

GPO2 in the parade. (Photo by Anne-Grethe Jensen)

GPO2 in the parade. (Photo by Anne-Grethe Jensen)

Staff and Friends of the BPMA along with a strong contingent from the Postal History Society walked alongside GPO2 carrying special umbrellas. The BPMA umbrellas will soon be on sale in our online shop.

Walking along with BPMA and Postal History Society umbrellas.

Walking along with BPMA and Postal History Society umbrellas.

Being cheered along by thousands of people was a unique experience, and from a museum point of view it was exciting to see the crowds point out the various details on GPO2, including the stamp vending machine advertising stamps for 1d.

The stamp vending machine and posting aperture, which are built into the side of GPO2.

The stamp vending machine and posting aperture, which are built into the side of GPO2.

Below are some photos taken by parade participants and those who watched us in the crowd. More photos can be found on Flickr. BPMA Friend Glenn Morgan has also uploaded some photos and videos to Flickr.

The BBC’s coverage of the Lord Mayor’s Show can be seen on BBC iPlayer (we appear about 45 minutes into the broadcast). Also available on iPlayer is a BBC London interview with our Curator Chris Taft about our participation in the event (fast forward 2 hours and 10 minutes to hear it).

In the cab and ready to roll: driver Clive and his son. In front: John from The Postal History Society, who dressed up in an old Post Office uniform.

In the cab and ready to roll: driver Clive and his son. In front: John from The Postal History Society, who dressed up in an old Post Office uniform.

Also in the parade were a number of black cabs from different eras.

Also in the parade were a number of black cabs from different eras.

Inspectors from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.

Inspectors from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.

One of several carnival groups.

One of several carnival groups.

Lions Club International had a huge inflatable Earth on their float.

Lions Club International had a huge inflatable Earth on their float.

The London Field Hospital move off in the parade.

The London Field Hospital move off in the parade.

The AA, with their fleet of old vehicles. Thankfully we didn’t need their assistance during the parade.

The AA, with their fleet of old vehicles. Thankfully we didn’t need their assistance during the parade.

This float was behind us in the parade. They sang the virtues of a new shopping centre in Cheapside the entire way – we still have their songs in our heads!

This float was behind us in the parade. They sang the virtues of a new shopping centre in Cheapside the entire way – we still have their songs in our heads!

Driving past the official party. (Photo by Peter Dare)

Driving past the official party. (Photo by Peter Dare)

The Lord Mayor’s Aide-de-Camp after he posted some mail in GPO2 on behalf of the Lord Mayor. In the stand above are the Lord Mayor and the rest of the official party.

The Lord Mayor’s Aide-de-Camp after he posted some mail in GPO2 on behalf of the Lord Mayor. In the stand above are the Lord Mayor and the rest of the official party.

There were big crowds watching the parade near St Pauls Cathedral, including many in specially erected stands.

There were big crowds watching the parade near St Pauls Cathedral, including many in specially erected stands.

The parade takes a lunch break in this side street off Aldwych.

The parade takes a lunch break in this side street off Aldwych.

Back on the road… A group representing Hong Kong.

Back on the road… A group representing Hong Kong.

Workers take a break from building Crossrail to watch the parade.

Workers take a break from building Crossrail to watch the parade.

This lady was happy to see us!

This lady was happy to see us!

We pass the Nomura building in St Martins-le-Grand, once the site of GPO Headquarters.

We pass the Nomura building in St Martins-le-Grand, once the site of GPO Headquarters.

Archive Open Day

General Post Office medicine bottle

General Post Office medicine bottle

This Saturday is a very busy day for us. Apart from taking part in the Lord Mayor’s Show, we also have our annual Archive Open Day, organised as part of the Archive Awareness Campaign.

This year’s theme for the Archive Awareness Campaign is Science, Technology and Medicine. Archives around the country will open their files to uncover the stories behind some of the most groundbreaking inventions from the nineteenth century, and to highlight the role of the men and women who made outstanding contributions to the field. At the BPMA our focus will be Sickness and Disease in the Post Office, in particular, Vaccination and Quarantine.

