Monthly Archives: April 2012

Delegation from China visit BPMA

On Wednesday 18 April, the BPMA were delighted to welcome a delegation from China, including Lu Xinghua, Deputy Director of China Post Literature & History Centre, Song Yunli, Curator of China Post Archives of China Post Literature & History Centre and Danny Kin Chi Wong, FRPSL, Royal Philatelic Society London China Representative.

Chinese Delegation

BPMA Director Adrian Steel showing records in the BPMA's collections relating to China to the Chinese visitors

Gavin McGuffie, Acting Head of Archives and Records Management at the BPMA, took them for a tour of the Royal Mail archive, including looking at records in the collections relating to China, such as documents about delivery of mail via packet ships from the mid-19th century [POST 43/157] and a copy of a history of the British postal service by a Chinese postal official [POST 33/6013]. They also got to see three telegrams sent in response to the Post Office’s concern about its employees and the mail onboard the RMS Titanic (please see a previous blog on the RMS Titanic telegrams).

The visitors had the unique chance to hold a sheet of Penny Blacks from the BPMA's secure philatelic vault

The delegation was then treated to a tour of the secure philatelic vault with BPMA Philatelic Curator Douglas Muir, where they were shown Penny Blacks, Tyrian Plums, dies, rollers and Olympic stamp artwork.

Lantern Slides: Post Horses

I have recently been working on a project to scan and catalogue BPMA’s collection of lantern slides. Lantern slides were used in magic lanterns and were the predecessors of modern slides for projectors. They were first invented in the mid 16th Century, originally using candles or oil lamps to throw the images. As time progressed brighter light sources such as limelight were discovered making the devices much more efficient at projecting.

The lantern slides were made out of two pieces of glass coated with a photographic emulsion resulting in the image appearing in-between the plates. The slides could then be hand tinted if required or left black and white.

Lantern slides came into popular use in the 19th and 20th Centuries and the BPMA’s collection of over 500 also date to this period. The Post Office used them extensively, with a variety of purposes from staff training to documenting what the organisation was doing.

A large part of the collection focuses on postal transport, and unsurprisingly horses feature in many of the earlier slides – in the form of drawings and photographic images, of either the animals or artwork of them. I have selected some of these to share with you today.

Tickets used to hire post horses from postmasters or innkeepers. (2010-0411/08)

Tickets used to hire post horses from postmasters or innkeepers. (2010-0411/08)

The image above shows a photograph of tickets used to hire post horses from postmasters or innkeepers. As the title states, surviving examples are rare so the record in the form of a lantern slide to document this process is highly valuable.

Australian telegraph worker riding a horse. (2010-0450)

Australian telegraph worker riding a horse. (2010-0450)

This next slide, shows a late 19th Century drawing of an Australian telegraph worker, distinguished by his different uniform, riding on a horse. This could possibly have been used to educate British staff of postal practices around the world.

Postal worker with his horse. (2011-0443/08)

Postal worker with his horse. (2011-0443/08)

A much more human touch in this next image shows an older postal worker with his horse or pony. The familiarity in the shot is endearing and shows a more informal side to the use of the slides.

More catalogue records complete with images will shortly be available on our online catalogue so do look out for them soon.

Laura Snowling - Volunteer

Mail Rail open day

Final preparations are now being made for the special open day taking place on Saturday 21st April 2012 at the BPMA’s Museum Store at Debden. The open day, which will start at 10am and run throughout the day till 4pm is themed around the Post Office underground railway, or Mail Rail as it became known. During the day while the rest of the Store will be available to visit special focus will be made on the story of the narrow gauge, driverless, electric railway that moved mail under London from 1927 to 2003.

Post Office underground railway - train waiting at loop crossing. (POST 118/386)

Post Office underground railway - train waiting at loop crossing. (POST 118/386)

The BPMA now holds three rail cars in its collection, one being the only known complete example of the original 1927 car. Two of the rail cars are being actively conserved and there are plans for the third. During the event on Saturday there will be chance for visitors to witness conservation first hand and to speak to the conservator undertaking the work. BPMA curators will also be on site to answer questions about the railway and there will be some formal talks and tours about the network and also the pneumatic rail system that preceded Mail Rail. The only known survivors of the 19th century underground system will also be on display.

The 1927 car above ground in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London. The car was used to transport mail on the Post Office underground railway from its start in 1927.

The 1927 car above ground in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London. The car was used to transport mail on the Post Office underground railway from its start in 1927.

Throughout the day there will also be film showings and also activities for visitors of all ages. Others with an association with the railway will also be on site including one of the engineers who works on the railway maintaining it today.

There will also be a display of smaller artefacts from the BPMA’s extensive collection and many images from the Archive. Some more modern images of the network today will also be on display as part of an art photography project currently being undertaken by Jonathan Bradley Photography.

