Category Archives: BPMA

Last Post: Remembering the First World War

The First World War was a major turning point in the history of the Post Office. To mark the year of the centenary, our First World War exhibition, Last Post, is now open at Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums group.

The exhibition explores the contribution of millions of people to wartime communication and the far reaching role of thePost Office on both the battlefield and the home front.

Field Post Office

Field Post Office

An Oxo tin among other things

Demonstrating the huge variety of items that could be sent through the post in wartime, you can see on display an OXO tin posted home from the fighting front by William Cox, a former Post Office worker. He posted the OXO tin back to his brother and sister, containing a button from the tunic of a fallen soldier and a piece of shrapnel.

Cox's OXO Tin

OXO tin sent home by Cox

Battlefield will and a favourite plant

You can also view the story of Private Leonard Eldridge of the 8th London Regiment (The Post Office Rifles). Soldiers were encouraged to write battlefield wills whilst on the Front. Private Eldridge’s will is on display in the exhibition.

Eldridge writes: ‘everything I possess except the aspadastras plant of mine, I give to you. The plant, I, with my last wish, leave it, and must be given to, Miss Florence Smith… She must be treated in my absence as my lover with every respect.’

Post Office Rifles

8th London Regiment – The Post Office Rifles

Wilfred Owen

Also on display in the exhibition are two original poems written by local Shropshire-born First World War officer and poet Wilfred Owen, kindly lent to us for the exhibition by The British Library.

‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, perhaps Owen’s most iconic poem, is on display. The poem was written in October 1917 and revised a few months later, in early 1918. Owen sent the poem to his mother, Susan Owen, with the message: ‘Here is a gas poem done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final).’

Field Post Box

Soldiers waiting for post

We also fittingly have on display Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘The Letter’. The poem depicts a soldier writing a letter to his wife back home. Whilst writing the letter, the soldier is fatally hit, and a comrade finishes the letter off for him.

The poem highlights the importance of letter writing to soldiers and also the danger present at all times in the trenches. It also illustrates that the contents of letters home may not have accurately depicted the conditions of everyday life for soldiers.


The exhibition is open Monday to Friday, until 27th March 2015 and entrance is free.

If you are unable to visit the exhibition in person, we have launched a simultaneous online exhibition in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute.

Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

New year, new records on the BPMA online catalogue

In mid-January we did one of our periodic uploads of new material onto the online catalogue.  These happen, broadly speaking, every three months, and more than 4,000 records went on this time. This is the largest upload of new records and much credit is due to the cataloguers, both full time staff and volunteers.

The new records include 455 registration sheets from the Queen Elizabeth II pre-decimal era.  Each entry includes a full detailed catalogue description including unique cylinder and sheet numbers, the registration date, and a scanned corner section of the sheet.  This work completes registration sheets from the pre-decimal era.

QEII 4d olive-sepia Wilding Isle of Man Regional definitive, Reg Date: 1968 Aug 14

QEII 4d olive-sepia Wilding Isle of Man Regional definitive, Reg Date: 1968 Aug 14

Artwork, including first designs, proofs, essays and first day covers, was uploaded for twelve stamp artwork issues from the period 1972-1976, including Christmas issues, the 1973 Royal Wedding, 1975 European Architectural Heritage Year, and the 1976 Telephone Centenary.

QEII-106-16, 1973 400th Anniversary of Inigo Jones, preliminary sketch by Rosalind Dease

QEII-106-16, 1973 400th Anniversary of Inigo Jones, preliminary sketch by Rosalind Dease

913 Post Office and Royal Mail Headquarters records (POST 72) were uploaded ( c.1780-2000). These include minutes, reports and correspondence of various headquarter departments and numerous reports relating to Post Office reforms from 1797 to the 1990s.

Reassigning of Post Office PR and marketing files

After four months’ work by a Project Archivist and a volunteer, we’ve completely appraised and catalogued the backlog of files assigned to POST 108 (the Post Office Public Relations Department), freeing up half a bay of our repository shelving! This great material includes Post Office PR and marketing campaigns, from the ‘Meet Your Postal Service’ campaigns of the 1970s to the controversial ‘Consignia’ rebrand in 2001, as well as promotional films, corporate design guidelines and public opinion surveys.

