Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Last Post

The final episode of The Peoples Post reminded us of some of the postal service’s great innovations. These included William Dockwra’s Penny Post, the development of the Mail Coach system, Rowland Hill’s postal reforms, the invention of the postage stamp, and the introduction of curb-side letter boxes.

Exterior of a Sub-Post Office, Bristol, 1980 (H11401c)

Exterior of a Sub-Post Office, Bristol, 1980 (H11401c)

Throughout the series we have also heard about how the postcode has changed our lives, and the ways in which cheap postage and telecommunications, developed in Britain, have made it easier to keep in touch and send our love.

With Christmas just two days away many of us are preparing to travel to be with family and friends. Seeing people in person is the ultimate way to communicate, but if you can’t there’s always the post. Leave your views on The Peoples Post series as a comment below, on our Facebook page, or tweet us using the hashtag #PeoplesPost.

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Last Post. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

Publicising the postcode

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post explored the issue of modernising the Post Office, looking particularly at the development of postcodes.

In order for the introduction of postcodes to succeed the public needed to be willing to adopt them. Psychological studies showed that the best means of achieving this was for the postcodes to “compromise familiarity and brevity”[1]. Once a system of postcodes encompassing both these virtues was developed and rolled out, the next step was for the Post Office to publicise the new means of addressing the mail.

The Post Office invested heavily in a range of campaigns to increase the use of postcodes. In the late 1970s these campaigns were intended to “remind, not persuade people to use their postcodes”[2]. This recognised that the main reason for not using a postcode was forgetfulness, rather than outright resistance to postcodes.

One character helping promote postcodes in the 1980s was Poco the elephant. Although the use of an elephant in publicity campaigns played on people’s forgetfulness when using postcodes, Poco himself is well remembered by visitors to the Royal Mail Archive. In addition to this poster, we also have a range of other material produced as part of this campaign, including a pen, a sweatshirt, a badge, and a vinyl record (the Postcode Song, with Poco on the cover).

Poco the elephant says… (POST 110/3083)

Poco the elephant says… (POST 110/3083)

Other campaigns, such as the one below from the 1970s, attempted to use storytelling as a means of increasing the use of postcodes. This style of poster gave more scope to explain why postcodes were important. The storytelling element also helped members of the public relate to familiar situations.

Slapdash Harry and the missing postcode - educational poster featuring a cartoon storyboard explaining postcodes, c. 1970 (POST 110/2686)

Slapdash Harry and the missing postcode - educational poster featuring a cartoon storyboard explaining postcodes, c. 1970 (POST 110/2686)

Finally this poster from the 1980s uses the notion of a romantic rendezvous to drive the postcode message home.

Let's meet under the GU1 3AA. Please use your postcode - poster promoting postcode usage, c. 1980 (POST 110/1137)

Let's meet under the GU1 3AA. Please use your postcode - poster promoting postcode usage, c. 1980 (POST 110/1137)

This romance echoes attempts in the 1930s to promote the use of London postal districts, as beautifully portrayed in the film N or NW.

- Helen Dafter, Archivist

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Post Code. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.


[1] POST 17/173, Code Design and the Design of Keyboards: Report of work carried out on behalf of the Post Office, 1958-62.

[2] MD/FE/1342 Postcode system – design of postcodes and the extent to which consumer reaction was tested. Including “social survey on post office services” 1956.

Job in a Million

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post focused on the life of postal workers in the 1930s. Included were extracts from the film Job in a Million, made in 1937 by the GPO Film Unit.

The paternalist air of Job in a Million seems patronising to us today, but it reflected the public service ethos of the time. As well as boys and men, girls, women and disabled people were all employed in large numbers by the Post Office, particularly during and after the First and Second World Wars.

At the start of the First World War the Post Office was once of the largest employers in the world (employing 249,606 people), and in 1934 it was the second largest employer in Britain (employing 227,882 people). Even today Royal Mail Group employs 185,602 people, putting it amongst the UK’s largest employers.

