Category Archives: Archive

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

Post Office Notices: Inside 200+ years of Post Office history

Archivist (Cataloguing) Anna Flood talks about our collection of 4988 Post Office notices, dating from 1768 to c.2000. They reveal a lot about the services the Post Office provided, and the society in which it operated.

The notices can be seen as a precursor to the posters displayed in post offices and on mail vans after the establishment of the Post Office Public Relations Department in 1934. You may be more familiar with images such as the ‘Post Early for Christmas’ poster below; much more visually appealing than its predecessor. Under the direction of the Public Relations Officer, Stephen Tallents, the organisation employed posters as a means of advising the public, and staff, on services whilst simultaneously constructing a modern and exciting corporate image. Hence, monochrome and purely instructional public notices declined sharply in number from the 1930s onwards.

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Left: POST 107/982 (1934); Right: POST 110/1160

Some of the early posters reflect a more brutal and unforgiving society, where you could be hanged for stealing letters from the mail, or risk attack or even death whilst driving a mail coach.

POST 107/284 (1831)

POST 107/284 (1831)

POST 107/999 (c. 1792)

POST 107/999 (c. 1792)

 

In a world without telephones or the Internet, the efficiency of the mail was paramount. Hence, post-boys could be punished by committal to a house of correction for a month’s hard labour for loitering and delaying the arrival of mails at the next post town. Such a punishment was obviously no deterrent to those mail guards caught drunk on duty (POST 107/284).

Whilst overland communication was still by mail coach until the mid-nineteenth century, the list of exotic oversees places to which mails were carried from Britain was extensive and growing. In 1845 packet ships sailed to Beirut, Bombay, Panama and Canada, amongst numerous other destinations.

The notices are not solely indicative of postal operations, but inform on significant historical events, such as the 1875-76 British Arctic Expedition, which gathered large amounts of data on Greenland, and previously unexplored territories. The notice below indicates the vital, but uncertain, mail communication by HMS Pandora to Smith Sound, an uninhabited Arctic sea passage.

POST 107/971

POST 107/971 (1876)

POST 107/866 outlines the reasons behind the refinement of the postcode into sub-districts and serial numbers (e.g. EC1), including wartime depletion of staff and creation of new Departments of State. This necessitated a more specific means of addressing mail to assist female sorters taking over from the men who had gone to war, and who did not have the knowledge and experience these men had acquired over the years.

POST 107/866 (1917)

POST 107/866 (1917)

First World War notices are of particular significance as we remember the centenary of its commencement. They give a very succinct impression of how the public were permitted to communicate with those at the Front, including the sending of foodstuffs, and photographs, postcards and plans according to censorship regulations.

POST 107/866 (1918)

POST 107/866 (1918)

POST 107/865 (1916)

POST 107/865 (1916)

The collection of notices are now available to search on our catalogue and consult in our Search Room.

-Anna Flood, Archivist (Cataloguing)

Stories from the Archive: ‘Beauty Blackwood’

In this week’s post, Archives Assistant Robin shares the interesting life of Sir Arthur Blackwood, Secretary of the Post Office from 1880-1893, from a recent Search Room enquiry.

Whilst the Post Office employment records held by the BPMA can provide crucial information for family historians, helping to fill in the gaps of an ancestor’s career and whereabouts, it is often quite difficult to get a true sense of an employee’s personality from them. However, for certain senior employees we hold a number of biographies, obituaries and personal portraits that can really help to flesh out their characters.

I found this out for myself when answering an email enquiry from an academic researching the life of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, later Sir Arthur Blackwood. I had previously not known anything about him, and his entry in the Establishment Books (below) didn’t give me much to go on, but a search of our catalogue made me aware of a number of interesting sources of information we hold (including a biography by H Buxton Forman and an obituary in the staff magazines) that really brought him back to life.