Many of the files assigned to POST 108 eventually found homes elsewhere in the catalogue. Substantial amounts were added to POST 63 (training guidebooks), POST 68 (staff briefing packs) and POST 109 (designs for press advertisements). We also weeded, catalogued and repackaged thousands of photographs collected during the publication of the Courier staff magazine in the 1970s and 1980s (POST 118).

Cataloguing of Photographs of Post Office facades

Our volunteer, Julian Osley, scanned, re-housed and catalogued a series of photographs showing the facades of post offices across the country from 1984. The identity of the photographer is currently unknown, as is the purpose of the photographs. They were transferred into the archive as part of the Post Office photograph library at the beginning of this century.

POST 118/PF0243 - Exterior view, Post Office, Llanrwst

POST 118/PF0243 – Exterior view, Post Office, Llanrwst

For each post office, there is often a photograph showing the hours of business notice and these were used by Julian to identify each location. For post offices without hours of business notices, Julian had to use his knowledge of post office architectural history and Google’s Streetview to identify locations. This series now offers a fascinating snapshot of post offices prior to the significant reduction of their network in the last thirty years.

Some of Julian’s finds have also been posted to the BPMA’s Historypin channel, giving viewers a chance to see photographs pinned against modern day Google Streetviews.

Annual opening of files under 20-year rule

I also did the annual opening of files under the 20-year rule transition timetable. More than 600 files which contain material dated up to 1984 and 1985 have become available covering a huge number of topics from Board papers to individual mechanised letter office operational efficiency audit reports.

- Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue and Project Manager

The Royal Mail Archive is open to the public, find opening hours and visitor information on our website.

BPMA at the V&A – First World War: Stories of the Empire event

This Friday (24 January), from 6-9pm, the BPMA are taking part in the free drop-in event: First World War: Stories of the Empire. The event has been organised by the Heritage Lottery Fund in collaboration with the V&A and is being held at the V&A’s Sackler Gallery.

A large number of museums and organisations are taking part with a variety of engaging  stands and displays. The purpose of the evening is to encourage greater understanding of the First World War and the role of Black and Asian soldiers from the Empire.

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh and the Rajah of Ratlam, at Sir Douglas Haig’s Chateau in Montreuil, 17th June 1916 © IWM (Q 692)

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh and the Rajah of Ratlam, at Sir Douglas Haig’s Chateau in Montreuil, 17th June 1916 © IWM (Q 692)

Volumes of mail in the First World War were huge. Exceptional organisation and logistical control was required to ensure mail reached the front lines as quickly as possible. From October to December 1914 alone, over 1.2 million parcels were sent to the troops. All troops were able to send letters home free of charge.

Australian mail storage in Kew (POST 56/6)

Australian mail storage in Kew (POST 56/6)

The BPMA stand will consist of the touring version of Last Post: Remembering the First World War, plus two new additional panels focusing on the wider delivery of mail across the world during the First World War. Panel research for the new panels was undertaken by AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD student Victoria Davis. Additional research has been completed by Dr Pete Sutton. We will have plenty of other material available on the night and also have a number of First World War handling items available for visitors.

The shipping of mails (POST 56/6)

The shipping of mails (POST 56/6)

The evening is a drop-in event and begins with a drinks reception at 6pm, open to all. Activities and stands will be available throughout the evening. A panel discussion begins in the auditorium at 7.45pm.

The BPMA stand will be situated downstairs in the V&A Sackler Centre, directly behind the Sackler Centre Reception desk.  We look forward to seeing you on the night!

Check out our Flickr set on the First World War. We will be updating it regularly with images from our archive relating to postal history and the war.

-Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

Mail Coach welcomed back to BPMA

This morning we welcomed back our mail coach following its long term loan (4 years) to Grampian Transport Museum. This is part of the wider annual curatorial audit and stocktake happening this week.

Return of Mail Coach 14-01-2014

BPMA volunteer Don Bell, Mark Speirs (Car Storage Scotland) and Senior Curator Julian Stray steer the coach safely into storage at Debden, Essex

Our mail coach was restored from several broken elements that were found in a farmyard, using the original 18th-century undercarriage. We believe that our mail coach transported mail between London and Bristol.


Photographic lantern slide of a Royal Mail horse-drawn mail van with a ‘GR’ cypher (c. 1910).

Mail coaches required quick changes of horses every ten miles.  Mail coaches transported mail from London from 1784 till 1846. Check out our online catalogue for more information on our mail coach and mail coach history.