1870 GPO notice encouraging staff to get vaccinated for smallpox

1870 GPO notice encouraging staff to get vaccinated for smallpox

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Post Office employees were medically inspected before appointment and this inspection included checking for marks of primary and secondary smallpox vaccination. If signs of vaccination were not present the candidate was required to either undergo vaccination prior to appointment, or to obtain a statutory declaration of conscientious objection. In the early twentieth century concerns were raised regarding the safety of vaccination, and a few postal employees suffered severe side effects or death after being vaccinated. Files on this subject will be on display in the BPMA Search Room on the day.

Flu. Prevent it - be vaccinated now

1972 Post Office poster promoting influenza vaccination

At around the same time Post Office employees were also required to stay away from work if an infectious disease such as Scarlet Fever, Smallpox, Cholera, Typhus or Typhoid was present in their households. This led to questions as to whether employees required to be absent under these conditions should still receive pay, and how long absence should be enforced for. Records in Royal Mail Archive contain guidelines on how an infectious patient should be separated from the rest of the household, and how the room should be subsequently disinfected.

Alongside this, the BPMA also has files on how the Post Office treated mail from countries suffering from epidemic diseases.

Comparisons with the material in the archives will also be drawn with modern day medical issues such as the concerns surrounding the MMR vaccine, the handling of the swine flu epidemic, and employers offering (encouraging) seasonal flu vaccinations.

Find out more about the Archive Open Day on our website.

12th November is Follow an Archive Day on Twitter. Follow us and see what others are saying using the hashtag #followanarchive.

Visit by the Loughton Beaver Scouts to Museum Store

by Chris Taft, Curator

On 27 September 2010 we welcomed 22 children to the Museum Store from the Loughton Beaver Scout group. Beaver Scouts are the youngest of the British Scout Association’s groups made up of both boys and girls aged from 6 to 8. The Loughton group, based close to our store in Debden, meet regularly and have in the past visited our Store. This year they wished to visit once again, meeting in the early evening after the children finish school.

Drawing of the Queen Victoria London Ornate (Science and Art) Pillar Box

Drawing of the Queen Victoria London Ornate (Science and Art) Pillar Box

Julian Stray and I met the group of 20 children all eager and very excited to have a look round the Store. Some had been previously and were very keen to share with their friends what they had remembered seeing in the past and what their favourite objects were.

Drawing of the Queen Victoria 'Suttie' Scottish Pillar Box

Drawing of the Queen Victoria 'Suttie' Scottish Pillar Box

Their visit began with a closer look at some of the common objects associated with the post office, we began by discussing the bicycle and the pillar box, things that are very familiar to all the children and something that they have all used. We looked initially at typical examples of these from the collection and discussed some of the main features.

We then went on to look at some more unusual examples of letter boxes including some of the very rare examples within the museum collection. The children really enjoyed discussing some of the earlier designs and suggesting why things like vertical posting apertures might have been introduced and the difficulties of sighting the aperture on the top of the box, exposed to the wind and the rain!

Drawing of the Queen Victoria Fluted Pillar Box

Drawing of the Queen Victoria Fluted Pillar Box

After a brief break for juice and biscuits we looked together at some of the more unusual cycles in the collection. Having discussed the very familiar bicycle the children were fascinated to consider a five-wheeled variant, known as the Hen and Chick this type of machine was introduced in the 1880s to help with the parcels post and we also looked at a tricycle that at around 100 years old undertook a similar role. Whenever we have welcomed younger visitors to the Store they have always been fascinated by the age of some of the objects in our care.

