Category Archives: Collection

#AskaCurator: Day in the life of a BPMA Curator

This Wednesday Curator Joanna Espin will be available to answer any questions you might have on Twitter for #AskACurator day! In today’s blog, she gives us an idea about what it means to be a BPMA Curator.

The main purpose of my job is to prepare the museum collection to move to our new museum.

Opening a box

Opening a box

I arrive at about 8:30am and my first task is to check the work progress spreadsheet, which shows all of the shelves in the repository and is colour coded to mark which shelves are ready to move and which ones are yet to be completed.  We are 93% of the way through housing aisles B-F and need to be at 100% by the end of the year.

Aisle F

Aisle F

This is my first job as a Curator and it is a fantastic opportunity to handle and house an amazingly diverse collection. I have re-housed so many interesting objects, including original evidence from the Great Train Robbery. I follow a strict procedure for auditing the collection, re-housing objects and updating their location.

Before it has been prepared for the move.

Before it has been prepared for the move.

As I am still quite new to the role, a part of the day may be dedicated to training. I have recently received manual handling training, and can proudly say that I can move a telephone kiosk when called to do so!

I moved to my current role from the BPMA Philatelic team and I spend one day a week with the Philatelic department, assisting with preparations to move the stamp artwork collection to a new storage facility. Our next task is to tie approximately 600 boxes with pink archival tape, to ensure the security of the boxes during the move.

I finish work at about 5pm. At the weekend I go home to Yorkshire and spend some time in the countryside with my border terrier.

Chester outside of the BPMA

Chester outside of the BPMA

Have any questions for me or the rest of the curatorial team? We would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below and we will answer you on Wednesday.

-Joanna Espin, Curator

#MuseumCats Day: “Industrial chaos in the Post Office cat world’

For #MuseumCats day, we wanted to share the history of cats in post offices from the first three probationary, rodent-killer to the famous 23-lb goliath Tibs in the 1950s and 60s. Sadly the last Post Office Headquarters official cat, Blackie, died in 1984. Since then there have been no more employed cats, but their 100+ years history is not to be fur-gotten.

Cats were first officially appointed by the Post Office to catch rodents in September 1868 (although there had undoubtedly been cats in post offices before). Three cats worked on probation at the Money Order Office in London, with an allowance of one shilling a week. They were given 6 months by the Secretary of the Post Office to reduce the mouse problem or they would be cut.

Tibs the Official Post Office Headquarters Cat

Tibs the Official Post Office Headquarters Cat

Luckily the cats did ‘their duty very efficiently’ and in 1873 they were awarded an increase of 6d per week. The official use of cats soon spread to other post offices with the cost of maintaining them varying.

Letter requesting a cat (POST 121/206).

Letter requesting expenditure for cat (POST 121/206).

Fast forward 80 years to 1952, when there was public outrage at the fact that Post Office cats hadn’t received a raise since 1873! The following year a question was raised in the House of Commons asking the Assistant Postmaster General, Mr L D Gammans, “when the allowance payable for the maintenance of cats in his department was last raised…”

Mr Gammans replied that “There is, I am afraid, a certain amount of industrial chaos in The Post Office cat world. Allowances vary in different places, possibly according to the alleged efficiency of the animals and other factors. It has proved impossible to organise any scheme for payment by results or output bonus…there has been a general wage freeze since July 1918, but there have been no complaints!”

The most popular cat of all, however, was named Tibs, who was born in November 1950. At his biggest, Tibs weighed 23lbs and lived in the Headquarters’ refreshment club in the basement of the building. He not only kept Post Office Headquarters completely mouse-free during his 14 years’ service, but found time to appear at a ‘cats and film stars’ party and have his portrait included in a 1953 book Cockney Cats. Tibs worked diligently until his death in November 1964.

Tibs' obituary from Post Office Magazine 1965.

Tibs’ obituary from Post Office Magazine 1965.

The last Post Office HQ cat, Blackie, died in June 1984, since when there have been no more cats employed at Post Office Headquarters.

Find out more about the role of cats, dogs and horses in the postal service.

 

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.

Students from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Massachusetts visit the BPMA

We are a group of four students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. At the beginning of the summer, from May 12th to June 28th, we had the privilege of working with the British Postal Museum and Archive to develop better visitor evaluation strategies. The goal of our project was to help improve visitor evaluation within their exhibitions which primarily focused on the Last Post Exhibition.

Mail Rail

WPI Students take a tour of Mail Rail

The overall experience was fantastic, filled with opportunities and memories. We were able to visit and explore some of the most popular museums in London including the Natural History, Victorian and Albert, and Science museums. At these museums, we observed visitors to identify what they enjoyed and see how the set up can affect visitor engagement.