New display panel to be installed at our Search Room this week

We have recently been working with a designer to produce a new display panel, which is due to be installed this week in the Archive’s entrance lobby. This will show visitors our vision for the new museum we are planning both at Calthorpe House – down the street from the Archive’s current location at the corner of Mount Pleasant – and in part of the old Post Office Underground Railway network, Mail Rail.

Artist's impression of how the Mail Rail exhibition might look.

Artist’s impression of how the Mail Rail exhibition might look.

As you may be aware, our museum collection is currently held in storage in Debden, Essex. Due to lack of display space public access to this collection, a wonderful array of historical post office vehicles, letter boxes, uniforms and equipment, is severely limited, and the new museum will allow us to showcase these fantastic treasures in the manner that they deserve. There will be an interactive exhibition space with five zones charting the development of the Post Office and Royal Mail over the centuries, as well as a dedicated learning space which will be able to hold 10,000 school pupils and teachers every year.

Proposed exterior of the new postal museum at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of a proposal for the exterior of the new postal museum at Calthorpe House.

The new museum will also contain a state-of-the-art search room and archive repository with brand new research facilities, and we will also be opening a section of Mount Pleasant’s subterranean Mail Rail depot as a permanent exhibition space charting the history of moving the mail.

Next time you visit us, please take a moment to view the display and see what we have in store for the future, and do feel free to let us know what you think of our plans.

- Robin Sampson, Archives/Records Assistant

Ask A Curator

Once again BPMA staff will be participating in Ask A Curator Day, which takes place on Twitter this Wednesday. Ask A Curator Day is an opportunity for members of the public to ask curators anything they like.

Tweet our curators this Wednesday.

Tweet our curators this Wednesday.

Four members of our Collections team will be available to take your questions between 10am and 2pm on 18 September.

10am-11am – Vyki Sparkes, Curator
Vyki has been a Curator at BPMA since 2009. You may remember her podcast on The Post Office and the Blitz, and her blog on the lioness that attacked a mail coach.

11am-12pm – Chris Taft, Head of Collections
Chris oversees BPMA’s Archives and Curatorial teams, and is particularly knowledgeable about Mail Rail. You may remember Chris’ blogs detailing how rolling stock from Mail Rail was retrieved and conserved.

12-1pm – Julian Stray, Senior Curator
Julian has an encyclopaedic knowledge of letter boxes, postal vehicles and much much more. His blog detailing how he restored an Air Mail pillar box is one of our most popular of all time.

1-2pm – Joanna Espin, Philatelic Assistant
Joanna joined the BPMA team at the start of this year, and has already established herself as one of our top bloggers. Her recent blogs looked at how royalty and literature have been depicted on British stamps, and why France’s latest Marianne stamp was controversial.

Ask our Collections team questions on Twitter on Wednesday 18 September 2013 by following @postalheritage and using the hashtag #AskACurator.

What the privatisation of Royal Mail means to us

Our Director Adrian Steel gives a historical perspective on today’s announcement that Royal Mail will soon be privatised.

The human need to communicate is ever present. But to give a historical perspective on the British postal service – details of the sale of which have been announced today – the usual starting point is the creation of the office of ‘Master of the Posts’ in 1512, its endorsement in 1517, or the Royal Proclamation of 31 July 1635 which effectively saw the opening of the ‘Royal Mail’ to public use. The last of these is most frequently given as the start of what is now the Royal Mail business.

The King's Messenger A.D. 1482, artwork for poster by John Armstrong which was part of a series for schools on the history of communication. This reflects Royal Mail's origins as a messenger service for the monarch and government.

The King’s Messenger A.D. 1482, artwork for poster by John Armstrong which was part of a series for schools on the history of communication. This reflects Royal Mail’s origins as a messenger service for the monarch and government.

Throughout most of its existence the service has been the subject of public and political debate. The tension between the need for it to run as a business and turn a profit (which at times in the 17th century was paid to those who bought what was effectively the ‘farm’ of revenue for a part of the service – we have the accounts in the Royal Mail Archive), and the need for it to provide a socially necessary service, is ongoing and – as underpins Duncan Campbell-Smith’s authoritative 2011 history Masters of the Post – recurrent.

