Category Archives: Archive

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 “A Friend” 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 115 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.

70th Anniversary of D-Day: a letter to the GPO from General Eisenhower

As countries around the world commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day (the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe on 6 June 1944) news channels fill our screens with moving and horrifying images and footage of troops readying themselves on the shores of southern England, planes on bombing runs across the channel and landing craft coming ashore on the beaches of Normandy. The films show the military hardware, the explosions and exchanges of gun fire, and the people on the front line of the successful offensive. But what they do not show is the immaculate and comprehensive pre-planning that went into that crucial day, seen as the point in which the war turned in the favour of the Allies.

Number of bags of mail sent on D-Day and the following days from Army Council Secretariat minutes (POST 47/770)

Number of bags of mail sent on D-Day and the following days from Army Council Secretariat minutes dated 19 June 1944 (POST 47/770).

One of the organisations involved in that planning was the General Post Office. Its work both in the lead up to, and aftermath of, D-Day was of major importance. Flicking through our files, it’s amazing what we uncover. Alongside some interesting information detailing the GPO’s activity both before and after D-Day itself in POST 47/770, we also unearthed a letter printed in the Post Office Circular of Wednesday 28 June, 1944.

The letter, dated 22 June 1944, thanks the GPO for its work in constructing “…a vast network of communications radiating from key centers of vital importance in the United Kingdom” and makes a point of offering the author’s appreciation of “their contribution… and [for the] excellent cooperation they have given towards our success”.

Letter from General Eisenhower reprinted in the Post Office Circular (POST 47/770)

Letter from General Eisenhower reprinted in the Post Office Circular (POST 47/770)

Not only does this give us an insight into the vital role the GPO played in D-Day itself, but it shows how important the contribution was deemed at the time. Perhaps most excitingly, the letter is signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander.

The full transcript can be seen below:

Supreme Headquarters

ALLIED EXPEDITIONARY FORCE

Office of the Supreme Commander

22 June, 1944

Dear Captain Crookshank [sic]

The build up of the necessary forces for the current operations has involved the construction of a vast network of communications radiating from key centers of vital importance in the United Kingdom. The greater part of this work has been undertaken by the Engineers and Staff of the General Post Office.

It is my great pleasure, on behalf of the Allied Expeditionary Force, to ask you to pass on to them my sincere appreciation for their contribution and for the long hours they have worked and for the excellent cooperation they have given toward our success. 

Sincerely,

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Appraising and re-housing the Photographic Collection

A few weeks ago Archivist Helen introduced this year’s stocktake. In this post Archivist and Records Assistant Penny McMahon talks about appraising and re-housing the Post Office Photo Library collection (POST 118). This class also contains photographic material created by a number of different departments within the Post Office, including the Public Relations/Communications department and Parcelforce.

We’ve been working on several different deposits such as a collection of photo albums from the 1930s. On first examining the photographs they were not particularly interesting and looked like they mostly, if not entirely, duplicated photographic material already in the archive. However, on closer inspection the photo albums corresponded with lecture training notes in POST 92. The photographs were then kept as they complemented and expanded on items already in the archive collection. Once we decided to keep the photographs they were then taken out of the original folder (making sure to document any metadata contained on or within the folders), placed in acid free Melinex sleeves and placed in acid free photo albums.

A glimpse of the vast photographic collection of POST 118: a junior postman on a motorcycle (POST 118/2040)

A glimpse of the vast photographic collection of POST 118: a junior postman on a motorcycle (POST 118/2040). This example is already part of the collection and has been digitised.

Another item that has been appraised is a large, green, bound album. There is a Post Office Records note pasted to the inside of the front cover, dated 1973. It states that the photographs in the album were taken in Britain during 1934-1939 by John Bryson of the Post Office Film Unit. The album is filled with monochrome photographs that depict male and female Post Office and Telegraph workers in uniform, and going about their daily duties. This album was also kept but needs specialist conservation treatment as the photographs are glued down to acidic-paper pages.

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Inside the large green album of photographs from 1934-1939.

More ruthlessly appraised was a collection of slides from the 1980s from the public relations department. These slides included a postcode exhibition display, POCO the Postcode Elephant and the Stamp Bug Land Exhibition 1982, at various venues.

1980s slides.

1980s slides.

-Penny McMahon, Archives/Records Assistant

‘Time to take stock': archive edition

A few months ago we shared what happens during our museum stocktake. This time we will share what goes on during an archival stocktake. During this time, our Archive team will be updating you on progress and any exciting finds. In this post, we introduce what we will be up to over the next two weeks and what ‘taking stock’ means.

An archive stocktake is part of a number of processes which ensure the good management of an archive and enable staff to preserve, document and make available records to users.

Closing the Search Room for a fortnight (12-23 May) enables all archive staff to get involved in these activities, and use the Search Room space to spread out material, sort it and check for duplication.

The more organised shelves of volumes and documents in the archive repository.

The more organised shelves of volumes and documents in the archive repository.

This year we will be rehousing negatives in POST 118. This material is currently loose on shelves, or in poor quality boxes and needs housing to appropriate standards to ensure its long term preservation. Records which have undergone second review and  have been selected for permanent preservation will be sorted and put to one side ready for cataloguing. Alongside this we will audit and rebox the files still awaiting review and check our documentation to address any issues or inaccuracies.