The event is free for all and is drop in throughout the day. Full details of the event are on our website.

Chris Taft – Curator

Royal Mail Ship Titanic – centenary 2012

The centenary of the Titanic’s sinking is a good opportunity of reminding the world about the fascinating material concerning the ill-fated Royal Mail Ship in The Royal Mail Archive.

Three years ago the BPMA blogged on the subject telling the story of the post office on the ship and the bravery of the five postal clerks who went down with the ship. This blog shows images of a number of items in the collection including telegrams sent about the sinking. We also included the Titanic story in the 2010 Empire Mail exhibition at Guildhall.

This lantern slide comes from a series of slides of early 20th century Royal Mail Ships (in our museum collection).

Titanic leaving Southampton (2012-0126/04)

Titanic leaving Southampton (2012-0126/04)

Another item I particularly like is this blue print (from POST 29/1117) showing the position of the Titanic’s (as well as that of its sister ship the Olympic) post office (situated on G-deck) and mail room (on the Orlop deck) below, both almost at the bottom of the ship.

Blue print of mail room on Titanic (POST 29/1117)

Blue print of mail room on Titanic (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Post Office (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Post Office (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Mail Room (POST 29/1117)

Titanic blue print, detail of Mail Room (POST 29/1117)

This time I also decided to focus on the two Post Office employees (the post office was also manned by three US postal workers), James Bertram Williamson and John Richard Jago Smith (known as Jago), using their details to interrogate the BPMA’s family history records. These sources can be used in a similar way to track down details of postal ancestors in your family.

Both men can be found (at least) three times on the British Postal Appointment books, available online via Ancestry (given the various permutations on their initials I am by no means certain I found all their entries in the books). Williamson starts as a Sorting Clerk in Dublin in December 1896 (POST 58/96), eventually ending up in Southampton in November 1908 as a ‘SC and T’ (Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist, POST 58/104).

Williamson’s appointment as a sorting clerk in Dublin listed at bottom (POST 58/96)

Williamson’s appointment as a sorting clerk in Dublin listed at bottom (POST 58/96)

Jago, a Cornishman, began as a Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist at Liskeard in May 1898 (POST 58/96) before moving along the coast to Southampton in September 1901 (POST 58/98).

Smith’s appointment in Southamption. His name is the second one listed under September. (POST 58/98)

Smith’s appointment in Southamption. His name is the second one listed under September. (POST 58/98)

On 5 May 1912 all ranks of the Southampton postal staff attended a service at St Peters Church in Southampton in memory of their colleagues and a later memorial was erected. The Postal and Telegraph Services also placed a memorial plaque in the church at St Keverne, Cornwall, in memory of Jago Smith.

The GPO staff journal St Martin’s le Grand (which is currently being digitised for the BPMA by SDS Heritage, who kindly supplied this image) also paid tribute to the two men in July 1912, albeit incorrectly initialling Williamson as ‘E D’ and calling him an ‘Englishman’!

The Postal Clerks of the Titanic, St Martin’s le Grand, July 1912 (POST 92/1141)

The Postal Clerks of the Titanic, St Martin’s le Grand, July 1912 (POST 92/1141)

The two men feature again in the Treasury correspondence (POST 1). This is a key family history source since GPO pension and gratuity (including for death while an employee) applications were sent to the Treasury from 1860 to 1940. The index (POST 1/471) entry for the men stands out on the page below.

Index entries for the two men (POST 1/471)

Index entries for the two men (POST 1/471)

Though neither man was married nor had children both contributed to the well being of their families. Williamson sent ‘the whole of his trip allowance (£8 to £10 a month) to his mother’, who had no other means. Jago contributed £15 a week to his father and sister’s support.

This letter from September 1912 (POST 1/449, pages 405-6) which details their dependents goes on to emphasise:

Mr Herbert Samuel [the Postmaster General] is strongly of the opinion that compensation should be paid, in one form or another, to the relatives of the deceased officers … [having] regard to the exceptional nature of the case, and the unfortunate effect which the refusal of compensation would almost necessarily produce in Parliament and on public opinion.

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (1).

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (1).

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (2).

Letter concerning the dependents of Williamson and Jago (2).

A later letter (POST 1/450, pages 725-6) seeks clarification on the nature of the payment.

There is also a very large file on the issue of compensation for valuable mail lost on the ship (POST 29/1395B) from which our copies of the telegrams concerning the sinking come.