Print. Caption: “Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008”

Sir Arthur Blackwood’s entry in the Establishment Book for 1893, the year of his death, with the name of his replacement added in pencil. POST 59/126

Sir Arthur, had apparently been somewhat dandyish in his youth (he was nicknamed “Beauty Blackwood”), but underwent a religious conversion whilst serving in the Crimean War and became a committed Evangelist, renouncing all worldly pleasures and taking up the study of Hebrew.[1] He had a reputation as a philanthropist, and was heavily involved with a number of Post Office charities and societies. He was the president of the Post Office Total Abstinence Society, which had almost 3,000 members and branches in 31 towns, and wrote a pamphlet advocating abstinence entitled “For the Good of the Service” (a copy of this Pamphlet is held at the Bruce Castle Museum in Haringey).[2] He was a patron of the Post Office Orphan Home, was the first president of the Post Office Musical Society, and was involved in promoting Boy Telegraph Messenger Institutes for a number of London districts. His biographer quotes one Messenger, a Barnardo’s boy, as saying Sir Arthur was “such a gentleman, and spoke to me as if he was my brother”[3]. His biography also notes that he took a great interest in the formation of the Post Office Athletics and Cricket Clubs, and having served in the army was also a keen supporter of the Post Office Rifles, distributing prizes in their annual ceremonies.[4]

Despite his towering 6ft3 height and sixteen stone frame, Sir Arthur was in poor health for much of his life, and his final years as Secretary were hampered by illness – he was delayed from attending the 1891 postal congress in Vienna due to ill health and took extended leave shortly before his death in 1893 from pneumonia.[5]

An obituary run by the January 1894 issue of St. Martins-Le-Grand, the Post Office Staff Magazine (available in POST 92 in the BPMA search room) calls him a “splendid specimen of manhood”.[6] However, elsewhere I learnt that Sir Arthur’s son, the fantasy and horror writer Algernon Blackwood, felt that his father’s Evangelism had led him to have a repressive and unhappy upbringing.[7] Sir Arthur could also be severe in the line of duty. His obituary tells the story of how in 1890 Sir Arthur quelled strike action at Mount Pleasant by “[speaking] to the assembled staff in the most earnest, severe, and appropriate manner, and in the name of the Postmaster General expelled them from the premises as well as from the Service.[8]” It is fascinating that we can get such a rounded portrait of Sir Arthur’s character from these various sources.

Perhaps the best example of the material we hold on Sir Arthur is a fantastic black and white print of him in his prime (object reference 2011-0008, below), which really gives an indication of his stern but genial character. I hope I have shown in this blog that even the collection of a business archive such as the BPMA can bring the personality of historical figures to life and are a fantastic source for genealogists and biographers alike.

Print. Caption: “Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008”

Black and white print of S. A. Blackwood, c.1890, object ref no. 2011-0008

-Robin Sampson, Archives Assistant

Special Offer: Get your very own limited edition Victorian Innovation Cover for only £1.99

[1] J. S. Reynolds, ‘Blackwood, Sir (Stevenson) Arthur (1832–1893)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/46635, accessed 23 July 2014]

[2] Blackwood, Mrs. (ed.), Some Records of the Life of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, Hodder & Stoughton, 1896. p396

[3] Ibid. p397

[4] Ibid. p395

[5] St. Martins-Le-Grand Magazine Volume IV, General Post Office, January 1894 p9

[6] Ibid. p1

[7] George Malcolm Johnson, ‘Blackwood, Algernon Henry (1869–1951)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31913, accessed 23 July 2014]

[8] St. Martins-Le-Grand Magazine Volume IV, General Post Office, January p7

Royal Mail Archive added to UNESCO Memories of the World Register

Recently the BPMA has received some exciting news. The Royal Mail Archive, which we look after, has been added to UNESCO’s Memories of the World Register. The archive spans the years 1636 to 1969 and covers a wide range of items from promotional posters to the Penny Black and employment records to telegrams about the Titanic.

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Telegram telling of the sinking of the Titanic

UNESCO was impressed by the unique insight the archive offers into the development of communication within the UK and abroad and the way it reflects the social and personal impact that the postal service has had upon people across the country.

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GPO poster

Head of Archives Vicky Parkinson tells us about being added to this year’s list of inscriptions:

“Back in 2011 my colleagues attended that year’s inscription reception following the successful nomination of the work of the GPO film unit, which was a joint application with our colleagues in the BFI and BT. On the back of that success we felt that the Royal Mail Archive was worthy of inscription and the nomination paperwork was submitted in January of this year.