With this history it unsurprising that the majority of the UK population have either worked for or have an ancestor who worked for the Post Office or Royal Mail. Here at the BPMA we receive enquiries every day from family historians wanting information on the working lives of their ancestors. Find out how we can help with your search at www.postalheritage.org.uk/genealogy, or for information on working lives in the Post Office see www.postalheritage.org.uk/history.

- Alison Bean, Web Officer

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage A Job in a Million. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

The Post Office in the First World War

Even today we are reminded from time to time of the importance and value of a letter or packet to British troops serving across the globe. The receipt of a letter or parcel containing news from home or small mementoes or gift is a vital life line. This was also true during the First World War. Now over 90 years since that conflict ended the story of just how important a postal service was is still being told. The BBC Radio 4 series, included some touching extracts from letters sent by British soldiers, and even letters from German soldiers back to the family of fallen British officer. A number of these letters are today preserved as part of the British Postal Museum collection.

Delivering mail to troops during the First World War (POST 118/5429).

Delivering mail to troops during the First World War (POST 118/5429).

The First World War was fought at a time when other forms of communications were still in their infancy, most homes for instance still did not have the telephone, and indeed the Post Office themselves had only be managing the network for two years when war broke out. Written communication was therefore essential not only to maintain morale of the troops and allow news of the war home, but it was also a vital part of conveying military information.

The breakout of war across the world posed a massive challenge for the postal system that not only had to maintain a service at home but was now also having to provide a service to ever changing theatres of war around the world and at sea. The British Post Office not only had to rise to this massive challenge, but had to do so with reduced numbers of staff. The organisation sent thousands of men off to fight in the war and also to help run the postal service at the front lines. Many of these men were to never return home. Women were employed in huge numbers to fill the gaps left by men. The Post Office were to lead the way in providing employment for women that was to go on after the war to help in the cause of women’s suffrage.

Women working on parcel sorting during the First World War (POST 56/6)

Women working on parcel sorting during the First World War (POST 56/6)

The Post Office’s roles of operating a postal system and sending men off to fight were however far from its only contributions. As The Peoples Post has shown the Post Office also played a pivotal role in censorship and espionage. On the one hand the Post Office were catching spies through the interception of mail, and on the other were helping to prevent the leaking, either accidental or deliberately, of military secrets. Letters sent from the front were subject to inspection by the postal censor, unless they were sealed in a signed ‘honour’ envelope, where the sender would sign a declaration conforming the contents of the letter did not reveal military information.

Honour Envelope – obverse (PH32/27)

Honour Envelope – obverse (PH32/27)

Other methods were also employed to help reduce the chances of military positions or details escaping, such as the field service postcard (referenced in the radio series) that limited the things that could be said by way of multiple choices.

If this was not all enough the Post Office also operated and managed the Separation Allowance, paid to those left at home while the wage earner was off fighting the war, and the war savings bond, a government launched savings scheme set up to help pay for the war.

The Post Office’s contribution to the war was on many levels, and really was essential to the eventual victory in so many ways. Perhaps the most remarkable element to all this is how this was all being done while so many of the organisation’s most experienced staff were off serving in the armed forces. Many of these never to returned, and even today Royal Mail is one of the largest custodians of war memorials in this country. For those that did come back the Post Office established its own hospitals and convalescence homes to care for its returning heroes.

The story of the Post Office in the First World is huge and fascinating and there is so much more of it to tell. Find out more in our online exhibition The Last Post.

- Chris Taft, Curator

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Post Office at War. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

Telegraphs and mass communication

Barely a day goes by when we do not see more evidence of the way in which mass communications can quickly bring together a group of like-minded people for a common purpose. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Movember and Talk Like a Pirate Day all have Facebook, Twitter and other communications networks to thank for their success.

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post explained how businesses and individuals in the Victorian era benefited from the telegraph. But the speed with which information could be distributed by this early form of mass communication may surprise you.

