Category Archives: Archive

The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelopes

We love a mystery at the British Postal Museum & Archive and the identity of the artist behind the illustrated ‘Tolhurst’ envelopes has intrigued us for years.

2014_0038_103

2014-0038/103

The first step in identifying the artist was to research the address to which the majority of the envelopes were sent: St Lawrence, Ernest Road, Hornchurch. Staff at Havering Museum, where a selection of the envelopes were recently displayed, found that the 1911 census showed the occupants as George, Amelia, Frederick and Amy Tolhurst. Frederick and George Tolhurst, father and son, were frequent recipients of the illustrated envelopes.

1911 census record, St Lawrence, Hornchurch

1911 census record, St Lawrence, Hornchurch

Locating the census record enabled the identification of all but one recipient: Vera. Vera received the majority of the illustrated envelopes in the collection, and the majority of Vera’s letters were sent to the Hornchurch address. However, she did not appear in the census record, nor could we find her in the birth records of the General Register Office, due to lack of information. Not put off, we used the information we had accumulated to construct a family tree.
Returning to the envelopes, we found a vital piece of information: the initials ‘FC’ or ‘FCT’ appeared in the corner of several illustrations. Using the family tree, we narrowed down the identity of the artist to Frederick Charles Tolhurst.

Tolhurst signature, 2014_0038_110

The artist’s initials

The identity of Vera continued to elude us, however. We considered whether Vera was a nickname, or perhaps an acronym, but we had no evidence to confirm either of these theories. We drew a step closer to the truth last week when we discovered a postcard which was addressed to Vera and signed ‘with love & kisses from your Mama & Papa’.

with love from mama and papa 2014_0038_112_back

The evidence that steered our search

We searched the birth index for Vera Tolhurst and identified a Vera Sylvia Tolhurst, born in 1908 in the district of Lambeth. A copy of the birth certificate arrived at the BPMA yesterday: listed as Vera’s father is Frederick Charles Tolhurst, and listed as his occupation is Lithographic Artist Journeyman. By 1911, Tolhurst’s occupation had changed to Trade Union Secretary, but his artistic talent was maintained in the mail art he frequently sent to his family.

A postcard from Tolhurst to Vera (2014_0038_112)

A postcard from Tolhurst to Vera (2014_0038_112)

I’ve been inspired by the Tolhurst envelopes to try my hand at mail art. Why don’t you have a go and let us know if they arrive by Tweeting @postalheritage using #mailart.

My attempt at mail art

My attempt at mail art

Joanna Espin, Curator

Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means: Abram Games at the Jewish Museum London

During the Golden Age of GPO public relations under Stephen Tallents many prominent designers were employed to create posters for everything from ‘Post early’ Christmas campaigns to staff unions. One such designer was Abram Games who In March this year Royal Mail selected along with nine other distinguished subjects born in 1914, to feature on a stamp for its Remarkable Lives series.

1941

It’s fitting that in this centenary year, the Jewish Museum, London is celebrating the life and work of this iconic graphic designer in a major new exhibition; Designing the 20th Century: Life and Work of Abram Games (until 4 January 2015)

Games was the leading graphic designer of the postwar years and during his 60 year career was awarded numerous prestigious public commissions, including being appointed Official War Poster Artist during World War Two and designing the first animated BBC ident. He worked extensively with London Transport and his 1976 poster for London Zoo was recently chosen by Londoners as their second favourite poster for London Underground.

26

Games’s war posters included the popular but controversial Join the ATS recruiting poster (1941), whose alluring female subject earned it the nickname ‘Blonde Bombshell’ and the condemnation of the House of Commons.

By the 1950s, Games was the foremost designer working in Britain and had carried out commissions for the General Post Office, the BBC and London Transport. In 1948, Games was commissioned by the General Post Office to design the official Olympic Games stamp and in 1951 he was awarded the commission to design the emblem for the Festival of Britain, one of the most significant designs of his career.

PRD0172_2_

Don’t miss your chance to see this major exhibition and discover more about the life and work of Abram Games as well as his celebrated theory which provided the framework for all of his compositions; ‘maximum meaning, minimum means’.