We were delighted to hear that the UNESCO committee agreed with us and on the 19 June 2014 Helen Forde, Chair of our Board of Trustees, and I travelled to Edinburgh to attend the award ceremony, along with the other successful nominees.

Vicky and Helen

Vicky and Helen at the reception. Photo by Lesley Ann Ercolano

The reception, hosted by Lloyds Banking Group at their iconic site on the Mound in Edinburgh, was about celebrating the UK’s outstanding history and raising awareness about some of the country’s documentary riches. For me it was a wonderful reminder of how the archive, and the work we do to look after it and make it available, fits into the bigger picture of how history, and more importantly the original records, still play a vital role in today’s society.

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One of the thousands of photos in the collection – women mending parcels at the Home Depot during the First World War

For those of us lucky enough to work with the archive on a day to day basis it’s easy to see just how significant the collection is, documenting the vital role the postal service has played in the UK. Having that importance recognised by schemes such as UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register and the Arts Council’s Designation scheme is a vital way of spreading awareness of the riches we have in our custody.”

It is these stories and more that will be told in The Postal Museum when it opens in 2016. To hear some of these fantastic stories, and see the wealth of objects all of our collections hold, before then keep an eye on the blog. Over the coming months BPMA staff will be telling you all their favourite stories and showing you all manner of intriguing and enticing objects.

Delivery by Design: Stamps in Antarctica at The Polar Museum, Cambridge

With a population of just 250, The British Antarctic Territory, which covers 660,000 square miles of Antarctica from offshore islands to the South Pole itself, doesn’t necessarily seem like somewhere that the postal service would need to operate. But, despite the low number of permanent residents, the Territory issues both its own postage stamps and coins and even has an Antarctic Postman, based in Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands, who visits the outlying research bases by ship.

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With such a fascinating story to tell, it’s no surprise that there is now an exhibition devoted to the postage stamps of this remote territory. Last Thursday The Polar Museum in Cambridge launched the captivating Delivery by Design: Stamps in Antarctica exhibition. With the assistance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Scott Polar Research Institute the exhibition uses stamps, printing proofs and original artworks to shed light on this little known corner of the globe, from native wildlife including Emperor Penguins and Huskies to ships ploughing through ice and planes flying over the frozen sea, commemorating British expeditions to the Antarctic throughout history.

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The exhibition at The Polar Museum is a wonderful example of how stamps are much more than just a means of sending a letter from A to B. They are a window into history giving a snapshot of the social, cultural and design influences of any given period across every region of our planet. With every stamp from the Penny Black to the present day and all stamp artwork, both adopted and unadopted (including from such famous artists as Paul Nash, Terence Cuneo and David Gentleman) in our collections, we know that there are hundreds if not thousands of interesting stories just waiting to be told. It’s great to see exhibitions such as that at The Polar Museum bringing these stories into the public domain and I hope you will take the opportunity to pay it a visit.

Adrian Steel – Director

The exhibition will be running at The Polar Museum, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge until 6 September 2014. Entry is free and the museum is open 10-4 Tuesday to Saturday. www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum

Meet the staff: Day in the life of an Archive Assistant

In this morning’s blog Penny McMahon highlights the different jobs and functions that she does as an Archives/Records Assistant.  

Logging

The day starts at 9am, I normally log the visitors and requisition forms from the day before. The visitors are logged to keep track of the different interests our users have, to spot any trends and make changes to the services we offer accordingly. The requisitions are also logged –‘requisitions’ is the term we use to describe fetching original archival items from the repository. This information is recorded so that when deciding on which material to digitise or pin point items that need preservation treatment, we can select the most frequently used items. The information is also gathered in case the item goes missing-we can look up the date it was last retrieved and who the last person to look at it was.

Donations

At 10am the search room opens to the public and our friendly postman arrives with the mail. As well as bringing us letter enquiries we also receive donations from the public and Royal Mail through the post. Giving these donations unique references to identify them and putting a basic description in our catalogue database is essential to keeping track of these. The thought donators take to send these items in is appreciated. However, it is useful to have as much background information as possible about an item and prefer it when people call us before going to the expense of posting an item to us. You can view the museum collection policies on this page on our website.

Me carrying out research for an enquirer.

Me carrying out research for an enquirer.