Photographic negatives  in desperate need of rehousing!

Photographic negatives in desperate need of rehousing!

Annual stocktakes are a part of good archival practices, but at present they take on additional importance as we prepare to move to a new home. By housing loose material such as the negatives, reviewing material for preservation or disposal, and auditing our collections, we ensure that material is adequately documented and housed ready to be moved.

Artist impression of the new repository at The Postal Museum.

Artist impression of the new repository at The Postal Museum.

Finally the stocktake period is an opportunity for all staff to take a step back from their day-to-day routines. They have the opportunity to work on tasks that may not form part of their daily duties and to think about our collections in a different way. Truly a chance to ‘take stock’.

-Helen Dafter, Archivist

New on the online catalogue

Last week we did one of our periodic uploads of new material onto the online catalogue. More than 2,000 records went on this time.

New to the catalogue is the ‘REPS deposit’. This was a large collection of records on the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS) and the Army Postal Service. The material dated from the 1900s to the 1980s, but it was particularly rich in information on the Army Postal Service at home and overseas during and after the Second World War.

The REPS deposit was indexed in the early 1980s by Major J G Long (retired), then archivist of the REPCS Officers’ Association. Long was commissioned c.1980 to write a history of the REPS. The project was later abandoned, and Long resigned the archivist post in 1982. He deposited his research notes and the archives at the Home Postal and Courier Communications Depot, Inglis Barracks, Mill Hill, and that’s where the trail ends. If anyone reading this knows any more about Major Long and his work, we would love to hear from you!

Social Reformers Issue 1976 – David Gentleman (QEII/119/33)

Social Reformers Issue 1976 – David Gentleman (QEII/119/33)

The REPS deposit was catalogued in January and February 2014 by Matt Tantony, our former Project Archivist. The deposit was split between three main areas of the catalogue. Public records on the Army Postal Service have been catalogued in POST 47. Records on the GPO’s actions in wartime are in POST 56. The remainder of the deposit is mostly non-public records, including Major Long’s own research notes, military publications, and reunion dinner plans. These archives are not strictly postal in relevance but will be of interest to anyone studying the history of the REPS as a military unit. They’ve been catalogued as a separate ‘REPS collection’.

Our cataloguing archivist Anna Flood was responsible among other work for plenty more POST 72 (Post Office Headquarters files) going on, completing the catalogue for this large class.

Some small quantities of POST 22 (Counters), 63 (Staff Training) and 68 (Rules and Instructions) also went on. Additionally several sub-series from POST 153 (Mails Division) and 157 (Postal Operations Department) were added.

Stamp artwork for eight issues from 1976 Social Reformers to 1977 Silver Jubilee (POST 150) is now on the catalogue.

Racket Sports Issue 1977 – Andrew Restall (QEII/124/06)

Racket Sports Issue 1977 – Andrew Restall (QEII/124/06)

More than 50 museum objects went online. These included a set of self-designed Christmas cards by Martin Norgate from the 1970s to the present day and a World War One card on a piece of khaki, recently acquired by the BPMA.

'B.E.A. XMAS GREETINGS' Khaki Christmas Card (2013-0091)

‘B.E.A. XMAS GREETINGS’ Khaki Christmas Card (2013-0091)

This Christmas card is written on a piece of khaki, possibly from a uniform. Drawn in ink on the front cover is a cross with the words ‘B.E.A. 1915/ XMAS GREETINGS’ inside. Above the cross a thistle is drawn, whilst below the cross is a banner reading ’25 R.F.’.

Front of the card

Front of the card (2013-0091)

Finally a number of amended War Memorials records are now available.

Eagle-eyed users will notice one or two changes to the way data is represented on the online catalogue since this upload. We have switched our date format from YYYY-Mon-DD to the more conventional DD-Mon-YYYY.

Another change is in the way we arrange the archive hierarchically, we have now changed the hierarchical ‘RefNo’ field so that the whole archive now properly nests under the Collection level description for the whole of the Archive . This change has been prompted in main by our exciting plans to revamp our online catalogue. Updates and progress of this are coming soon!

-Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue & Project Manager

Happy Birthday Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, renowned playwright and poet, famous worldwide for Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and his sonnets…but he has another claim to fame. In 1964 Shakespeare became the first commoner to appear on a stamp.

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Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s Skull, designed by C and R Ironside (issued 1964)

In 1964 the Post Office issued a set of stamps to coincide with the Shakespeare Festival, marking the 400th anniversary of his birth. Five designs were chosen, one by C&R Ironside showing an image of Hamlet and four by renowned stamp designer David Gentleman. Gentleman’s stamp designs proved controversial as the image of Shakespeare’s head was the same size as that of the Queen’s making him appear of equal importance. This objection was however overcome and Gentleman’s designs were issued alongside that of C&R Ironside to celebrate the Shakespeare Festival marking his 400th Birthday.

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Shakespeare Festival stamps, 1964

 

It is now his 450th Birthday and both he and his work have found their way onto a variety of stamps worldwide. Some such issues include the Bicentenary of Australian settlement, 1988; the 150th Anniversary of National Portrait Gallery, 2006, which featured celebrated Britons and the Reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 1995.

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Reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre stamp issue, 1995