Drawing of the Hen and Chicks pentacycle

Drawing of the Hen and Chicks pentacycle

For their final activity we handed each a blank postcard and asked them to look closely at one of the objects we had been discussing and draw it on their card. The drawings that were created were wonderful and showed just what attention to detail some of the children had. These activities really give groups the chance to consider everyday objects more closely and to look at things in a new light. Once addressed the postcards had special stamps marking the centenary of the Scouts Association affixed and were posted into one of the letter boxes from the BPMA’s handling collection. From there they were then passed to the Special Handstamp Centre in London for a special BPMA cancellation to be applied before being sent home.

Designing the postcode: a complex history for a simple purpose

In this series of blog posts, Peter Sutton, PhD candidate researching the post-war history of technology and industrial relations in the British Postal Service, offers some reflections on the history of the modern postcode. The significance of the postcode and its origins in the post-1945 era are considered followed by some archival examples tracing different aspects of its design along its journey from a specialised engineering concept to a universally recognised geographical referencing tool.

Royal Mail poster Poster relating to service standards (1983)

Royal Mail poster Poster relating to service standards (1983)

In some ways the postcode is simple, an intentional characteristic that was given priority during its design in the post-war era. It needed to be quickly understood by postmen and easily remembered by the public. Its function as an abbreviator of addresses made it simple almost by definition. Equally, the business strategy behind the postcode project was at its core straightforward. In 1968 a manual sorting system prevailed in which, it was estimated, letters were sorted on average 3.2 times during their journey. A letter finding itself on a more tortuous routing might be handled five or six times before delivery. With almost 30 million letters handled at the sorting frame every working day, and as wages rose steadily in real terms in the post-war era, this was an increasingly expensive arrangement. After a string of successful trials in the 50s and 60s, sorting machines capable of “reading” a series of phosphor dots offered a partial solution. If a letter, upon entering the system, could first be marked with the machine readable dots containing sorting instructions then, officials at GPO Headquarters reasoned, all subsequent stages of sorting could be automated. In this scenario, human labour in the sorting process would be mostly confined to making an initial imprint on each envelope by a human operator reading the postcode at a “coding desk” and punching the information into a keyboard. Subsequent re-sorting could then be done by machine, eliminating much duplication of effort. The modern postcode, from this perspective, began life as a crucial component of what was hoped would one day become an all-encompassing system of integrated, automated sorting offices equipped with “robot sorters”.

TV and radio personality Tony Blackburn helps to promote postcodes (c. 1980)

TV and radio personality Tony Blackburn helps to promote postcodes (c. 1980)

If the underlying economics of the postcode are simple, the course of its design was not. This was a long-term and highly complex process which encompassed, among other things, the design of a binary machine language, basic research in chemistry, the mathematics of code theory, field trials in which sorting staff and psychologists had their input, and considerable research into the needs of businesses. The likely response of the public was analysed as were many elements of the postal service itself and the entire effort was also seen in an international context as an interest in code-sorting was taken up in Europe, America and Japan. Reflecting on the origins of the code, the PO explained during a 1976 parliamentary inquiry that strict parameters were established upon its design in the 1950s. The public needed something memorable and uniform and compatible with the old city district codes. Operationally, the code needed flexibility to accommodate variations and ad hoc revisions to circulation and delivery, and would have to form two parts reflecting the outward and inward phases of sorting. (Outward sorting directs mail to a different city or region, while inward sorting directs mail to a particular address.) The characteristics required of the code therefore had to mesh with the demands of various economic and psychological aspects of letter writing. This was not forgotten by Post Office officials when asked to reflect on the origins of the code during a 1970s Parliamentary Inquiry into the Postal Service. “This financial requirement” they remembered, “was a major factor in determining the type of equipment developed which affected the shape of the postcode. For example, the method envisaged for imprinting the codes in machine language was by means of an operator using a keyboard; and there was a limit to the capacity of the code ‘translator’ device [the “brain” of a mechanised sorting suite] that could be developed at economic cost.” (Cmnd. 6954, Appendix to the Carter Report (Post Office Review), 1977.)