Visitors

By 11am we normally have several researchers in the search room. The exciting thing about working in the search room team is the variety of interests that researchers have. We don’t know who is going to walk through the door.  Family historians are a significant portion of the archives users; this is because the General Post Office was one of the biggest employers in Great Britain and these employee records can be hugely insightful. As family historians normally use the archive once or twice and the records they are interested in are so specific, they require quite a lot of help to guide them through the archives. I find family historians are some of the most rewarding users to help, I think because of their personal connection to the records.

The BPMA also attracts a number of academic researchers, including PhD students that use our archives to gather insight into the social history of Great Britain. As the Post Office is a national and international network, the records in the archives document the social and technological changes across the centuries. The BPMA has a number of partnerships with different universities supporting these students. These students know the collections and catalogue well and require little help, but they get through the records fast, so we spend a lot of time retrieving records from the repository for them.

Remote Enquiries

The info mailbox receives around 160 email enquiries a month; we also receive enquiries by phone and by letter. Some of these are straightforward and can be answered in minutes. For example, often authors want to know how much it would cost to send a letter in a different era (World War I is particularly popular just now), or how long it would take for the letter to arrive. Some require a lot more work and often we rely on the specialist knowledge of our Philatelic and Museum Curators to point us in the right direction. These enquiries we do throughout the day whenever we are not directly helping an onsite visitor or carrying out other projects, such as research or cataloguing projects.

Retrieved archive items.

Retrieved archive items.

Lunch

Normally lasts around an hour and I am spoilt for choice with all the delicious markets around Freeling House.

Museum Visitors

Towards the end of the day we normally have a few visitors who, when they visit us, expect to see a national museum. Sadly at the moment the archive search room only has 4 display cases and although the Mail Rail photographic exhibition currently on display is very interesting, it is impossible to exhibit in such a small space the breadth of the museum, philatelic and archive collections. Luckily The Postal Museum will have much more room to better display the collections.

Tours

Our public behind the scenes archive tours normally kick off at around 3pm. I really enjoy the opportunity these tours give to show off the variety of our collection from the beautifully written 17th century account books to a first edition Ulysses to original telegram artwork by designers such Rex Whistler. The interaction that the different members of the public have with the items is always different, meaning that every tour is different. Public tours can be booked online, we also organise ad hoc tours to groups.

Set-up for a tour.

Set-up for a tour.

At the end of the day…

I need to put away all the original archival material that I have been using to answer enquiries and the archival material that visitors have been using. If the search room has been quiet and the enquiries are finished this is normally a good time to update our reference library with any new books or journals that have come in.

The search room closes at 5pm and I head home soon after to have a glass of wine.

-Penny McMahon, Archivist/Records Assistant

That’s a wrap: stock take 2014

A few weeks ago Assistant Archivist Penny talked about rehousing some of the photographic collection and before that Archivist Helen introduced this year’s stocktake. In this post Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue & Project Manager, and Archivist Louise Todd wraps up this year’s stocktake.

A considerable amount of work goes on behind the scenes before files are made available to researchers. Some of this work can only be done when The Search Room is closed because of the amount of space required in order to carry it out.  We took advantage of our annual two week stock taking closure in order to carry out an audit of files created during the 1970s and 1980s.

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Sorting through files.

The audit involved checking to make sure that no files were missing and listing them so that they can be retrieved and appraised.  It went very well with almost 700 boxes being sorted, much more than we had initially anticipated!

Why these tasks can only be done during stock take…

Why these tasks can only be done during stock take…

In addition to the audit another small team of staff used the weeks to get appraised files into a final arrangement for their cataloguing. This involved removing more than 5,000 files from a number of different places (in the yearly boxes for 2nd review appraisal mentioned above, amongst 2nd review files appraised before 2008, within a couple of large series of registered files POST 121 and POST 122) and arranging them in their original reference number (so, for instance, gathering all the Marketing Department Design files together, those with the code MKD/CJ). This produced 438 acid free boxes of POST 154 – the series which represents the files created by the Marketing Department, 387 boxes of POST 157 – files created by the Postal Operations Department and 47 boxes of POST 160 – files created by the Secretary’s Office. This leaves them in a state in which they can be catalogued far more easily and also makes them considerably easier to locate since they are now stored together.