Another former postal worker who died on board was John George ‘Jack’ Phillips. In April 1902 at the age of fifteen he joined the Post Office as a ‘Learner’ at Godalming in Surrey (POST 58/98). He trained as a telegraphist leaving in March 1906 for further study at the Marconi Company’s Wireless Telegraphy Training School. He worked as a wireless operator on various liners and in a station at Clifden, Galway before joining the Titanic at Belfast. As senior wireless operator on the ship he sent many of the messages asking for assistance from other vessels as the Titanic went down. (For more on this see our blog post on Marconi and the Post Office.)

The BPMA has also this year been assisting Royal Mail and Canada Post on their special products. This commemorative sheet has been produced by Royal Mail; these products by Canada Post. In this vein, our curator of philately Douglas Muir helped debunk the myth that this photograph is mail being loaded onto the Titanic. Sadly it is not.

We’ll be showing some of the BPMA’s original Titanic documents (including telegrams on the sinking) in The Royal Mail Archive search room prior to Julian Stray’s talk Disaster at Sea! The talk is on 19 April at 7pm, see our website for full details.

Gavin McGuffie - Head of Archives

Britten Films: An Exploration

The young Benjamin Britten wrote:

1936… finds me earning my living – with occasionally something to spare – at the GPO film unit… writing music and supervising sounds for film

In 1933 Britten became a member of the General Post Office film unit, which was originally set up to produce sponsored films relating to the GPO’s activities. As a result of Britten composing the music for the short films, there was a quick turnaround time and this helped Britten to refine and nurture his compositional tools.

The nine short films he worked on – covering subjects ranging from postage stamps to pacifism, the abolition of the slave trade to the electrification of the London-Portsmouth railway – are wonderfully made and fascinating historical documents. For example, Night Mail is a documentary about a London, Midland and Scottish railway mail train. The rhythm of the poem imitates the stages of the train journey, where the increasing rhythmic pace throughout the poem symbolises the acceleration of the mail train.

A still from Night Mail showing the mail train on its journey

A still from Night Mail showing the mail train on its journey

Britten’s music brilliantly reflects, amplifies and underpins the screen images with scores of rich variety and invention. It is a celebration of composer’s craft and filmmaker’s technique, an insight into 1930s Britain, and a snapshot of the art of propaganda before the term became besmirched forever by the extreme forces of political repression.

Aldeburgh Festival will be screening Britten’s nine GPO films in June with a live orchestra in the event Britten Films. Before the screening commences there will be an illustrated discussion, Britten Films: An Exploration, looking at the astonishing artistic collective which was the GPO film unit and how some of Britten’s very first professional commissions were to leave a powerful impression on his future creative life.

For more information on the events visit www.aldeburgh.co.uk or phone 01728 687100. The website’s ‘visiting us’ page helps you find out about where to eat, where to stay, and how to find us of course. Tickets can be purchased from the website and through the box office on 01728 687110.

Leanne Cox - Aldeburgh Festival

The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit is available from the BPMA Shop.

Royal Philatelic Collection podcast

We have just uploaded a new podcast featuring Michael Sefi speaking at the BPMA about the Royal Philatelic Collection. Michael Sefi has been Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection since 2003 and he, along with several assistants, cares for and describes the collection, as well as enabling public access to it.

Bermuda ‘Perot’; one of only 12 surviving examples of this locally-produced stamp.

Bermuda ‘Perot’; one of only 12 surviving examples of this locally-produced stamp.

The Royal Philatelic Collection is Queen Elizabeth II’s private collection and includes material collected by her ancestors over the past 120 years. The majority of the holdings were collected by King George V, aka the philatelist king, but since his death the collection has been added to. It is considered to be the finest collection of its type, and consists almost entirely of British and Commonwealth material, including stamps, covers and stamp artwork, some famous errors and oddities, and a number of unique and highly valuable items.

‘Post Office Mauritius’. This item from the Royal Philatelic Collection is considered to be the finest of the four surviving examples of this stamp.

‘Post Office Mauritius’. This item from the Royal Philatelic Collection is considered to be the finest of the four surviving examples of this stamp.

In his speech, given here in February, Michael Sefi described the history of the Collection and discusses some of its highlights. These include George V Silver Jubilee covers from almost all Commonwealth Countries, stamp artwork from the era of Edward VIII (some of which was repurposed for George VI), and the rarities illustrating this blog.

2d Tyrian Plum on a cover sent to the Prince of Wales the day before he became George V. The Tyrian Plum was never issued, and this is the only used example.

2d Tyrian Plum on a cover sent to the Prince of Wales the day before he became George V. The Tyrian Plum was never issued, and this is the only used example.

Items from the Royal Philatelic Collection are often shown publically. Upcoming displays include Masterworks Museum, Bermuda – 19 to 28 April 2012, Planète Timbres (Stamp Planet), Paris – 9-17 June 2012, and Australia 2013 World Stamp Exhibition, Melbourne – 10-15 May 2013. In 2010 the British Postal Museum & Archive and the Royal Philatelic Collection collaborated on Empire Mail: George V & the GPO at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

Download the Michael Sefi podcast from www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast or subscribe to the BPMA podcast on iTunes.