The political importance of the postal service is by and large a constant. For a good part of its early history there were two Postmasters General – (usually) one Whig and one Tory – as shown by our POST 67 archive series containing appointment Letters Patent. The 19th century expansion as a result of postal reform was a transformative national event, one that saw what had by then become known as the Post Office permeate literature from Dickens to Trollope (who was himself a Surveyor for the Post Office and credited with the creation of the pillar box). In the early 20th century the service grew to encompass the infant telephone system, saw politicians such as Austen and Neville Chamberlain and Clement Attlee cut their teeth in government as Postmaster General, and the first extended thought on whether a government department really was the right vehicle for what the Post Office did. Harold Wilson’s government – whose Postmaster Generals include the only surviving holder of this office, Roy Mason and Tony Benn – converted the Post Office into a state-owned corporation via the 1969 Post Office Act. After that, the telephone service was separated and later sold as British Telecom, and in the past 15 years two Postal Services Acts have again changed the status of the organisation. The most recent, that of 2011, is the legislation that has led to today’s announcement.

Central Telephone Exchange - telephone operators at a telegraph board (2010-0412/2). Telephones were once under the control of the General Post Office.

Central Telephone Exchange – telephone operators at a telegraph board (2010-0412/2). Telephones were once under the control of the General Post Office.

During the debates on the 2011 Act, concern was expressed across the political spectrum that Britain’s postal heritage, as cared for by the BPMA, should be safeguarded. At the time I took part in correspondence with a number of interested politicians and Ministers and we had visits from All-Party Groups, individual Peers and MPs from all parties (and none), and from Coalition ministers. Amendments were tabled and discussed and eventually a clause added to what was already in the then Bill, ensuring that the heritage of the postal service was properly cared for and reported to Parliament upon even after a privatisation such as was announced today. With this protection and support behind us, plans for our new home well advanced, and ongoing support from politicians, Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, BPMA looks forward to providing a first class home for this great service’s history for generations to come.

Visualisation of BPMA's New Centre at Calthorpe House.

Visualisation of BPMA’s New Centre at Calthorpe House.

For more on the history of the Royal Mail see our online exhibition The Peoples Post.

Duncan Campbell-Smith, author of Masters of the Post – The Authorized History of the Royal Mail will speak on The Royal Mail Past and Present at the Guildhall Library on 24 October 2013.

Volunteering at BPMA

Fahema Begum writes about what it’s like to volunteer for us…

I studied History at university and was interested in pursuing a career within the heritage and archiving sector. I was curious to gain further insight and experience into this field and that is what attracted me to volunteer at BPMA. I have been volunteering with BPMA since April 2012 so I have been there over a year now! How quickly time has flown by! However my time here is nearing to an end as I have secured a job as an Archives Assistant at the Bank of England. The experience here has been invaluable and I have gained considerable knowledge and skills, which will help me in my new role.

I volunteer at the Royal Mail Archive in Freeling House and had previously assisted on a large project, repackaging and relabeling the postal slogan die collection in preparation for the move to the new Postal Museum site. This was my first time actually handling original objects which was quite exciting! It was fascinating to see what was written on a different slogan die (mainly advertising slogans) and learn interesting facts along the way. It was also great to find out that we had achieved repackaging over forty percent of the slogan die collection!

My current project involves auditing and re-packing objects also in preparation for the move to the new museum. Whilst undertaking this task, I was exposed to more of the collections including objects such as handstamps, uniforms, even trophies and awards for sports. Whilst working on both projects, I have learned new and valuable practical skills such as object handling and preservation/conservation skills as well as learning how to use the CALM collections database. This experience has reinforced my interest in the heritage sector and has equipped me with the relevant skills to acquire a job as an Archives Assistant.

Fahema at work in the Archive.

Fahema at work in the Archive.

Although I have been working mainly on the museum side, I have had the opportunity to talk to one of the many archivists who work at the BPMA; Anna provided me with a brief summary of the archiving system at BPMA. It is surprising how the cataloguing system differs between the museums and archives, and it was useful to gain an overview of the archive side of the organisation.

I think anyone passionate about history would find it interesting to volunteer at BPMA. Also if you are looking to pursue a career within the heritage sector, volunteering is an excellent opportunity to gain an understanding of what the day to day work entails, whilst also developing the relevant skills. The volunteering program offered here is well structured and flexible. Although you work on a specific project at any one time, the work is still tailored to your interests. I have Emma (curator) as a supervisor and she is super organised! She is really supportive and has given me the opportunity to experience, explore and be involved in different aspects of the museum side. She is also extremely approachable and has given me useful career advice.

