As the author of a new history of the Royal Mail (Masters of the Post, published by Penguin Allen Lane today), I have to say that no book could possibly capture more than a fraction of the riches to be found in the archives held by the BPMA. Just penning this blog on my own experience in the archive has left me feeling only too aware of all the extraordinary records to which I could only devote the tiniest amount of space.
What marvellous tales, for example, must still lie undiscovered in those 1,185 volumes of the Treasury Letter Books (all in POST 1)! What charming stories have yet to be extracted, from the wonderful Peover Papers – the letters of Colonel Whitley written to postmasters all over the country in 1672-7, and so conveniently for us turned into modern typescripts by the Post Office in 1902 (see POST 94/12-24)! And what a chronicle of the First World War yet remains to be written, on the basis of the thirteen confidential reports on the work of the Royal Engineers Postal Service units (see POST 33/5506)!
My challenge in attempting a general history, of course, was always about how to make extensive use of the postal records without drowning in them. Step One was to take full advantage of the BPMA’s comprehensive library of secondary sources, to assemble a broad outline of each historical episode as I came to it – then to draw on the generous help of the BPMA’s staff in compiling lists of the archive files most likely to bear on the narrative of that episode. And in reading through those files, I always tried to leave myself plenty of time to call up other, perhaps only loosely related papers that might just harbour surprises. Pot luck accounted for some of my happiest discoveries.
I hope the resulting book will, at the very least, provide a useful chronology of postal history for those approaching the archive in future. Those with very specific family queries might appreciate a bit of wider context. And those in search of their own narrative may find Masters of the Post can help them define the broad questions they want to answer. The scale and depth of the BPMA’s archive is all very well. But for those with less than a single lifetime to explore it, productive research needs to start with an outline agenda. That’s what converts an open ocean, merely to swim in, into a river that can be fished.
- Duncan Campbell Smith
Images from the BPMA collection which appear in Masters of the Post can be seen on Flickr. Charts and statistics which illustrate the fluctuating fortunes of the Post Office and Royal Mail over the past 170 years can be found on our website.