Monthly Archives: February 2011

Picture Post on tour

The Picture Post project is now drawing to a close, and to make sure as many people know about what we got up to as possible, the BPMA has sent two displays travelling around Swindon and London.

The display in the entrance to Holborn Library, London.

The display in the entrance to Holborn Library, London.

To produce these eye-catching panels we worked with design agency Cai and Kyn, who are based in South London. They also designed the leaflet that accompanies the travelling display.

In the first panel you can find out about the BPMA and its diverse collections, whilst the second panel introduces our photography collection, and shows some wonderful examples of photographs from our POST 118 collection, as well as posters that use these PR photographs.

Postmen leaving a sorting office, 1896. (POST 118/5083)

Postmen leaving a sorting office, 1896. (POST 118/5083)

Post office lines of communication, c. 1950. Designed by Frederic Henri Kay Henrion. (POST 109/208)

Post office lines of communication, c. 1950. Designed by Frederic Henri Kay Henrion. (POST 109/208)

The third panel showcases some of the brilliant responses we had to the photographs at the sessions run at Holborn Community Centre in London, and with Artsite in Swindon. You can read more about these in previous blogs.

Collage produced during Picture Post in Swindon.

Collage produced during Picture Post in Swindon.

Collage produced during Picture Post in Swindon.

Collage produced during Picture Post in Swindon.

So far the displays have already been to Holborn and Highgate Libraries in London, and the Central Library and The Platform Youth Centre in Swindon.

Two visitors find out more about Picture Post at The Platform, Swindon.

Two visitors find out more about Picture Post at The Platform, Swindon.

At The Platform, the families who took part in the Swindon side of the project got to see their work on display during a day celebrating their achievements.

Participants in Picture Post Swindon pose in front of the display.

Participants in Picture Post Swindon pose in front of the display.

 The participants from London will do the same on 25t February 2011, when they gather at Holborn Community Association’s Bedford House for their Celebration Day.

Archive photos and more images from the project can be viewed on Flickr

Statement on our New Centre project

After undertaking extensive feasibility work, the Trustees of The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) have decided not to continue with plans to develop a new base in Swindon, Wiltshire.

The decision comes despite the BPMA receiving an HLF Round One pass for the project early last year and is in response to significant changes to funding expectations, particularly from corporate supporters, during the past six months. Like other cultural organisations, the BPMA attributes difficulties in meeting fundraising targets to the current challenging economic climate.

The BPMA retains its commitment to securing an accessible future home, and its staff will continue working to achieve the best possible outcome for the BPMA and its unique collections.

The BPMA also continues to work with communities in Swindon, where it will be staging an exhibition of iconic post office photographs in the autumn.

Ministers visit the BPMA

Last Thursday we welcomed a group from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to the BPMA. The group was led by Baroness Wilcox, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Edward Davey, Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs.

Baroness Wilcox and Edward Davey with our Queen Victoria Channel Islands Pillar Box

Baroness Wilcox and Edward Davey with our Queen Victoria Channel Islands Pillar Box

The group toured the Royal Mail Archive and were shown some key items from our collection.

The group view items in our archive repository

The group view items in our archive repository

The visit coincided with discussion of the Postal Services Bill, which resumes with debate in the House of Lords this week.

The BPMA at Who Do You Think You Are? Live

The BPMA will be attending Who Do You Think You Are? Live again this year. The show is Europe’s most comprehensive family history event.

The event will take place from 25th-27th February at Olympia, London. The BPMA can be found in the Society of Genealogists section of the show, on stands 111 and 112.

Last year's BPMA stall at Who Do You Think You Are? Live.

Last year's BPMA stall at Who Do You Think You Are? Live.

If you visit our stall you’ll be able to discuss our family history resources with staff, or find out more about the BPMA in general. We will also have a small selection of shop products available for purchase.

Last year we spoke to over 500 visitors over the weekend. Hopefully we will be speaking to you this year.

Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2010

For more information about the show visit www.whodoyouthinkyouarelive.co.uk.

A special ticket offer of two tickets for £25 is available from www2.seetickets.com/whodoyouthinkyouare/ or by phoning 0844 873 7330. Quote the discount code EX2425 when booking. A £2 transaction fee applies. Offer ends 19th Feb 2011.

Jobs for the Girls – Women in the Post Office

The follow blog is based on a talk given by U3A volunteer Margaret Birkinshaw, and draws on her experience of working with editions of The Post Office Magzine.

Fanny Biggerstaff

Fanny Biggerstaff

“Postman Pat, Postman Pat and his little black cat” – most people are familiar with this children’s song. The choice of the name “Pat” is striking, because it is a woman’s name as well as a man’s –and it seems that, from its early days, unusually for the time, the Post Office was employing women in post offices and as letter-carriers. The Act establishing the Post Office was passed under Oliver Cromwell in 1657 but it was not until 1840, with the introduction of Rowland Hill’s prepaid penny post, that a massive increase in the use of the post occurred[1]. The importance of the work of women at this stage is shown by the fact that, as early as 1838, a portrait was drawn of Fanny Biggerstaff, then aged 62, with the inscription “during the past thirty-seven years she has been an honest, punctual and trustworthy postwoman from Thame to Brill and the surrounding villages. Any correspondence she could not deliver to users she used to leave in the family pews in church”.[2]