I really enjoy looking at the many different objects found in the archives and learning about its history. It’s amazing how extensive and varied a collection BPMA has, and only a part of it is housed at Freeling House. What is really exciting and something I am very much looking forward to is the new museum, which will provide visitors access to these unique collections and to learn more about the history of the collection!

Congratulations Fahema on your new job – we’re sorry to lose you. See our website for information about how YOU can Volunteer at BPMA.

Take our survey and you could win a £50 voucher

Can you spare us 10 minutes? We want to find out more about the people who follow us online, whether they visit our website, like us on Facebook or read this blog. All you have to do is complete our survey.

Take our survey and you could win an Amazon voucher. (POST 118/1954)

Take our survey and you could win an Amazon voucher. (POST 118/1954)

Your answers will help us improve our website and social media, and guide us in the development of new digital experiences for our new Postal Museum and Archive. Everyone who completes the survey goes in to the draw for a voucher from Amazon worth £50. The survey closes at 9am on Monday 20 September 2013.

Complete the survey online now at

Volunteer Celebration Event

Last Thursday we hosted our fourth annual BPMA’s Volunteer Celebration Event. The event is held as a small token of our gratitude to the wonderful and giving folk who kindly donate their time, knowledge and energy to assist us in our work.

This year’s roster is made up of 29 magnificent folk who have been providing invaluable assistance across a range of jobs, including:

  • Rehousing material in preparation for moving the archive to Calthorpe House
  • Surveying London war memorials and checking the accuracy of existing data- especially valuable given next year’s WW1 centenary
  • Updating the information in our databases with their own specialist knowledge
  • Aiding with condition checks of our textile collection
  • Cleaning, listing and rehousing papers from the Solicitor’s Office so that they can be safely moved and catalogued
  • Collating and analysing the results of an audience research project, so that we are better able to understand the reach of our work in general
  • Providing a watchful eye and compiling monthly reports on our Travelling Post Office exhibition at the Bressingham Steam Museum and Gardens in Norfolk
  • Managing the on-site shop at the Museum Store in Debden
  • Sorting and cataloguing material that has since become the POST 136: Parcel Services series
  • Exploring the stories behind our photographic collections and the events they document, and adding to our Historypin channel
  • Digitising, cataloguing and rehousing a series of glass plate negatives of portraits of Post Office officials from the 16th-20th century
  • Rehousing colour transparencies from the1960s to the 1990s and re-sorting items that have previously been misfiled or inaccurately described
  • Helping develop workshops for primary schools
  • Auditing and repacking the Museum Store
  • Assisting with the conservation of Mail Rail cars

This year’s event featured BPMA Director Dr Adrian Steel presenting our volunteers with a certificate of appreciation and gift bag. Some of those that attended are pictured below with Adrian.

Don Bell’s interest in vehicles is very handy when it comes to identifying boxes of miscellaneous vehicle parts! Before joining the audit project in September 2012, Don also volunteered with Conservator George Monger on the conservation of the Mail Rail Cars.

Don Bell with Adrian Steel.

Don Bell with Adrian Steel.

Flora Fyles is an MA Museum Studies student who was able to put her theoretical training into practice whilst assisting with a condition check of some of our textile collection, which sped up the overall process no end.

Flora Fyles with Adrian Steel.

Flora Fyles with Adrian Steel.

Tom Norgate acquires and mounts new philatelic material – this year he has created pages relating to iLSM Processed Mail and Post & Go.

Tom Norgate with Adrian Steel.

Tom Norgate with Adrian Steel.

Ana Paula Hirata Tanaka is a qualified architect, but this was the first time she had worked with architectural plans in a conservation context – approaching them as fragile items to be carefully, and minimally handled, rather than as ‘working’ drawings.

Ana Paula Hirata Tanaka  with Adrian Steel.

Ana Paula Hirata Tanaka with Adrian Steel.

We hope that those who were able to attend enjoyed themselves, and that everyone who has generously helped us out over the past year has an idea of how much they are appreciated.

We couldn’t do it without you!

- Deepa Sebastian, Team Support Officer

Visit our website to find out how to become a BPMA volunteer.