Nysa

Nysa at Last Post Coalbrookdale

We also had the pleasure of working with BPMA visitors. Getting to know those who enjoyed the BPMA’s work, and asking them for helpful insight into what they learned and what they think would improve the sites. Working at events and visiting the Last Post exhibition at Mansfield and Coalbrookdale was a thrilling experience; we not only learned about the exhibitions but also were able to test many different evaluation methods such as interview, surveys, creative writing/drawing activities and observations.

Shuyang

Shuyang with the postal uniform display

We gathered some informative and gratifying feedback, for example one visitor said she “…learned so much more about a city [she had] lived in for 40 years.” Others said that they “did not realize the extent of Post Office involvement in the First World War.” The feedback we gathered was helpful and greatly aided our research objectives.

Enjoying London

WPI Students enjoying London

Aside from gaining new knowledge about museum goers, as a team we were able to improve our professional writing skills, communicate with a broad range of people, and work efficiently in a group setting. This experience also enabled us to grow as young professionals; we believe this project has added to a foundation of what the working world is like.  Living in London was an experience of a lifetime; adapting and working in a different culture will enable us to adapt to all presented opportunities and continue to broaden our understanding of the world.

Thank you,

Angela, Nysa, Shuyang and George

Davy Byrne’s Ulysses for Bloomsday

One of the more unusual items we have in The Royal Mail Archive stored here at the BPMA is a first edition copy of Ulysses by James Joyce. Joyce wrote the novel between 1919 and 1920 and when it was published in 1922 it was soon banned in the UK for obscene content.

It was illegal to send these sorts of publications through the post, and this became one of the many publications that the Post Office was instructed to intercept if they came across them. Here the Post Office was acting under section 42 of the Customs Consolidation Act 1876 which directed: such goods shall be forfeited, and may be destroyed or otherwise disposed of as the Commissioners of Customs may direct.

A warrant issued to detain and open packages containing Ulysses was in force from 27 March 1933 to 13 November 1936, over which time a fair few copies were intercepted. A note from early 1934 in a file (POST 23/9, ‘Seditious, obscene and libellous publications sent through the post’) suggests ‘no more than 50’ copies had been stopped since the warrant came into force (as against a newspaper suggestion that 2,000 copies had been seized and destroyed). In particular, efforts were being made to stop the importation of Ulysses into the country from publishers abroad.

Ulysses first edition in its original box, POST 23/220.

Ulysses first edition in its original box, POST 23/220.

Our edition is one of 1,000 numbered editions produced by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris. 100 were produced using Dutch handmade paper signed by the author, a further 150 on Vergé d’Arches paper. The remainder on handmade paper were numbered, 251 to 1000. Our copy is numbered 895.

Inside page of Ulysses in The Royal Mail Archive.

Inside page of Ulysses in The Royal Mail Archive.

As well as the book itself we have a small number of items accompanying it. There is a printed business card for a David Byrne of 21 Duke Street, Dublin and a handwritten note which reads:

Jacob Schwartz, Bookseller, 20 Bloomsbury St.
Sold to Ulysses Bookshop
James Joyce – Ulysses – 1922
Price £3 – 0 – 0.

Business card and note accompanying Ulysses.

Business card and note accompanying Ulysses.

These introduce two interesting historical figures.

On a recent visit to the BPMA Dan Mulhall, Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK, pointed out that the David Byrne on the card would have been the proprietor of Davy Byrne’s pub at that address on Duke Street and furthermore features in Ulysses, in the pub, something we were alas not aware of (I have to admit here that my two attempts at reading Joyce’s wonderful but exacting work have failed around page 100). Davy Byrne’s pub also features in Joyce’s short story Counterparts which was published in his collection Dubliners.

The pub and Byrne come into Ulysses from page 163:

He [protagonist Leopold Bloom] entered Davy Byrne’s. Moral pub. He doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in leapyear once in four. Cashed a cheque for me once.

….

—Have you a cheese sandwich?

—Yes, sir.

Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy take away that. Lubricate. A nice salad, cool as a cucumber, Tom Kernan can dress. Puts gusto into it. Pure olive oil. Milly served me that cutlet with a sprig of parsley. Take one Spanish onion. God made food, the devil the cooks. Devilled crab.

—Wife well?

—Quite well, thanks … A cheese sandwich, then. Gorgonzola, have you?

—Yes, sir.

Davy Byrne came forward from the hindbar in tuckstitched shirtsleeves, cleaning his lips with two wipes of his napkin. Herring’s blush. Whose smile upon each feature plays with such and such replete. Too much fat on the parsnips.