Favourite archive item: the Great Train Robbery

For our final blog for Explore Your Archives week Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager tells us about his favourite item from the archive, which, as you probably know from Head of Archives Vicky’s blog earlier this week, is no easy task!

When asked to pick my favourite object I (eventually) chose a Great Train Robbery file in part because I have worked  with it a lot so know it well but also because I feel it’s something people are surprised to find out we have. Although the train in question was a Travelling Post Office people don’t always associate the incident with the postal service. This particular file  is the main investigation report compiled by the Post Office’s own police force, the Investigation Branch (IB), into the infamous August 1963 robbery.

gav

Most of the file is made up of an in depth 40 page account of the robbery, investigation and subsequent trial, prepared by IB Assistant Controller Richard F Yates in May 1964, nine months after the robbery took place.

The file also includes schedules of arrests and prosecutions, a ‘confidential list of 28 suspects given to the IB by the Police’, memoranda, correspondence, details of the attempts to locate missing suspects, press cuttings, and a police poster showing wanted suspects. It also has snippets of people’s personal experiences of the incident and investigation such as that in the image below where Yates starts his report with an indication of how he became involved with the investigation.

gav2

Yates’ in depth report details key events in the investigation including establishing the amount of money stolen, the journey on the night of the robbery, the systematic search of the Cheddington area, the discovery of the robbers hideout at Letaherslade Farm, and the subsequent arrests of the suspected robbers. It also includes notes on how the investigation was conducted, on page 10 he explains: ‘The extensive publicity given to this case inevitably produced an enormous amount of inaccurate and bogus information and this had to be examined with more than the normal care having regard to the seriousness of the offence.’

gav3

Despite the investigation coming to an end around 1970 this year, over 50 years after the incident took place, there was interesting development. Gordon Goody, regarded as the mastermind of the robbery, unveiled Patrick McKenna as the Ulsterman . McKenna’s name is glaringly absent from all the files we have at the BPMA. Despite the Sun suggesting last year that the IB’s chief suspect was a ‘Thomas’ O’Reilly, our records show that they and Tommy Butler quickly dismissed him as a possibility: ‘[Butler] does not consider, however, that any useful purpose would be served by questioning [James Patrick] REILLY [incorrectly identified by the Sun as a railwayman]’.

I like this file for several reasons. It shows how the investigation developed over time, what the Post Office considered important at the time (Ronnie Biggs, subsequently the most famous of the robbers, being merely a footnote), and how they continued investigating and observing behavior for many years after the robbery. It demonstrates complex, messy history as it is happened and developed. Given that it was written almost a year after the robbery it is an exaggeration to call Yates’ report the first draft of history but draft it is, complete with amendments and footnotes based on subsequent knowledge. There is no neat ending simply a petering out as the last of the robbers Bruce Reynolds was caught in 1968, Biggs remained a missing fugitive, the driver of the train Jack Mills died and some of the investigators involved retired.

This is just a snapshot of the contents of one of many files on the Great Train Robbery. You can find out more about the robbery itself and the investigation that followed from our online exhibition on Google Cultural Institute.

-Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

Sending WWI Trench Cake

In today’s post for Explore Your Archives week, Archives and Records Assistant Penny McMahon shares the story of Trench Cake – a First World War recipe intended to be sent to troops on the front.

This summer members of the Great British Bake Off production asked us how much it would cost to send a trench cake to the front in 1916. I had no idea that cakes were sent to the front but it is a natural thing for family members to send cakes to loved ones, especially at Christmas.  It would have cost 1.s 4d to send a cake over 3lb between 7lb and would have cost 1s. 7d to send a cake between 7lb and 11lb.

No sellotape used - only brown paper and string!

No sellotape used – only brown paper and string!

The question intrigued several members of staff. We wanted to find out if we could still send a Trench Cake in the post and whether it would turn up in one piece. We carried out some research and found a notice detailing the packaging required to send food stuffs overseas from 1916. We also found a notice from 1918 asking members of the public not to send out Christmas cakes to men at the front. The notice went as far as to reassure the Great British public that the men serving oversees would be provided with a Christmas pudding.