Considerable information on post office work can be gleaned from the book “Lark Rise to Candleford” by Flora Thompson which, unlike the recent television series of the same name, is factual and gives details of the author’s life in the post office and as a postwoman in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the beginning of that century any work outside the walls of the home was taboo for a woman who had any pretension to refinement. However as time went on post office employment became largely the preserve of ministers’ and schoolmasters’ daughters, mainly because the pay of a learner in a large office was very small and not nearly sufficient to live on away from home. This did not apply to letter-carriers, who usually came from a different stratum of society. Flora Thompson describes how every morning the postman who had brought the mail sorted out his own letters for the village delivery and the two women letter-carriers, who did the cross-country deliveries to outlying homes and farms, then did their own sorting.[3]

There does not appear to have been any sort of uniform in those days. Postwomen wore thick stockings, stout shoes, long skirts and coats, shawls, a pull-on felt hat in winter or a sunbonnet in summer.[4] They were hard-working, dedicated and loyal. In fact all post office staff had to sign a Declaration before a magistrate which began “I do solemnly promise and declare that I will not open or delay or cause to suffer to be opened or delayed any letter or anything sent by the post”.[5] Another benefit arising from the employment of women is the fact that they live longer than men. By the end of the nineteenth century males born in the UK could expect to live to around forty-five and females to forty-nine.[6] The Post Office Magazine refers to a number of women still working at a great age. For example in 1947 Miss Parry, sub-postmistress of Handsworth, had worked there sixty years[7] and in the same year there is reference to Jane Williamson, who was then Scotland’s oldest postmistress. She celebrated her ninetieth birthday that year and had no intention of retiring. Even more unusual was the fact that she was only appointed to the post at the age of 85.[8]

Fanny King

Fanny King

However women were appreciated not just for their longevity but also for their resourcefulness and their stamina. A couple of examples are Mrs Rogers who, in the mid-twentieth century, was postmistress of Tristan da Cunha, an island 1,500 miles from South Africa and South America. Mrs. Rogers date-stamped the letters and placed them in a bag which hung on a nail in her bedroom. When a passing steamer was spotted there was a cry of “sail ho” and a boat was rowed out to the ship and the mail bundled aboard.[9] And consider Fanny King, a postwoman in the Cotswolds at the same period who, at 65 years of age, was still trekking nine miles every morning delivering to isolated farmsteads. “I think I should die if I didn’t have my morning delivery” she said.[10]

From the mid 20th century onwards women’s achievements did not gain so much publicity and their work was taken for granted – though brave women foiling raiders still made the news. The request, made in 1961 by the Postmasters Association, that the title Postmistress be discarded and that all officers controlling sub-offices be entitled to the title Postmaster was agreed to[11] – however even today the national press still uses the term postmistress.

And does work in the post office still appeal to women? Yes, it seems that it does. An item in The Times in October 2010 tells how a British doctor, Helen Joannidi, is moving to Goudier Island in Antarctica, the southernmost Post Office in the world to run it for five months (the Daily Mail also covered the story). The building has no central heating, running water or electricity and the average daytime temperature in summer is minus 12 degrees.[12] You cannot get more dedicated to post office work than that.


[1] Hutchinson Encyclopaedia
[2] Post Office Magazine June 1939 p.285 (portrait owned by Mrs. Graham of Highfield)
[3] “Lark Rise to Candleford” – Flora Thompson, 1939
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Office of National Statistics – Social Trends no. 34
[7] Post Office Magazine – November 1947 p. 348 (vol. 1946-8)
[8] Post Office Magazine – December 1947 p.10
[9] Post Office Magazine – July 1946 p. 7
[10] Post Office Magazine – March 1939 p.104
[11] Post Office records – POST 122/8082
[12] “The Times” – 9 October 2010

U3A Shared Learning Project

 Over 10 weeks from September 2010, BPMA welcomed a group of 10 volunteers from the University of the Third Age (U3A). BPMA was taking part in its first Shared Learning Project with the U3A which culminated in a presentation day in January.

The U3A volunteers.

The U3A volunteers.

U3A Shared Learning Projects are research projects that take place between a group of U3A members and an organisation like a museum, gallery or library. The topic of the research can be proposed by the group or the organisation and the work should be beneficial to the volunteers and the organisation. U3A has worked on projects like this with the British Museum, The Foundling Museum, Museum of London and others.

The group spent the 10 weeks with us researching copies of the Post Office Magazine, the staff magazine which ran from 1934 into the 1950s. BPMA has an extensive photograph collection, much of which is catalogued and available online.

A page from the May 1939 issue of the Post Office Magazine.

A page from the May 1939 issue of the Post Office Magazine.

There are many photographs which we don’t have very much background on and the project team were tasked with both indexing articles from the issues of the Post Office Magazine and also noting any photographs in them which also appeared in the online catalogue.

Photograph of a postman and two beefeaters at The Tower of London, as published in the Post Office Magazine, February 1939.

Photograph of a postman and two beefeaters at The Tower of London, as published in the Post Office Magazine, February 1939.

This project has been hugely beneficial to the BPMA. Over 1000 records of articles have been created and around 200 links to photos on the catalogue have been found.

The group also researched a topic of interest related to our collections and presented their findings to each other and BPMA staff. The topics were varied and included Women and the Post Office, Art in the Post Office, The Postcode System and the Post Office Rifles.

John gives a presentation on the Post Office (London) Railway, also known as "Mail Rail".

John gives a presentation on the Post Office (London) Railway, also known as "Mail Rail".

We have also learnt a lot about carrying out a project like this which will help us in the future when we hope to run another Shared Learning Project with the U3A. We would like to thank all those involved in the project for their help in making it a success.

Shared Learning Project volunteer Margaret Birkinshaw’s presentation on Women and the Post Office will be posted on this blog on Friday.