—And here’s himself and pepper on him, Nosey Flynn said. Can you give us a good one for the Gold cup?

—I’m off that, Mr Flynn, Davy Byrne answered. I never put anything on a horse.

—You’re right there, Nosey Flynn said.

Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate. Not logwood that. Tastes fuller this weather with the chill off.

Nice quiet bar. Nice piece of wood in that counter. Nicely planed. Like the way it curves there.

—–

The pub is now part of the route followed by those re-enacting Bloom’s journey each year on 16 June (Bloomsday).

Davy Byrne, originally from County Wicklow, bought the pub at 21 Duke Street, Dublin in 1889. Coincidentally Joyce had previously been granted leasehold interest in the lodging rooms above 20 and 21 Duke Street. The pub has been famously visited by many literary and political figures including Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. Byrne retired in 1939 but the pub goes strong to this day.

Jacob Schwartz is also a very interesting character. He practiced as a dentist in New York in the 1920s. By the 1930s he had established Ulysses Bookshop in Bloomsbury, London. He later worked in Paris, London and Brighton. Later among others he acquired manuscripts from Samuel Beckett who referred to the ex-dentist Schwartz as ‘The Great Extractor’.

So it looks like Davy Byrne attempted to sell his book to Bernard Schwartz in London presumably in the early to mid 1930s. Unlike in the UK and the US, Ulysses was never banned in Ireland. It has even been suggested that the copy could have come to Byrne directly from Joyce. Unfortunately we have nothing further material in our collection to tell us more.

So Jake the Dentist didn’t get the copy of the book he paid three pounds for. Or Byrne didn’t get payment for the book if this is an unpaid invoice. The mystery continues but one thing is for sure. It will move to a new and prestigious home when The Postal Museum opens in 2016.

Further sources for this blog:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davy_Byrne%27s_pub
http://www.davybyrnes.com/history/
http://ashrarebooks.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/the-great-extractor/
http://www.nytimes.com/1987/09/06/books/ed-the-collector-jake-the-dentist-and-beckett-a-tale-that-ends-in-texas.html

-Gavin McGuffie, Archive Catalogue & Project Manager

Behind the object: the seemingly, uninteresting GPO truncheon

In this post, we asked Curator Emma Harper to talk about her favourite object. You will be surprised about what she came up with!

Asking a Curator to pick their favourite object is a bit like asking a child what they’d like to be when they grow up, in most cases the answer will change from day to day!

Should I choose the earliest letter box in our collection used in trials on the Channel Islands; the pneumatic rail car that was used to test the idea of using an underground railway to move the mail; or perhaps our recent acquisition of the diary of Post Office Rifleman, Thomas May, written when he was fighting in France in 1915.

Truncheon issued to GPO staff, 1848 (Curator Emma's favourite object)

Truncheon issued to GPO staff, 1848 (Curator Emma’s favourite object)

All of these are fascinating objects which help to illustrate the many interesting stories that our collection can tell. Instead however, I have chosen a truncheon. Now this may seem a lot less interesting than the items I’ve listed above but it is often the unassuming, apparently ‘boring’ items that can surprise us and this item, in my opinion, does just that.

A runner-up for Emma's favourite object: 19th century pneumatic railcar.

A runner-up for Emma’s favourite object: 19th century pneumatic rail car.

It is a fairly plain wooden truncheon with the handle painted white and the rest painted black. If you look closer however it not only has ‘GPO’ [General Post Office] inscribed on the back but also bears the coat of arms of the City of London, Queen Victoria’s cipher and a date ‘10/ APRIL/ 1848’. 1848 has become known as a year of revolutions and this particular date in April was the date of the Chartist’s mass demonstration on Kennington Common and procession to present their third National Petition to Parliament.  The Chartist movement was named after the People’s Charter which demanded political and electoral reform and in particular called for all males over the age of 21.

William Edward Kilburn - View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common.

William Edward Kilburn – View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common.

It was feared by the government that the Kennington Common rally would spark revolution not just in London but across the country and that government organisations such as the General Post Office could well be targeted. As the Illustrated London News stated on 15 April 1848: ‘the speeches of those gentlemen [the Chartists] had led the public to anticipate some serious disturbance of the peace of the metropolis, the Government and the civil authorities had made some extensive and well-arranged preparations to suppress effectually any violation of order or tranquility, should such be attempted.’ As a result, the government issued GPO staff with truncheons, including the one now in our collection, in order to protect themselves and Post Office property.

In the end the day passed off with relatively few violent outbreaks and, as far as I know, no direct attempts on the GPO.  While it may never have seen action, I hope I have shown how even the plainest of objects can add to our knowledge and understanding of history and our collection.

-Emma Harper, Curator

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