Think, therefore, of your own postcode. As I have mentioned, it will have two parts. There will be a maximum of seven characters. The first part – the “outward” part – will specify a district within your wider mail delivery area. (For instance a house in York’s third delivery district becomes “YO3”.) This part was designed for long-term flexibility in an evolving mail circulation system and might have three or four characters. However the second part – the “inward” part – is a standardised allocation allowing for local, computerised delivery scheduling. It will have one numeral followed by two alpha characters, representing the sub-district, street and group of houses for your address. All of these features were deliberately chosen and could have been different but for historic decisions taken in light of the geography, transport distribution and population density of 1960s Britain. This, by the way, is one reason why Australian, Japanese and American postcodes all differ in their format. All were created for the same simple purpose of making addresses easier to read by machines. But equally, for each, design requirements and restrictions have differed from country to country in quite complex ways.

Poster promoting postcode usage (c. 1980)

Poster promoting postcode usage (c. 1980)

This and the previous post have very briefly outlined some of the general principals and historic background which have helped shape the design of modern postcodes. In the next post we go back to the 1950s to look a bit closer at the early history of sorting machines and how engineers helped create the code.

Commemorative Postcards to be carried in GPO2 during the Lord Mayor’s Show

In a previous blog you will have read about how we are taking part in the Lord Mayor’s Show on 13 November, in partnership with the Postal History Society.

GPO publicity for the 1930s Mobile Post Office

GPO publicity for the 1930s Mobile Post Office

One of the largest road vehicles in our collection, the Mobile Post Office GPO2 is taking to the streets of London alongside over 6,000 participants, 200 vehicles, 21 carriages, 71 floats, 150 horses and 20 marching bands. It will provide the perfect opportunity to publicly showcase what we do here at the BPMA.

To celebrate this special event, we have developed a limited edition commemorative full colour postcard which features the 1930s GPO2 publicity image shown here. These postcards will travel in the parade onboard GPO2 and later be cancelled by a special handstamp created by Adrian Bradbury, based on the original GPO2 cancellation design. The postcard will also bear a specially designed GPO2 cachet and a 47p Blackfriars Bridge stamp (2002 issue).

The commemorative postcard created to celebrate the BPMA taking part in the Lord Mayor’s Show 2010

The commemorative postcard created to celebrate the BPMA taking part in the Lord Mayor’s Show 2010

Only 150 commemorative postcards will be produced and are available now for purchase. Each postcard costs £3.99 and is available by telephoning 020 7239 5125 or sending a cheque made payable to Postal Heritage Services Limited to Product Sales, BPMA, Freeling House, Phoenix Place, London WC1X 0DL.

Wallace and Gromit Christmas stamps

Today Royal Mail has issued its 2010 Christmas stamps, featuring the well-loved characters Wallace and Gromit.

This year's Christmas stamps featuring Wallace and Gromit

This year's Christmas stamps featuring Wallace and Gromit

Wallace and Gromit were created by animator Nick Park in the 1980s. Since then the pair have starred in a number of films, advertisements and television programmes made by Aardman Animations. Royal Mail’s design team worked closely with Nick Park and Aardman Animations to devise brand new scenes featuring the pair.

The approach to the stamps was similar to how Aardman create a film, with Nick Park drawing scenes and visual jokes involving the characters, before refining the designs so that they would work in a definitive stamp format. Each stamp was then constructed with models, props and background sets – all created especially for the issue.

Wallace and Gromit generic sheet

Wallace and Gromit generic sheet

As with previous Christmas issues, the stamps are available in standard definitive size, except for the 1st and 2nd Large stamps, where the 1st and 2nd images are repeated but with more detail revealed on the wider format stamps.

Wallace and Gromit miniature sheet

A miniature sheet and generic sheet have also been produced, and two special First Day of Issue postmarks are available. As has become traditional with Christmas stamp issues, one of the postmarks is from Bethlehem, Llandeilo, Wales.

Special Wallace and Gromit first day of issue postmarks

Special Wallace and Gromit first day of issue postmarks

All Wallace and Gromit Christmas stamps products are available from the Royal Mail website.