Archive Open Day: Sports and Participation in the Post Office

Since the beginning of January 2012, eight students from the University of the Third Age (U3A), plus their team leader, have been working with us to carry out research and work across two areas. Six students have been researching Sports and Participation in the Post Office, whilst the remaining two have been summarising oral history recordings taken in Bringsty Common, Herefordshire.

The group researching Sports and Participation have made some fascinating findings: from truly ‘Olympic’ feats carried out by postmen in the course of their everyday duties, through stamps from across the world featuring a myriad of sporting endeavours, to the current role of the Post Office Sports Foundation in funding activities across the country. These students will be on hand at our Archive Open Day on 14 April 2012 between 1-3pm to share their findings.

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club, 1898

Gloucester Post Office Recreation Club, 1898

One intriguing quote discovered by a student in the Post Office circular ‘St. Martins’ of 1898 gives an insight into early attitudes to women’s participation in sport:

Not the least of the many medical and scientific discoveries in the 19th Century, is the fact that athletic exercise can be indulged in by women without injury to their bodily health.

The students summarising oral history recordings have discovered the personal stories of former postmen, the local postmistress, and post office user, all living in a rural and scattered community with dwindling postal services. Their work will help the BPMA to provide greater access to this unique material, through exhibitions, blog articles, and magazine pieces.

Feedback received from the group has been very positive, and indicated that the students have gained a number of things from the shared learning project, including: insights into social history, new IT skills, enjoyment from working in teams, meeting new people and companionship.

Our Archive Open Day runs from 10-5pm on 14 April and is part of the Archive Awareness Campaign. You do not have to book to attend, but for more information, call 0207 239 2568 or email info@postalheritage.org.uk.

The Open Day also offers one of the last opportunities to see our current exhibition, Treasures of the Archive, which features special highlights of the collections. This includes a design for a stamp that was to be issued in the event that Scotland won the 1978 World Cup. It was, of course, never adopted!

Scotland World Cup Winners 1978 stamp artwork

Scotland World Cup Winners 1978 stamp artwork

Andy Richmond – Access and Learning Manager

Find out more about sport in the Post Office in our online exhibition Playing for the Cup.

Reaching milestones in our documentation and cataloguing work

At the end of February, we reached some significant milestones in the documentation work carried out on our museum and archive collections.

Submitted design (No. 15) by G. Knipe of Harrison & Sons.

Stamp Artwork design for the Olympic Games 1948, submitted by G. Knipe of Harrison & Sons Oct. 1947. (POST 150/GVI/11/018) It was one of the five designs selected by the Council of Industrial Design and was held as a reserve for the 2 1/2d stamp. In preparing essays Harrisons were to be told "to make sure that the features of the jumper ... cannot be recognised."

The first milestone reached was the completion of an audit of material contained within the museum collection. What this means is that we have entry and location data for every object inherited by BPMA when it was formed in 2004 and for every object subsequently deposited with us. This includes objects held in our Freeling House repository and in our stores in Debden and at Christie’s.

Documentation of collections is a core part of any museum’s activity. Without details such as provenance, custodial history, physical condition and the terms and conditions relating to deposit, a museum cannot be assured of its responsibility and rights to preserve, display, digitise or even dispose (should the item not meet the museum’s collecting policy) of objects in its custody. Furthermore, precise information about an object’s location in our repository and stores means that we can carry out collections review work more efficiently and better prepare for our forthcoming move from our site here at Freeling House to the new postal museum.

This has been a significant amount of work and has taken seven years to complete. Very few museums have achieved a full audit of their holdings and it means that we can now concentrate our efforts in reviewing object collections, creating descriptive catalogues for the online catalogue and also plan our digitisation programmes accordingly. The completion of this work is due to the hard work and discipline of our museum cataloguers past and present, and we congratulate them all for doing such a great job!

Stamp Artwork, Olympic Games 1948, submitted on 29 July 1948 (POST 150/GVI/11/037)

The second milestone is that we’ve passed the 100,000 mark of records available to view on our online catalogue. We now have 100,703 records published. Our most recently published records include:
King George VI London Olympic Games 1948 stamp artwork
• Uniforms
• Handstamps
• Posters
Photographic stills from Post Office films, c.1969-1986
Finally, at the beginning of each year, we also open files that have been closed for 30 years. You can read in the blog by my colleague Gavin McGuffie how we process these. This year, we’ve opened approximately 100 files and the descriptions of these can be viewed via our online catalogue here.

Martin Devereux – Acting Catalogue Manager