King Edward VII on 4d stamp, issued 1902.

King Edward VII on 4d stamp, issued 1902.

In early December 1871 The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) contracted typhoid whilst staying at Londesborough Lodge, Yorkshire, and there was considerable public concern about the heir apparent’s welfare. A friend of the Prince’s, Lord Chesterfield, who had also been staying at Londesborough Lodge, succumbed to the disease, and the Prince’s plight brought to mind Prince Albert, his father, who had died of typhoid a decade earlier.

The Privy Council asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to prepare prayers for the Prince’s recovery for distribution to churches and chapels throughout England and Wales. These were printed on Saturday 9th December, and the Post Office was asked to deliver them by the following morning. Unfortunately, this was not possible by “ordinary channels”.

Prayer for the recovery of The Prince of Wales (POST 30/213c)

Prayer for the recovery of The Prince of Wales (POST 30/213c)

It was only thanks to the quick action of the telegraph department that they were distributed in time.

… great credit is due to a gentleman of the name of Irvine of the telegraph department of the Post Office for his thoughtfulness in suggesting that the physical difficulties in the way of the distribution of the prayers in time for use on Sunday might be obviated by the use of the telegraph, and for the zeal and energy with which, after personal communications with this office twice during the evening of Saturday, he collected all the addresses of the Clergy, and aided in supplying them by telegraph with copies of the Prayers…
(POST 30/213c)

This example of speedy mass distribution of information was important for the Post Office, who had taken over the privately-owned telegraph network the year before. As we heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, nationalisation of this network was controversial and expensive, but this example and many others like it were a feather in the Post Office’s cap.

Indeed, this proof of concept laid the groundwork for future successes. Within 30 years messages were being transmitted over the Atlantic using wireless telegraphy, thanks not only to Marconi but also the Post Office. News of the sinking of the Titanic, for example, was spread quickly thanks to the wireless, saving many lives.

A telegram stating that the Titanic is “deeply grieved” (POST 29/1395)

A telegram stating that the Titanic is “deeply grieved” (POST 29/1395)

Herbert Samuel, the Postmaster General at the time of the Titanic disaster, said:

Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr Marconi…and his marvellous invention.

Later, wireless telegraphy was refined further enabling mass broadcasting, which has provided information, prompted mass action and allowed you to listen to The Peoples Post today.

- Alison Bean, Web Officer

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Telegraph. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

Split duties in the 1890s

Today’s episode of The Peoples Post looks at the first postal strike, when long hours and harsh conditions led many postmen to protest. In 1890, hundreds marched on Post Office headquarters at St Martin’s-le-Grand demanding better pay and conditions. They were soon sacked and the strike was put down, but these were early days for the labour movement in Britain and it prompted the Government to investigate the plight of those working in the worst conditions.

In 1895 the Tweedmouth Committee heard evidence on the hardships of postmen. Doctors testified that the death rate in this occupation was higher than others. “The result”, as Sir W.B. Richardson put it, “is that the postman wears out fast… The effect was generally to produce premature old age; in other words shortening the life of the worker.”

The Tweedmouth Committee at work, pictured on the cover of the Postman’s Gazette, 14 March 1896.

The Tweedmouth Committee at work, pictured on the cover of the Postman’s Gazette, 14 March 1896.

Stephen Dowling, a postman from Liverpool, complained about the long hours. He found that having his duties split into three or four attendances in a single day meant he started work at 6am and didn’t finish until after 10pm.

Imagine, my lord, the postman going into his home 3, 4, 5 and as many as 8 times per day, drenched with rain, or his boots penetrated with snow… Or, worse still, picture him when he cannot get home remaining in wet clothing all day long… Or, think of him working under the fierce rays of a summer’s sun, in the hottest part of the day, when others are seeking shelter, walking along dusty, country roads, in the streets, in loathsome slums, among insanitary dwellings, climbing hills and mounting stuffy buildings – with heavy loads and hung all around with parcels.