We baked several cakes inline with an authentic recipe. The recipe has an interesting ingredients list. Presumably the cakes were made so that they’d be able travel, last well, and wouldn’t use too much rationed food. We packaged the cakes inline with the guidelines given on the notice. Then we posted the cakes to destinations including our own offices, to a cake baking competition in London (more on this later), Scotland and France.

Me with my Trench Cake before it was sent to Scotland.

Me with my Trench Cake before it was sent to Scotland.

I sent my cake to my brother in Scotland. It arrived in one piece the next day and he assures me that it tasted good.

IMG_6635

The Archive Services of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found a recipe from the Ministry of Foods Nutrition Collection and are having a cake baking competition. We have sent one of our efforts off to the competition so hopefully it will arrive safely. Our Head of Archives, Vicky Parkinson, is taking part in the judging. We’ll let you know via Twitter how we get on!

Trench cake sent from our office in Islington to our Clerkenwell Office. It arrived in one piece and we are enjoying it this morning!

Trench cake sent from our office in Islington to our Clerkenwell Office. It arrived in one piece and we are enjoying it this morning!

Favourite archive item: original poster artwork

For Explore Your Archive week, Head of Archives and Records Management Vicky Parkinson introduces her favourite item from our archive…well at least her favourite of the week!

“How do you feel about us filming a short ‘soundbite’ of you talking about ‘your favourite item’ while you are at the Conference next week?” started the email from the Head of Public Affairs at Archives and Records Association (ARA).

“Why not!” I thought, I can put my media training to use, and so I started to think about what my favourite item in the archive is. When you have around two and a half miles of shelving filled with archival material, dating back to 1636, it’s pretty hard to pick one item that’s your favourite.

POST 109/365.

POST 109/365

It’s actually quite hard to choose just one item from an archive. The very nature of archives means you tend to consider them as series, rather than individual items. How do you single out one volume from a run of volumes containing cash accounts from the 17th century or one staff handbook from a series that contains over 700 volumes?(Side note: I did seriously consider choosing a cash book; the handwriting is beautiful and they can tell you a lot, not just how much money went in and out of the post office in any given year)

So maybe I should choose a series first, perhaps something I enjoy showing people when I do a tour of the archive? No doubt as to what that is, I love showing people our posters. Most people have hazy preconceptions of what will be in our archive before they come on a tour, and it’s fun to challenge those. Regular readers of our blog will know that we love the posters and will use them wherever we can to illustrate articles. What’s not to love about a series of posters that starts at the golden age of public relations?

Each poster is stunning in its own right, together they show the development of so many things: the use of PR in the Post Office, the changing services it provided, the issues that were important to the organisation (you just have to look at how many Post Early for Christmas campaigns there have been to realise what a big issue it is for the postal service every year), the development of design and the move to computerised design in the 1980s, to name a few. Watching people’s eyes light up when I open the draws and start bringing out the bright colourful posters reminds me what an amazing job I have.

As amazing as the posters are I love the artwork for the posters even more. In this age of technology it’s easy to take design for granted, one look at poster artwork reminds you what an amazing skill the designers had. You can see every brush stroke, see the pencil lines drawn to help keep lettering straight, see where they’ve stuck additional bits on, where there were fiddly bits that would have ruined the picture if they’d tried to paint in on directly. Unfortunately they’re also rather fragile, much more fragile than the posters, which means that we can’t handle them too much and so I don’t look at them as frequently and don’t know them as well.

POST 109/364

POST 109/364

Just before the ARA conference I took an artist down to the posters to give him some ideas of what we had, so that he could start thinking about how to engage a class of children in a project we were working together on. It was whilst preparing for this visit that I came across a wonderful piece of poster artwork (POST 109/158) and had a true wow moment.

POST 109/158

POST 109/158

We don’t have the poster for this, so this was the first time I had come across it. The colours pop in real life, and the text is bold. One of these days I will find the time to look through the records relating to poster design and see what I can find out about the artwork, and the artist, but the poster artwork itself stands on its own without any accompanying information, and little information on the poster itself. It shows the story of the GPO in the mid-1930s, and using graphic designers, it challenges the old fashioned art establishment, illustrating the pioneering go-getting nature of the GPO with its deliciously sleek airmail planes.