Dowling explained that between duties many of his colleges simply took to the pub.

In many instances the intervals between the parts of our long duties are frittered and whiled away in the streets – often, I regret to have to say (and this, I think, it reflects rather on the Department than on the men), in public houses. These very intervals have been the cause of many a man’s ruin.

The Committee heard the story of a man named Nevins.

He was rolling about in the principal thoroughfare at a quarter-past three in the afternoon in a state of intoxication, and he was then in uniform.

Nevins kept his job but had his good conduct stripes removed, leading to reduced pay.

William Gates, a postman awarded Good Conduct Stripes. Hurstpierpoint, Brighton, c1897.

William Gates, a postman awarded Good Conduct Stripes. Hurstpierpoint, Brighton, c1897.

Others took up sports to pass the time but split duties caused problems for them too. Tired from an early start, postmen at the GPO on Lombard Street complained that an afternoon of rowing or cricket was spoilt by the thought of having to go back to work afterwards.

This is making work of play indeed, and small wonder that the G.P.O., notwithstanding its immense staff, can scarcely equal for all round proficiency some of the district offices, who, in point of size, are as his satellites are to Jupiter.

A letter to the union journal The Post joked that “split duties are like a long engaged couple – they should be joined as soon as possible”.

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club

When the Tweedmouth Committee issued its report, postmen were dismayed to find that no concessions were made on split duties. But this was the first of a series of major parliamentary enquiries around the turn of the century that slowly produced results, improving conditions for the lowest paid and leading eventually to the establishment of Whitley Councils.

- Peter Sutton, Historian

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Postal Worker’s Strike. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

The Post Office in the Community

Part of today’s episode of The Peoples Post on BBC Radio 4 was recorded at Blists Hill Victorian Town, in Shropshire. It is there back in 2009 that a reconstructed late Victorian Post Office was opened in partnership with The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA). The office itself is part of the much larger site, re-creating life in late Victorian England. On the upper floor of the office however is a much more modern exhibit for visitors. In this specially constructed gallery space is the Museum of the Post Office in the Community. The Museum was created by the BPMA and designed to tell the story of the vital role post offices have played throughout history and as a centre point of communities.

Inside the reconstructed late Victorian Post Office at Blists Hill (Photo courtesy: Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust).

Inside the reconstructed late Victorian Post Office at Blists Hill (Photo courtesy: Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust).

For towns such as Blists Hill the post office would have been a very important focal point of the community; a place not only where postal business would have taken place but also a centre for gossip and the arrival of news.

When the BPMA got the opportunity to develop a museum on this site the story of the Post Office and its community role was the obvious one to take. The exhibition space was divided down into four sections, each exploring a different aspect of the community story.

In the first part the exhibition looks at the rise and fall of the different services offered by post offices and places them in a chronology alongside other events in postal history. The next section looks at delivery methods and includes a display of the differing postal caps used throughout history, part of the iconic uniform of the postal worker. Also on display is one of the BPMA’s five-wheeled cycles, the Hen and Chicks, this remarkable machine was introduced in the 1880s when the post office took on the parcels post and it continues to catch the imagination of the visitor.

The Hen and Chicks on display at the Museum of the Post Office in the Community.

The Hen and Chicks on display at the Museum of the Post Office in the Community.

The third part of the museum looks at the letter box and how it has developed, brought about by the need to improve methods of using the postal service following the success of postal reform. In this section there is a rare survivor of a very early letter box, a green and gold, highly decorative roadside letter box. The final section looks at changing times and explores the more recent history of the post office and especially how that story fits with the community role.

The Museum of the Post Office in the Community is proving to be an interesting method of allowing visitors to the popular Blists Hill site to explore in depth the history of something very familiar and something still at the heart of many communities.

- Chris Taft, Curator

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage A Community Hub. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.