Up close picture of artwork for a poster. Artist: Ronald Watson POST 109-158

Up close picture of artwork for a poster. Artist: Ronald Watson POST 109-158

Ask me again in a few months time and I may very well have a different favourite item in the archive, that’s the joy of having two miles and a half of shelving containing records that document 378 years of postal history!

-Vicky Parkinson, Head of Archives and Records Management

 

#ExploreArchive: What to expect next week

This year we’re once again taking part in the Explore Your Archive campaign. From 10-15 November organisations across the UK are taking part in the campaign to celebrate the UK’s archives and heritage. Penny McMahon, Archives and Records Assistant, tells us a little about what you can expect.

explore-primary-message

All of the BPMA’s Explore Your Archive activity will take place via social media, so look out for #explorearchives on our Twitter and Facebook pages, and right here on our blog. Every member of the archive team has selected one of their favourite records from the collection. This includes original artwork, snippets about the Post Office using animals in its workforce and a first-hand account of the Great Train Robbery.

Here are some of the highlights:

On Monday 10 November, Director Adrian Steel will be taking over Twitter sharing what goes on behind the scenes in our archive and here at the BPMA.

On Thursday 13 November, Head of Cataloguing Gavin McGuffie will also be giving the public an opportunity to choose a box in the archive to investigate, in our ‘pick a shelf any shelf segment’. We will put up a list of shelf numbers alongside a photograph of the shelf and you can choose which box he’ll look at.

Lastly we have been hard at work in the kitchen recreating Trench Cake. Trench cake was devised as a way of sending a cake to loved ones on the Front that would travel and keep well, without using up too many precious rationed goods. I first learned of Trench Cake when a member of the Great British Bake Off production team asked us how much it would cost and how a cake would be packaged during the First World War.  We have baked several examples of the cakes, brought one in for staff at the BPMA, sent one to Scotland and one to France. Fingers crossed they arrive in one piece!  Look out for a follow up blog to see how we got on.

Do you want to have a go at trench cake? We’d love to see your attempts – tweet us your pictures and tell us how it tastes!

- Penny McMahon, Archives and Records Assistant

World Post Day: the impact of infection and civil unrest in mail delivery

Many factors can affect the collection and delivery of mail in the UK and across the world. Throughout history, postal services have had to cope with obstacles including weather, industrial action, infection, and civil and military unrest.

POST 122_3535 International Sanitary Regulations-topimage

International mail is particularly subject to disruption due to the distances involved and the modes of transport used. While, for example, in the event of industrial action it  is usually relatively straightforward to shift inland mail from one form of transport to another i.e. rail to road, there are less options available for overseas mail. In particular, moving mail from air to sea could result in significant delays.

International Sanitary Regulations (POST 122/3535)

International Sanitary Regulations (POST 122/3535)

This is still true today. Royal Mail’s  incident report for international mail shows that, at present, one of the key causes of disruption is the Ebola outbreak, which has resulted in the suspension of all mail services to and from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Libya. Delays delivering mail as the result of infection are nothing new. In the early Twentieth Century outbreaks of cholera in regions such as Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan were a cause for concern. Questions were raised as to whether mail from these regions should be disinfected. Though not thought necessary as ‘cholera germs have a very short life… even air mail sufficient to avoid danger of infection’ (POST 122/3523). Despite this, in some cases mail was disinfected or quarantined to meet the concerns of local health boards and to avoid the Post Office being considered a scapegoat should an outbreak occur in a previously unaffected area.

India Pakistan mails (POST 122/10945)

India Pakistan mails (POST 122/10945)

India Pakistan surface mails (POST 122/10946)

India Pakistan surface mails (POST 122/10946)

War and civil unrest are currently causing disruption to mail services in Syria, and Crimea and Sevastopol in the Ukraine. Military conflict has historically had an impact on international postal services, even in cases where Britain is not directly involved. For example the deterioration of relations between India and Pakistan in 1965 disrupted mail to and from these countries. India refused access to its airspace to planes which had taken off from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Ships were also rerouted, but in many cases it was difficult to identify and separate mails for India and Pakistan and to establish independent postal services.

-Helen Dafter, Archivist